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)?