Tips for Avoiding Awkward Author Photos

Originally posted Feb, 2013

Now that we’re knee-deep in winter [editor’s note: “Now that we’re heading into winter…], those who have been singularly rigid about following New Years fitness regimens begin to plan the summer vacation that will show off all that hard work. If you fall into that category, good for you but remember: swimsuit season is fleeting while a well-timed, professionally styled photograph lasts forever.

Listen up, authors: this is a great time to schedule ye dreaded publicity photos (kind of like head shots for actors or corporate photos for CEOs except, you know, authorly.)

This week, I will walk you through identifying and avoiding the most common publicity shot missteps so you don’t suddenly find yourself on HuffPo’s roundup of awkward author photos.  Here’s looking at you, Shel Silverstein…



Some tips:

1) Pas de poseur.  This is not a photo shoot for GQ and you aren’t one of TIME’s Most Influential People so keep the posing to a minimum.  Be the normal, everyday you – preferably in an ironed shirt with some decent neckline  – and smile or don’t smile, your choice, but try not to do that Mona Lisa wry half-smile.  She was painted that way.  And frankly, smirking is more off-putting than mysterious.  A helpful hint: you have every reason to be happy that you’re published so welcome your reader into your writing with a warm, authentic representation of you.  Glaring, staring, and full frontal torso shots with crossed arms make you look like a confrontational asshat and are best avoided.


2) Pas de props. Typewriters, MacBooks, eyeglasses, moleskine, paper, pens, or any other object that calls attention to your craft need not make a cameo appearance in said photograph.  We get it: you physically created the book using some kind of writerly apparatus. Whenever I see some poor newbie chewing on his glasses or gazing out from her Smith Corona, I can’t help but think of medieval guild sculpture hitting the uneducated masses over the head with literal representation of butchers, blacksmiths, or even those cathedral carvings of saints carrying the implements of their martyrdom.  We know what you are!  Have faith that anyone literate enough to pick up the book knows that the person whose photograph appears on it is the author.

…which brings us to

3) Pas de mise-en-scène.  For the love of bibliophiles everywhere, don’t allow yourself to be photographed in a library, lounging on a chaise, in the study, drinking coffee, drinking whiskey, sitting beside a half-eaten plate of madeleines, or with any other kind of allusionist nonsense (unless your book is a deliberate parody of a well-known work or you’re an established genre writer – say, Neil Gaiman or such.)  Overworked, overdone “settings” for author photographs are a common offense committed by even those who should know better.  Perhaps J.K. Rowling can pull it off; certainly Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, but they should have listened to their sage publicists and forgone the literary stage business.

4) Pas des artistes.  There is perhaps nothing more irritating than the first-timer who fancies himself or herself “artsy.”  Even if you appreciate the slightly offbeat, creative approach to portraiture, do NOT choose your publicity photos as the moment to share this love with the world.  I am not saying you need to stay inside the cardboard box and make it a snooze-fest session but I would caution against aggressively unique lighting, angles, and color retouching.  You are, after all, presenting a polished and professional persona to represent your product, even if that product happens to be a zombie apocalyptic love story written in iambic pentameter.  When you make it big, you can button up the black trench coat and glumly pose in graveyards but until then, just…don’t.  Your individuality will shine through your prose and that, my friends, is where it counts.

In the end, I champion creativity on the page and a solid, marketable publicity photo that will neither shock nor shame in years to come.  A good photo will be as timeless as your words.