Author Photos–Do They Matter?

I’ve seen a number of websites with tips for authors that stress the importance of a good author photo for the cover or inner flyleaf of their book. The basic advice is have a professional photographer do a photo shoot. Don’t use that picture from family vacation. A good photo helps sell the book. After all, people judge books by their covers and the author image on the cover is part of that.

Take the photos above. Tara Beth Leach has a new book coming out titled Radiant Church. The author photo conveys a radiant person–someone who would light up a room and make you feel welcome. At very least, there is a congruity between the person in the photo and the title of her book. Esau McCaulley wrote Reading While Black, reviewed here earlier this week. The book is somewhat scholarly, exploring how the Bible is interpreted in the traditional Black church in ways that offer hope for its people. Notice the glasses and the tweed jacket that gives the author a friendly, professorial look (he is one!) and the warm smile that suggests this is a person of hope. Again, the author photo is consistent with the book theme.

Theory meets reality. I asked the Bob on Books Facebook Page “How do author photographs affect your decision to buy a book?” The overwhelming response is that they are not a factor. One person wrote, “I don’t care what an Author looks like. Only how well they write. Sinclair Lewis was not a photographic man but he wrote many good books. Agatha Christie was plain as porridge but also was a great writer of mysteries.” One person wondered why the big deal about this–it is not a modeling job they are applying for. Cover art, the synopsis of the plot, a sense of the quality of the work, even the book blurbs seem to play a bigger part in why people buy a book. I also was reminded of the fact that many reserve books through libraries that they are interested in or buy e-books online where they rarely pay much attention or even see author images.

Before authors wonder why they spent all this money on a photoshoot, I still think there is a case to be made for the author picture. When we read, we are engaged in a kind of a conversation where we listen to another’s words, enter the mind and world of another person. Haven’t you found yourself wondering what kind of person this is who would write this way? I’ve looked at images of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and read whole biographies of both authors to try to get a sense of the persons who brought us so many wonderful works. One of the wonderful things about author readings when they were being done, and the many interviews we can watch online is that we can get a better sense of the people whose written works mean a great deal to us. To be able to look at a face offers a glimpse into the person. Somehow, for example, I look at pictures of James Lee Burke and see how he could create the character of Robicheaux.

I realize as I write this that the photos become more important as I read an author’s work. But I do also find myself trying to get a sense when I browse a book of whether the author seems the kind of person to deliver on what is said about the book. Am I going to like spending a number of hours with this person?

All this makes me realize how important the work of the photographer is in this enterprise. The author is trying to capture the person who wrote this book. No more and no less. Sure, dress, lighting and pose matter. But what we want is something of the essence of the person. We don’t want to be disappointed. And the author doesn’t want to be misrepresented. I wonder if there is an award for author photography. There probably should be.

These are at least some of my musings about this aspect of books and publishing. What do you think? How important is the author photograph to you when you pick up a book and decide whether you want to buy it?

One thought on “Author Photos–Do They Matter?

  1. I don’t always look at the photos or give them much more than a glance. But, like you, the more I read from them the more I want a sense of who they are. I love hearing a favorite author speak. The National Book Festival gives a great opportunity to do that and the 2020 festival was on line so it offered more opportunities. I had the opportunity to meet and sit down to chat with Dorothea Benton Frank and James McBride (neither of whom disappointed). When I pick up a book by one of them and see the photo I feel like I’m returning to visit a friend.

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