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You Can Judge a Book by Its Author’s Photo

21 June 2014

From Slate:

In an interview with the Hairpin this week, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner discussed the pinkish-gray area between serious literature and chick lit. When it comes to marketing, she said, an author’s picture is worth a thousand literary judgments:

If you’re smiling in your (color) author photo, it’s chick lit. If you’re smirking, or giving a stern, thin-lipped stare in your black-and-white picture, and if you go out of your way in every interview to talk about how “unserious books do not deserve serious attention,” then it’s literature.

These comments exist within a larger crusade Weiner has waged to get the literary world to take fiction written by and for women more seriously. It’s a campaign founded in a very real under-representation of such literature in publications like the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.

. . . .

If she’s right, then female authors of chick lit should have smiling color photos, while female authors of “serious literature” should be dour and colorless on their book jackets. Since it’s hard to be completely objective about categorizing a book as one versus the other, I used the ultimate arbiter of literary classification: Amazon.

Amazon includes among its “Literature and Fiction” category a sub-category called “Women’s Fiction” (a euphemism for chick lit) and another called “Literary Fiction” (a.k.a. the real stuff). “Women’s Fiction” has a handful of sub-sub-categories, including “African American,” “Divorce,” “Domestic Life,” “Friendship,” “Single Women,” and “Sisters.” “Literary Fiction” is not broken down further.

To conduct this study, I compared the photos for the top 20 best-selling female authors in “Women’s Fiction” with the same group in “Literary Fiction.”

. . . .

Seventy-five percent of “Women’s Lit” authors were smiling, compared to 55 percent of “Literary Fiction” authors. But if you look at not just whether someone’s smiling, but with how much gusto, of the shiny, happy writers, 60 percent of chick lit authors bared their pearly whites, while more than 70 percent of the literary writers did. The chick lit writers smiled more often, but when the literary writers smiled, they did it with abandon.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.


44 Comments to “You Can Judge a Book by Its Author’s Photo”

  1. Oh no! I have been mis-categorizing my novels! My Amazon Author’s page is in color and I am smiling, hence my books are Chick Lit. Who knew?

    Thank you, Passive Guy! If not for you, I would have continued to mis-classify my novels. Now, please excuse me while I go change my books’ categories and keywords. There is so much I still need to learn about this self-publishing biz.

    Color smiles= Chick Lit.
    Got it.

  2. Sorry but all women’s fiction is not chick lit. I know lots of books I would categorize as women’s fiction because they are about friends, sisters, mother/daughters, etc that don’t have a chick-lit feel at all.

    The Devil Wears Prada–definitely chick-lit.

    Steel Magnolia’s–not so much.

    But they are both women’s fiction.

    • I would definitely consider Steel Magnolias to be chick-lit. (Not shopping chick-lit, though, but the tear-jerker kind.) But then again, I think Nicholas Sparks should be classified as a chick lit author, and he’s not.

  3. There are too many rules.
    (I would have used an exclamation mark but I don’t want to be accused of laughing which would detract from my real opinion that there are too many freaking rules.)

  4. I’m going to smirk in my photo. It’ll confuse the hell out of people.

    • OMG! This is terrible!

      The Photo was color and I smirked. Worst of all, I was laying on the back of a motorcycle when they took the photo.

      I wore pearls, too. (sob)

      I have to convert my books to literary, sell my farm and go starve (elegantly) in a New York ghetto apartment.

      Oh the shame if it!

  5. These comments exist within a larger crusade Weiner has waged to get the literary world to take fiction written by and for women more seriously.

    Er, but don’t they? I’m thinking Gillian Flynn, Emma Donoghue, Cheryl Strayed . . . heck, I studied fiction with Janet Fitch (White Oleander) and Rachel Resnick (Go West Young F***ed Up Chick) . . .

    I doubt Weiner was serious in her comment, or meant for it to be taken at its word, as the article’s author did. But then, my take on Weiner is that she wants her books to be taken more seriously while couching that motivation in the desire for women writers to be taken more seriously. Like her Franzenfreude hashtag.

    It might be worth reading the Hairpin article that prompted the linked one.

    • that is my favorite hashtag in the world. I cannot stand a single thing that comes out of Franzen’s mouth, Twitter account, or keyboard. Franzenfreude was a hashtag long overdue.

      • I haven’t been able to stand a single thing that’s come out of either author’s mouth (or from their fingertips). I think both are highly overrated in vastly different ways.

  6. Does this Weiner person really and truly think that her readers believe this woo woo nonsense ?

  7. Don’t care much for Weiner and her manner of describing serious authors. For that matter, I don’t care much for chicklit and romance — and yes, I’ve read both. My observation on author photos of self-pubbed women’s lit. authors: they all look like sexpots in their twenties.

    As I’m a female who takes her (genre) novels very seriously, I also don’t much like the fact the romance and chicklit seem to appeal to a vast majority of female readers. But that is the reality of the marketplace.

  8. I think this “rule” if it is a rule was probably influenced by the academia. A professor of literature writes serious literature and a serious picture is mandatory. I don’t believe I ever saw a classic music performer or director smiling on the cover of a CD. They perform “serious” music. An author has a serious picture. A writer has a smiling picture. I prefer a smiling picture, my serious picture would give the impression that I represent the Bundesbank. Serious stuff.

    • I thought academia’s rule was that you had to be good looking to get a full-face photo, and if you weren’t good looking then you had to use profile shots or have your face obscured.

      At least, that was the impression I formed in a publishing seminar in college, when one teacher said her publishers told her they’d use her photo on her cover because “she’s attractive,” and another teacher speculated his lack of attractiveness was why his publishers only photographed him with his face partially hidden in a book.

      In the pre-indie days I imagined telling publishers that my visage was like that Mortal Kombat character whose face can’t be seen, lest the viewer be driven insane by the sight of it 🙂

  9. Gee, my photo is in color and while I’m smiling it’s rather thin-lipped and laid back, no teeth showing. I write serious sci-fi/fantasy romance mash ups with strong metaphysical themes. Chick lit or literature? Or both?


  10. So, the closest thing I hjave to an author pic, right now, is one of me sitting in an adirondack chair on my deck as a wisteria vine engulfs me rip-van-winkle style (see http://maelgyn.com/Long%20Nap.jpg if you’re curious). What does that say about my books?

  11. Which group makes the most money?


    • Chick-lit makes far more money from readers. The trouble is, you have to be good at writing it to get any of that money. Lit-fic opens you up to the wonderful world of grants, academic positions, writer-in-residence gigs, and all the other clever tricks by which a writer can cadge a living off of The Man without ever having written anything that demonstrably entertained or informed a single paying customer.

      So if you have set your sights on being a failure as a writer, it’s far better to be a failure in lit-fic.

  12. I really like my author photo

    Half my face is in shadow. If I cover up the dark half of the photo, my sunny side smiles at me. If I cover up the sunny half … well, my dark side just looks scary.

    • a Czech math genius on a cattle ranch. It hardly gets better than that. Forget the photo; your cv says it all.

  13. What if I hired Jessica Rabbit to pose for my author photo? I wonder what that would indicate?

    Seriously, I look like red-tabby version of Grumpy Cat, with glasses. My photo is not going on my book or my website. Just no.

  14. Dang, I was just wondering, if you’re a guy and you smile, youre automatically in chick lit? And if the guy looks like a rottweiler [although they smile too] he’s in lit-air-it-churia?

    We will laugh together now. Yes, we will.

  15. Could it be the dour B&W trad pubbed women are feeling they could have got more of an income writing chick lit and self pubbing?

    • *snicker* There may be a little jealousy in the analysis. I’m not sure why Jennifer wants to take a step backwards.

      • The Slate article dramatically misrepresented what Weiner is like and what she hopes to achieve with all her rallying against this stuff. (Slate, dramatically misrepresenting something? I know, you’re shocked!) She’s actually been extremely awesome and proactive in trying to draw awareness to the crap a lot of female authors have faced from the Big Five machine in decades past…stuff they still face today. Like, for example, publishers and marketing departments deciding that if a woman wrote it, it’s “women’s fiction” and will be marketed differently (read: less successfully) than a similar story written by a man, which is “serious literature” and may results in things like grants and residences, awards that could enable a person to write full-time, etc. But only if you’re writing “serious literature,” which clearly only MEN do. 😉

        It’s been an ongoing issue for many decades, and is obviously still a problem for women writing in those genres for tradpub. And as we all know, if you’re writing for tradpub, odds are good that you’ve got a terrible contract that won’t allow you to self-publish anything, even something in a different genre. So it’s easier to say “Oh, you think you’re too good to write genre fic or self-publish,” when in reality I’m sure a lot of these women who are trapped in the “chick-lit” ghetto would love to do nothing more than that. But they can’t.

        You know the story.

        • But only if you’re writing “serious literature,” which clearly only MEN do.

          I realize your winky face indicates you’re mostly joking here, but I think Weiner genuinely believes this.

          I don’t think it’s necessarily true, though. Besides the women I mentioned, there are several others who come immediately to mind who are considered literary authors and who happen to be women. Oates and Atwood, for two. Nicole Krause and Zadie Smith.

          I will note that they all seem to write very different books than Weiner writes.

          I also think she (and the conversation) is off about the idea of “commercial men’s fiction” — James Patterson and Lee Child for sure have that covered. She also mentions what she calls “dick lit” as though it doesn’t exist, but it actually does and it’s called “lad lit,” and it’s way less popular among men than “chick lit” is among women. Lad lit authors include Nick Hornby, Kyle Smith, and several authors. It was huge in the mid-Noughties. She mentions Tropper, and his earlier work fits that, even as his newer work has taken on more.

          There’s a comedian named Greg Behrendt who wrote He’s Just Not That Into You, and who used to do a bit that noted guys used to ask if he’d write such a book of relationship advice for them, to which he answered “No, because it would sell four copies.” I think that’s obviously sexist — a lot of guys care about relationships and emotions — but I think he’s somewhat right about the market for that work. It’s hard to sell and hard to promote.

  16. A sample size of 20 is statistically not useful. But, it filled up some space on Slate, and I get that.

  17. So:

    Smiling = chick-lit;

    Not smiling = literary fiction.

    And that’s all there is to it: an exhaustive classification guide.

    You know, it’s rather sad how often some apparently intelligent writer will say something that reminds me of the lady at Bob’s Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers—

    ELWOOD BLUES: What kind of music do you usually have here?

    MANAGER LADY: Oh, we have both kinds. Country and Western!

  18. What they hell category do I fall into, then? http://www.amazon.com/Julia-Kent/e/B00A99V268

    • The picture has a thoughtful Mona Lisa like smile, so that would imply hybrid chick-lit-fic, according to the writer of the article.

  19. So if I have a closed mouth smile, in color, with part of my face cropped out, that means…

    Oh, who cares. It’s one person’s opinion, and apparently based on a misunderstood article by someone else. Gah!

  20. Hogwash! This is only one person’s opinion. I enjoy seeing the picture in color, with an author who “looks” like they enjoy writing books, no matter what the genre.
    I write inspirational fiction, I’ll continue to smile. Who makes these crazy rules anyway?

  21. Oh crap. My author photo is in color–in fact, there’s a garden of flowers behind me! And I’m smiling! But I write thrillers and one romantic suspense. Maybe I should re-do the photo with a deadly serious expression in front of a bombed out building, or at least one that looks like it’s been bombed out.

  22. I guess I need to stop using selfies taken in my bathroom as my author photos then. Mind you, in my last one I look as if I’m about to kill someone, so I wonder what genre that classes as…

    I find the term ‘women’s fiction’ a tad offensive because it removes equality from reading categories, and equality is already missing from enough places online these days.

    The name ‘women’s fiction’ implies, to me anyway, that there is a specific place for female readers, which they need to stay in. God forbid they accidentally ventured into the ‘proper fiction’ category and read some splatterpunk horror. They might swoon or something, and then the world would end!

    What is ‘women’s fiction’ anyway? Is it books about menstruation? I plan to slip some horror novels in there soon. I’m still working out how to handle the blood spatter scenes though.

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