June 27th, 2009 by Jason Pinter
How Much Do Looks Matter?

A few years ago, I went to have professional author photos taken for THE MARK, the first time I’d had any sort of professional photo taken since my sister’s bat-mitzvah. Per the photographer’s instructions, I brought along four shirts of varying color and a pair of jeans (there was no way I was wearing a suit). About 500 (literally) photos later, I had a newfound respect for women whose job it is to lie around on a beach half naked. Taking photos is exhausting stuff, and the psychology behind it is actually quite interesting (I can honestly understand why a photographer with more personality will get better shots). In the end we particularly liked four or five of the pictures, I sent them off to my publisher. Ironically the shots ended up being too dark, and we used a photo taken by my father at his apartment at the very last second. (he even gets credit in the book) I used a different shot for my next few books, a candid taken at BEA by the very talented Mary Reagan.

But aside from my mom saying, “You look cute in that one!” or just being happy I didn’t come out looking like Sloth from “The Goonies,” I always wonder how much my author photos matter. Is somebody really going to walk into their neighborhood bookstore, pick up a copy of one of my books, compare it to the new book from Author X, and say, “You know what, that Jason Pinter doesn’t look like a human ingrown toenail! I think I’ll buy his book!” A website once called me ‘College Football Hot’–i.e. I looked like a hot college football player–and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a wee bit flattered.

A few years ago, much was written about debut novelist Marisha Pessl, a great deal focusing on her appearance. A lot of people were of the opinion that her publisher paid a massive advance–reportedly upwards of half a million dollars–for “another pretty face.” In any kind of media or entertainment, there’s a pervasive feeling that how you look is more important than what you say. Most people always assumed publishing was above that.

Now, I’ve never bought a book based on how attractive an author is. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice author photos and form opinions based on them. Some authors are attractive, some are not. But we’re talking about books, not movies. You can’t substitute Kathy Bates for Angelina Jolie in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and expect to have the same experience. But take Marisha Pessl’s photo and replace it with, I don’t know, Margaret Atwood, and page one will still feature the same words in the same order.

Every publisher wants their books to get publicity and print coverage. Most of the glossy magazines prefer people in their pages to at least exist on the same planet as “Heather the Size Zero.” So if a book’s author is attractive, the better chance they have in landing in “Maison Derriere” or a similar glossy mag. After all, the more exposure the book gets, the more copies it likely sells. So if looks are one more bullet point for the marketing sheet, why not exploit it?

Now just because I haven’t bought a book based on an author’s looks doesn’t mean nobody else has. In a New York profile of Judith Regan, she was reported as fighting hard to plaster the face of one of her authors on the back of his back, her reasoning being, “Women will buy this because they want to fuck him!” (pardon my French) Without a doubt, from a business perspective, Judith Regan is one of the most successful and influential publishers of all time. So perhaps looks play a bigger part than we believe. Keep in mind when book people talk (i.e. authors, editors, agents, etc…) they’re talking to other book people. They tend to be less influenced by those things. But your average reader living in Muskego? The right author photo might just get them to the cash register.

Most authors are thrilled when their book gets any attention, so if somebody covers your looks it’s almost a necessary evil. In the end, Marisha Pessl’s book got great reviews, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and has probably even earned out that massive advance. So, yes, something is working.

In the end, of course, I’d like to throw it out to the crowd. Have you ever bought a book because of what the author looked like? Or have you ever been influenced in any way by an author’s appearance (positive or negative)?

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16 comments to “How Much Do Looks Matter?”

  1. AnneV
     · June 27th, 2009 at 10:50 am · Link

    Haven’t purchased a book based on the author photo. But it is interesting to see what the person looks like, and whether they fit with my mental image of who I thought wrote the book.

  2. Colddaye
     · June 27th, 2009 at 11:23 am · Link

    My brother has purchased a book based on the author photo. I presented one of my favorite graphic novels in the bookstore and told him that the artist had put sunglasses on a statue and used it for his photo, and wasn’t that clever?

    “Oh wow!” my brother said. “And then the author took a picture of a crazy homeless guy! That’s awesome!”

    I had to tell him – no, that’s what the author actually looks like.

    So he bought the book and is now a sworn fan.

    However, I have put a book back when I was unsure about the enjoyment factor, if the photo looked too glamor shot. I don’t know why but I just don’t trust those.

  3. Dom
     · June 27th, 2009 at 11:27 am · Link

    Absolutely not. I don’t buy based on covers, either. Having been burned by covers and blurbs that have nothing to do with the actual content of a book before, I now read the first three pages. If it holds my interest then I buy. If not, I move on. I also buy according to word-of-mouth via trusted friends and reviewers. The ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ links on Amazon can be pretty useful as well. But based on an author’s picture? Seriously? No way.

  4. Lynn
     · June 27th, 2009 at 12:08 pm · Link

    A pretty or handsome young author offers what publishers can use as effective marketing device (and there’s an excellent article by Sharon Steel here on the supposed edge a physically attractive author has.) Since pretty people are considered by our culture to be somehow superior to less attractive folks, it makes sense. Celeb books don’t sell just because of the famous name in the byline, or they’d never use the corresponding famous face on the cover.

    I’ve only bought one book because of the author’s photo on the cover; it was Letters to a Young Brother by Hill Harper. I bought it because I recognized the actor on the cover art, I really like Hill Harper, and I was curious to see if he could write as well as he can act. Which he can (this is assuming it wasn’t written by a WFH.) I believe that makes me as shallow as every other celeb book buyer.

    I’ve only had one author photo taken, one I was pressured into by the powers that be ten years ago. I’m buried under two pounds of makeup (which I don’t wear in real life.) It took the photographer at least fifty shots to get one that didn’t utterly suck. I think the only thing in that photo that actually looked like me were my teeth, but I don’t even smile like that. I had removed from my books as soon as I had enough clout to make that happen. Never again.

  5. Darlene
     · June 27th, 2009 at 1:39 pm · Link

    I’ve never bought a book based on an author photo but I was surprised to find out several of my daughter’s friends have. (They’re between 11 and 13.) As one of them explained, “I like to see what the writer looks like because I don’t like reading books by old people.” She went on to explain that “old people” don’t know how kids think and act and they write books that don’t seem like the real world.

    I didn’t ask if she thought of me as old.

  6. moonduster (Becky)
     · June 27th, 2009 at 5:50 pm · Link

    No. I do not care what the author looks like and have never bought a book based on the author’s photo.

  7. Gary Corby
     · June 27th, 2009 at 11:00 pm · Link

    I laughed my way through your description of doing the author shot, because I recently had the same experience, and with much the same reaction to how surprisingly tricky it is. I got a generally positive response to the shot we went with.

  8. Valerie Sloan
     · June 27th, 2009 at 11:01 pm · Link

    Nope, never bought a book because of the author photo. When I get to the end of the book and am whining at the last page I’ll take a gander at the author photo and more importantly, see if they have a website I can track down. Or I might see it – in a blur of motion – when I’m browsing a tricky little paper back that no longer features the back blurb but instead a picture of the author (which, of course, leads to more frustration as a reader when I’m trying to figure out what the heck the book is about).

    I don’t care what the author looks like. I just want to know if the story is good and sit down and enjoy.

  9. Dom
     · June 28th, 2009 at 10:59 am · Link

    “I think the only thing in that photo that actually looked like me were my teeth”

    This made me laugh out loud. Thanks for the morning brightener!

  10. Lynn M
     · June 28th, 2009 at 12:15 pm · Link

    In a million years it would never occur to me to think about what the author looks like when considering to buy a book or not. I’ve become familiar with what my favorite writers look like, and sometimes I’m surprised to discover that the author’s appearance doesn’t quite “match” my idea of what a writer of a particular story might look like. But in the end, I couldn’t care less. The writer could look like Sloth from the Goonies and that’s just fine by me.

    However, I do see how publishers and agents would consider an attractive writer a great boon. If Stephenie Meyer looked like Jocelyn Wildenstein, I can’t imagine her agent would have booked the gazillion personal appearances she’s had since the success of Twilight. Pretty people are fun to look at, and any chance to put a writer in the spotlight is publicity for their work.

  11. Robin Bayne
     · June 28th, 2009 at 1:45 pm · Link

    I don’t look at author photos, but do wonder if sometimes reverse discrimination might go on. Maybe a reader might think an author is too young or too gorgeous to have written a decent book?

  12. lynD
     · June 29th, 2009 at 9:46 am · Link

    I’ve NOT purchased a book based on a combination of author photo, book cover, and title.

    In a way, that’s a rather sad admission, since those are the three things over which an author actually has very little control.

  13. Kerryn
     · June 29th, 2009 at 10:04 am · Link

    I have never bought a book or read a book based on the author photo. I don’t think a photo of the author can tell me whether I will enjoy the story, or even what the story might be about.

  14. Paige
     · June 29th, 2009 at 1:30 pm · Link

    I admit that I’ve been, perhaps subconsciously, biased because of an author photo. However, this is mostly when it’s in a genre outside of my usual preferences; as someone above mentioned, if they look “glammed up”, then it starts to look cheesy, and something in the text needs to get my attention for me to continue.

    I’ve never made the decision on the photo alone though. I always browse through the first few pages, and that’s where I really make the decision.

  15. Anonymous
     · September 1st, 2013 at 10:36 pm · Link

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  16. Morad
     · October 11th, 2013 at 7:32 am · Link

    Independent movie providers are showing the fact that major studios do not are the only judges of the things people choose. After you add to that distribution online and, headlines, online sites, from gossip to complete motion pictures. It is a whole new environment. Some of it fine, some not.

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