Debut Author lessons: The author photo

You’ve sold a book. They are going to ask you for a photo of you to put on it. And if that doesn’t happen, then a convention will ask for a headshot to go on the program book, or a short story market will want one for the website. Someone, at some point, is going to need your author photo.

Here’s how to be ready.

First, let’s discuss the function of the author photo.

  1. It is a selling tool that makes you, the author, look like someone the reader wants to spend the next several hours with.
  2. It is a selling tool that reinforces the tone and style of fiction you write.
  3. It is a selling tool that makes the book/magazine/convention look better.
  4. It is a selling tool that helps provide recognition on the next project.

It is not something that makes your mom feel good about the way you look, although that can be a side effect.

Now, understanding the function, the next thing to do is to understand that you will probably have to spend money. Yes, it is possible to get a good snapshot from a friend, but you can tell the difference.

Mary_Robinette_Kowal_at_2008_Nebula_AwardsMary Robinette Kowal, puppeteer

The photo on the left is the photo of me on Wikipedia, snapped by Eric James Stone. I quite like it and my hair is doing what I want it to do.

It is also, obviously a snapshot, even if I changed the framing so that it wasn’t centered like a passport photo, this is still clearly a snapshot.

The photo on the right is the one that I use on my books. I have a cropped version when they need head only. It is clearly a professional photograph. Even if you know nothing about photography you can tell the difference between the two.

Why is this important?

Because the level of professionalism you show here reflects on how seriously you take the whole package. People do, in fact, judge a book by its cover and you, my dear, are part of the cover.

How do you find a photographer?

If you have a local friend who is an actor, ask them who takes their headshots. If you don’t, contact the best theater in town and ask them if they can recommend a photographer who does headshots.

Why someone who specializes in headshots as opposed to portraits?

Honestly, it’s because this is an easy filter. There’s a very wide range of portraiture styles and options, and it adds a layer of decision making to an already unfamiliar process. Photographers who do actors headshots are used to the requirements needed to reproduce a image in program books, including licensing terms. They know how to tell a story about the person while at the same time creating something that is relatively neutral. They also won’t give you a photo that looks like it should be used in your obituary or high school yearbook.  You know the type I’m talking about.

What makes a good headshot?

I’m going to assume that your photo will be well-lit, in focus, and high resolution. From there you are looking for an image that:

  1. looks like you
  2. represents your public persona
  3. is not overly theatrical

Looks like you

Actors get new headshots every two to five years because the body can change during that time. Fashions can change. You update the photograph in the same way you update your clothes. There’s often a temptation to stay with an older photograph because you’ve aged, or put on weight, or been ill, or some other thing so that you feel like your past self looked better.

If someone, like a fan or a bookseller, knows you only through your photograph, when they see you they will compare the Now you with the Past you. You don’t want the first thought in someone’s head to be, “Wow. He got old” or “I wonder what happened to her?” You want them to have a sense of familiarity, because that is part of the connection you’re trying to build. So that means a photograph that actually looks like you.

I’m changing my headshot from the one on the left, taken in early 2010, to the one on the right, taken in 2012 because I’ve put on a little weight and grown my hair out. Both of these are great shots, but I don’t look as much like the left anymore. Updating regularly means that it isn’t as jarring for me when I change photos.



Representing your public persona

At the same time, you probably have a writer uniform that you wear to conventions and appearances. Think about the type of fiction you write and how you represent yourself on panels. Do you tend to write dark fiction? Then you might lean toward leather or deep colors. Do you write historical fiction? Then maybe you opt for a top that has vintage elements. Whatever it is– think about having your uniform and photograph reflect that so that it gives the viewer a visual cue. Remember, this will be on the jacket of your book.

Not overly theatrical

It’s fine to stage a photograph that’s not naturalistic, but you don’t want the story of the photograph to outweigh the connection with you. For instance, I write historical fantasy. Wearing a Regency dress and staging a tea in one of my photos would be distracting to a viewer. Instead of giving the illusion that they are seeing Me, and thus building a connection, an overly theatrical photo will keep them at a distance by putting the narrative of the photo between us. Does that make sense?

Check out this photo of Ray Bradbury by Rod Searcey as an example.

Ray Bradbury (c) Rod Searcey
Ray Bradbury (c) Rod Searcey

Do you see how it 1) looks like Ray Bradbury, 2) represents his public persona by reminding us of Fahrenheit 451, 3) is not overly theatrical, because he’s still engaged with the viewer. The firefighters are just background, not part of the story.

Other than that, it’s a lot of stylistic preferences that are going to vary wildly based on the image you want to present of yourself. Look at a lot of author and actor photos to decide what you want. Talk to the photographer and make sure you are comfortable with her or him. If you aren’t comfortable, that will show in the photos.

For the shoot itself

  1. Take multiple outfits with you so you have options.
  2. Plan for multiple locations, or backgrounds.
  3. Pay for the session rather than per photograph. It’s more up front, but better in the long term.
  4. Make sure that you negotiate the right to reproduce the photos so you don’t need to keep coming back to get permission every time you have a new book. Studios that cater to actors are used to this.
  5. Wear make-up. Yes, you too, gentlemen. It doesn’t have to be visible makeup, but it will help your features pop. In person, the animation of your face is enough, but a photograph is a static image.

Once you have the photos

  1. Narrow it down to no more than a dozen that you like.
  2. Get second opinions before you make your choice.
  3. Ask your editor, agent, and the marketing department at your publisher for their opinion. This is a selling tool, remember.
  4.  Look at your photos and ask yourself, “Would I want to read a book written by this person?”

It’s a lot to think about, but I hope that having an understanding of the purpose of the author photograph will help make the whole thing a little easier. At the end of the day, the author photograph is a way to help you sell your book.

And just to close out, here are some photographers that I recommend.

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8 thoughts on “Debut Author lessons: The author photo”

  1. Excellent advice. Amateur photographers–even ones who are sure they’re as good as professionals–simply do not turn out the kind of work you need for your official writer-photo. Early on, I used a nearby professional photographer who was OK (miles better than an amateur) but not great–but was all I could afford then. Later, with a good new contract in hand, I scouted a city 50 miles away and found a photographer whose work I really liked and with whom I felt comfortable enough that I knew I’d be able to unfreeze.

    She came to our place; we worked outdoors (because it fits my writing and my lifestyle.) I showed the proofs to a variety of people, specifying what I wanted them to “say,” then picked some. Of the ones chosen, the more casual have had the most use. One mistake–didn’t put on makeup (didn’t really know how, then.) Next time, you betcha.

    It’s past time for me to go back to her and get new business photos. After I finish the book I’m working on…no time now.

  2. Hmmm, yeah, I’ve seen some bad author photos. And I’ve experienced that jolt at seeing an author whose photo is way out of date. I had to get a headshot done for a press release for my day job, and it was a lot more time and effort than I expected. And then picking one, ack!

  3. I’ve strived to take photos of authors, when I’ve met them, that are more than snapshots. They can’t be true author photos, since they aren’t arranged. But I’ve tried to take good photos all the same.

  4. Great post. I can’t tell you how many authors fail to understand how important their author shot is. Sometimes I have to sit them down in front of a computer and call up “author photos” in google images. I tell them: This is the competition. They get the idea fast.

    I’ve used Rod Searcey for several author photos. He’s always my first choice. He does a terrific job, in large part because he puts the writer at ease. Then he gets a beautiful, informal portrait. I highly recommend him.

  5. It’s great to have you, who is not only an author but also in the theater world, write a how-to like this!

    I have to say though, I didn’t see any weight gain. You do look more slick in the newer picture though!

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