Readying Authors for Their Close-Ups

From Publishers Weekly:

When an editor recently asked me for a photographer’s credit for my author photo, I paused. The one I’d been using—a selfie taken amid a wall of vintage license plates in Tinkertown, N.Mex.—had, up until this moment, seemed to suit me fine. It was summer. I was relaxed. Genuinely happy, road-tripping through the country and writing every day, taking pictures of the Rio Grande and the cattle-flanked stretches through Texas, and getting my first taste of chili cherry pie. Blissfully unaware—as we all were—of what 2020 and beyond would bring. Unaware, too, that when I took the photo at the roadside attraction off the Turquoise Trail, this would eventually become my official author photo.

Anticipating the March 2022 publication of Proof of Me & Other Stories, a friend of mine suggested this winter that maybe it was time for an update. She connected me with a wonderful photographer (and colleague of mine), Cheryle St. Onge, and we set it up for the following day. I thought I was ready: I’d just had a haircut. I’d wear my turquoise necklace and find my lipstick from the far reaches of my backpack. On the eve of my big book debut, I believed I was set for my rite-of-passage moment and for getting an honest-to-goodness real Professional Author Photo from an honest-to-goodness real Professional Photographer. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was the very thing that Susan Sontag had observed about picture-making in her 1977 book On Photography. Photographs, she wrote, often capture the mortality and vulnerability of their subject, and “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, a miniature of reality.” And yet, I was hopeful that Cheryle, with her photographic finesse, might help me skip right over the whole mortality and reality part and capture instead just me as a writer. Ah well.

Before our session, Cheryle had suggested I research author photos to find ones I admired, so as to get a feel for my own aesthetic. Looking through dozens of photos of smart, intense faces of other women writers (and musicians—those of Patti Smith and Emmylou Harris were among my favorites) was an absolute gift—each face and setting a story in its own right. It got me thinking about what my own authorial face might say or convey about me and the nature of my work. I didn’t want to look “corporate” or overly polished.

I didn’t want to appear too intense, or vulnerable, or cloyingly pleasant. I wanted my expression to suggest that I was perhaps telling or hearing a joke, and I liked the idea of a textured background—with books or plants or a sense of place.

The conceit of cultivating the conditions to produce a single image that would approximate “Erica as writer” to the wider literary world felt both unnatural and ungainly, and yet there I was in a brightly lit studio, getting my photo taken, lipstick AWOL, borrowing Cheryle’s compact powder to reduce the shine on my forehead, while she endeavored to capture through the lens some version of the writer I sought to be.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG remembers overthinking any number of things a long time ago when he was young.

10 thoughts on “Readying Authors for Their Close-Ups”

  1. The first “overthinking” issue here is the necessity, appropriateness, and even “marketing effectiveness” of having an author photo in the first place. Especially in this day of “the author’s website is either identified in the book or with a 5-second ‘net search.”

    It’s not that it is impossible to conceive that, for some categories of books, having an author photo in the book is in fact an effective marketing tool that has a discernable positive effect on actual sales. I just haven’t seen any evidence of it in any specific category, let alone generalizable. And the less said about the author photo of the pseudonymous author — let alone the choice of an author photo a decade out of date, or that makes one immediately think of Mr Gray (no, the other one) — the better.

    Instead, the evidence of commercial publishers’ collective ineptitude in marketing pushes things rather the opposite direction.

  2. Agreed, C.

    Having just helped put up Mrs. PG’s next book for preorder, the pace of traditional publishing seems like something out of the 19th century.

    More than a few accounts of the mores, habits and behavior of traditional publishers makes it appear that computers, the internet and ebooks are yet to be truly understood within their hallowed halls.

    • Remember, too: No author photo can overcome being a jerk on social media. (Just ask Jo Rowling.)

      • Jerk? How so?
        Being biologically accurate or wading into a contentious debate unnecessarily?
        The latter was injudicious and unnecessary; a bad business decision, I agree, but she is hardly the first to damage her brand by speaking truth. Or by adhering to trendy niche ideologies. The business world is about money, not ideology.

        Politics is poison to broad-based brands. C.F., LIGHTYEAR in particular and Disney’s string of underperformers in general. At a minimum, it pays to keep an eye on demographics.

        • The substance of Rowling’s statements and beliefs didn’t matter. She acted like a jerk, especially with her continually escalating rhetoric. One could say the same about Diana Gabaldon and more other authors than I can conveniently name regarding “less controversial” subjects (although the controversies certainly mattered to the participants!); and if you’d like “more controversial,” try Jordan Peterson.

          The ends do not justify the means,† especially when part of the objective is “maintaining a positive author image.” And if Rowling had been talking about, say, those who dye their hair, her rhetoric and escalating response still said “jerk.” An author photo can’t overcome that. That was my point.

          † Don’t go there if you disagree. That argument is not for this forum — not by subject matter, not by ownership of the forum.

          • Ahh, so its the latter. Fine by me.
            Just checking. (“Jerk” is a bit nebulous for me. I prefer precision.)

            You poke the bear, be prepared for what follows.

  3. My author photo—seen here cropped tightly in a circle for reasons known only to PG—was an easy choice… I had an image of me standing next to famous photographer taken by a very pro photographer. So the lighting was perfect. Not so much the subject, but then that’s what Photoshop is for. Problem solved.

  4. Vanity is hard to suppress.

    I got all my branding ducks in a row 5 years ago, with a long genre image and my author photo (see: if you care). This included a palette for my website and clothing that matched it for the photo.

    Since then, my hair has started to go gray, so there’s an incentive for keeping the author photo. On the other hand, I’ve also lost 50 pounds. I have to admit, the thought of getting a new author photo has crossed my mind… Might be my last optimal opportunity. 🙂

  5. It took me four years to find a photographer that would sign a simple Copyright Transfer and Assignment for my headshot. A bad picture that you completely own and control all the rights to, is better than a great picture that you don’t. I finally found a photographer that worked for a news organization that understood I could not legally use a picture for commercial intent that I did not own the rights to.

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