Let’s Face It: In Search of the Alluring Author Photo

February 8, 2021 § 50 Comments

By Lisa Kusel

I.   A few years before finding a smattering of success as a writer I enrolled in a poetry class being taught by a local legend, Molly Fisk. For one of the assignments Molly asked us to write an egocentric poem; one that could be as farfetched or fantastical as we wished. “Dream big,” she’d said.

I wrote a fanciful poem describing how beautiful I would look on the dust jacket of my first book. I imagined my (not-yet-written) novel being so esteemed that my publisher would hire Marion Ettlinger, the famed book portraitist, to shoot me. Using strategic lighting and a makeup artist’s sleight of hand, the resulting photograph would capture my above-average intellect, and convey the depth of my soul much like it did for Jhumpa Lahiri:

Delusional poetry aside, I ended up having to supply the author photo for my first book. My friend Dave, who considered himself a pretty good nature photographer, volunteered to give it a whirl. I wore no makeup. He had no special lighting. I didn’t know whether I should look at the camera, or look away as if dreaming up my next brilliant story. We spent three hours in his backyard with me alternatively squatting, leaning, smiling, smirking, squirming, stretching, or gazing off into the distance. Dave gave it his all, but I was as unphotogenic as a newborn mole. Since Hyperion needed a picture pronto, I had no choice but to pick the least offensive one. I sent them a blurry shot of me hiding behind my dog.

They wrote back, requesting a picture that actually showed my face. I didn’t like any of my faces, but I’d run aground.

II.   For Book Two I asked my friend Elisa to try her hand at generating a new and improved author photo. This time I wore lots of makeup and poofed my hair. The resulting images ranged from comically come-hither-ish to just plain homely. It was as if the camera had challenged my face to a duel and my face lost.

I next turned to my friend Tim, who swore up and down that his zillion-dollar high-tech camera could not take a bad picture. I tilted my head like I’d seen many other authors do, gently touched my cheek, and let him snap away. Again, pressed for time, I provided Hyperion with the best of a bad lot.  

III.   As for my memoir, I wanted the author photo to radiate how relatable, down to earth, fun, and sassy I was. After taking a few thousand selfies in various getups and hairdos, I defaulted to an old photograph of me straddling a chair in the bathroom of our house in Nevada City. And by old I mean that the picture on the back of my new book had actually been taken TWELVE years previous.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want prospective readers to view me as an old lady author. It was just that I literally could not take a decent picture.

IV.   A few weeks ago the Brevity Blog published a blog essay of mine about the time I asked the actress Emma Thompson to blurb one of my novels. As expected, the editor requested an author photo. Up until then, I’d been using the same vague candid shot for my published pieces, as well as for my blog bio and my Gmail account.

I reconsidered the photograph. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, maybe it was time to look more professional? I decided I would send a conventional picture: one where you could see my actual visage. I looked around for something to use, but as I flipped through my social media accounts it suddenly dawned on my that I never showed my face. I am either hiding behind my daughter Loy,

or behind my cat.

Or I am looking down.

Only on Goodreads did I discover a smiling face-forward photograph of me, although, truth be told, it’s also really old (I believe it was taken at Loy’s 4th birthday party). 

V.   I don’t usually look at an author photo until I’ve finished reading a book. I try not to form any sort of preconceived judgement because, well, because we’re humans and we cannot help but judge a book by its cover—or author photo, anyway.

Right after I wrote that paragraph I wondered if that were true. Do I enjoy a book more if the author is handsome? Less so if she/he/they are not becoming? The answer is a resounding NO.  Why then do I care about how I appear to readers?  Why should it be important to be attractive in one’s photo?

According to this essay on the history of author photos, here’s why it’s important:

Today, an alluring author photo has become less a “bonus feature,” as it was for Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and more a golden ticket for literary success. “Interesting, beautiful or unusual photographs,” according to Eckstut and Sterry, “have a way of ending up in ‘pick of the week’ sections of newspapers, on the homepages of websites, or in the posts of bloggers.” Such “arresting visuals,” they tell the reader, can dramatically increase one’s chances of getting a feature or catching the eye of a publisher, publicist, or bookseller. 

VI.   As much as I hated the assumption that a comely author doth a successful writing career make, I didn’t have the time to fight it. Brevity was waiting. Because my cancer treatment rendered me partially bald, and I wasn’t about to take a selfie, I rummaged around for something akin to a “real” author photo. At the very least, I needed one a tad more contemporary. One that didn’t show me eating, or petting my cat. Knowing I would never unearth one that was interesting, beautiful, and unusual, I lowered the bar. I came across this 3-year-old picture of me standing in my friend Kara’s clothing boutique. I’d just had my hair cut, highlighted, and blown straight. I’m not making eye contact with the camera (still hiding), but the brick backdrop makes it border on interesting. My hair, at least, is attractive.

VII.  Someday I will finish writing the novel I’m working on and it will find a publisher. By then my hair will have recovered its length and the pandemic will have ended. Will I hire a professional photographer to shoot my new author photo? Maybe I will.

Maybe.   

I know that no matter how much money I spend I will never appear as clever, classy, or cunning as Lahiri (nor will I ever—no matter how much I practice—write as beautifully). But I will look at the camera, smile, and say “cheese” because it’s high time I learn to face the world, dead-on.

I might not have arrestingly photogenic features, but I know how to tell a good story. Aesthetic beauty, as social media knows it, may be in the eye of the beholder. But pure and playful beauty, as far as I’m concerned, should lie within the words on a page.  
___

Lisa Kusel prides herself on being genre nonconforming. Her published books include Rash,, her wild memoir about escaping from paradise, as well two works of fiction: the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. Read more of her essays on her blog and follow her on Instagram

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§ 50 Responses to Let’s Face It: In Search of the Alluring Author Photo

  • Karen says:

    You have a warm, enticing, inviting, open expression in that last one. As if you are saying ‘Come have a cup of tea with me and we won’t be disappointed’! Just what I want from an author! Beautiful!

  • mimijo3795 says:

    What an honest piece! Thank you. I for one flip to the author’s photo several times in the process of reading his or her book, seeing new expressions on the face and especially in the eyes with every different mood the prose evokes.

    • lisa_kusel says:

      You are so welcome. Thank you for reading! Very interesting what you say about watching the author while reading the book; seeing their expressions change. I am reading P. Highsmith’s DEEP WATER at the moment. I went to look at her expression just now and–guess what?–NO author photo. Hmmm.

  • I LOVE this, Lisa! Especially after a weekend of making my husband take at least eleventy-nine-million shots of me at different places in our home, in hope of getting just one good one. LOL.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been happy with any author photo I’ve used, lol. We are so critical of ourselves! Has anyone told you that you look like Jami Gertz?

    • lisa_kusel says:

      Jami Gertz???? Ooooooh, I’l for sure take that, Rachel. Most of my life it’s been Debra Winger and–if you can believe this–Kristy McNichol. I wonder if we were to survey 1,000 authors of all sexes, what we’d find out. Do you think male-identifying authors tend toward being more OK with theirs photos? I should have researched that a bit more–added to the story.

      • rachaelhanel says:

        I would guess that men are not as hyper-critical of themselves as women. That would be a good survey to do!

      • There have been such studies. Men generally assess themselves as in better weight and more attractive than others (male or female) would judge them. They are also more willing than women to accept praise and to pursue opportunities for which they are unqualified.

        It is not so much that most women underestimate themselves about skill as that most men overestimate. That is, men tend to have an inflated self-image and women tend to be more realistic.

  • youngv2015 says:

    I can relate!! Your essay made me smile.

  • Totally hard to capture a photo to reflect “author.” Have had pro- photographer and friend-photographer. Long and short of this odyssey, keep trying.

  • Your struggle is familiar and made me laugh. (Honesty, it wouldn’t be so bad if the photo were printed very small, so that people could not see me all that well. I once tried using my shadow on the sand, but Dinty wasn’t having it.)

  • Marilyn Kriete says:

    Absolutely love this! I’m in the process of getting an author photo for my first memoir–by the end of this week. The camera and I are not friendly! I’m hoping a local make-up artist can work her magic, but, like you, I find it hard to relax and look natural, alluring, gorgeous, and enigmatic while posing for pictures. Your story made me laugh and realize I’m not alone.

    • lisa_kusel says:

      No, Marilyn, you are SO not alone in this. But, chin up. What’s most important is your story, right? Don’t ever forget that. CONGRATULATIONS on your memoir btw!!!!

  • any way you pose your warmth comes through in your smile! Lovely writing! ❤️

  • Sharon Silver says:

    Your photos are all perfectly fine. The trouble is that we all, even evolved writers such as ourselves, wanna look beautiful when it’s for the record. At my son’s bar mitzvah the photographer snapped shots of a carefully posed me, and in my just-styled hair and just-made-up face, uneven teeth newly whitened, I looked as good as I will ever look, I guess. So I think that’s the secret, and you know it: find the best photo you have and that’s your go-to. Still, I predict a rash of masked photos coming down the pike, as a declaration: the pandemic of the century (so far, anyway)? I was there.

  • Amy Kramer says:

    As an ex-photographer, I feel like I can find something I love about almost every photo, and your’s are no exception. Think about it: you covered every possible expression. That’s variety! And in the last one with the beautiful hair, you look like you have a secret…that’s always good! Great piece!

  • What a fantastic piece, thank you. And good luck with everything you’ve shared.

  • […] In search of the perfect author photo; […]

  • Ann Martin says:

    Most enjoyable piece of writing I’ve read in ages, in part because I can totally relate. (Where’s that emoji of a monkey hiding its face when you need it?!) I wish you good health and lots more writing in your future.

    • lisa_kusel says:

      Ann: you just made a gray and snowy day here in VT a whole lot brighter with this comment. Ah yes: the hiding monkey emoji. I..uh, use it frequently. 🙂 best to you, AM. Thanks for reading. x

  • Lisa, thank you for this. Although the way we look isn’t as important as the way we write, I like putting a face to the words. Looking forward to a new author photo for a new decade in my life (new glasses and haircut while I’m at it). This time, I’ll have my daughter take the photo. She’s an excellent photographer. I once saw an author photo where the woman had her head thrown back in laughter. I want that kind of joy! By the way, all your photos seem to show a different aspect of your personality and make me want to read your work. That’s something to celebrate!

  • lisa_kusel says:

    Yes yes yes. I love the image of your daughter’s name on your author photo! Head thrown back? Do be a bit careful with your expression. Ahem. 🙂 As to my many personalities–I’m certain it’s true of all of us–all those roles we play day to day, minute by minute even. Thank you for reading and commenting on this piece. AND: congrats on YOUR new book!

  • Margaret says:

    Love this piece and the comments. I recently took up a new role on the board of a local organisation and was told that I need to have my photo taken for their website. Since then, I have been obsessing about my hair (which I am currently growing), and whether I’m going to look old with long grey hair scraped off my face. Such vanity!

    • Sharon says:

      Margaret—“such vanity,” you say. Eh…like alcohol and online shopping, vanity is one of those not-really-vices that have their place. Being your own cheerleader makes life more doable, so be vain if putting your best face forward means the rest will follow. That’s a shaky metaphor, but you know. I don’t believe in “everything in moderation”—I told my kid the other day, when he said it, that’s not true for poison. But a little vanity is good.

      • Margaret says:

        I hadn’t thought about it like that. I guess if we take the time to worry about how we look, it’s better than giving up and not caring at all. I remind myself that no-one really cares what I look like, but it still matters to me and maybe that’s a good thing.

  • I love this piece and all of the photos. You captured my anxiety over the dreaded author photo perfectly. And also my yearning for perfection as the photo of Lahiri.

  • […] Let’s Face It: In Search of the Alluring Author Photo – Lisa Kusel “might not have arrestingly photogenic features,” but she knows “how to tell a […]

  • Oh, ugh. You’ve just added to my worries of ever publishing a book! Figuring out the publishing world is hard enough – I hadn’t even thought about the challenge of providing an author photo. It seems to me that all of the pictures you posted here would be just fine!

  • LeisaHammett says:

    Oh, dear. Dear, dear, dear. I’m a writer, too. And I guess I know this because I’m also an artist and my background is communications—a combo of writing and the power of the visual. I’ve worked with so many photographers. Hire a professional! Shop around! Find a photographer’s portfolio that contains the type of vibe and images you want. And no, no cheesy cheap studio, high school snapshot studios or even glamour studios.

    The range can be $150 to $600. (I’ve paid up to 300 and I’ve loved my shots. A good photographer will know what they are doing. And never would they make you pose for three hours! I know the point of this piece is probably humor. And congrats on your success with it. I know it probably resonates with many authors because they are more of a private, shy breed. (I’m an exception that way.) There’s nothing wrong with your face! Treat yourself. Go pro. Shop around and You can do this. Do it for the experience and then write about it. Maybe barter for publicity or web content if you can’t imagine $150.

    I cut my hair off and went silver during the pandemic and since I’m not going to salons right now, I don’t know how I’m going to look when this is over. But, man I had so much fun with a photographer’s shots that I used for online dating in early 2020. I wish i could still use them but it’s not me anymore. You will get a lot of mileage from these shots. Make sure you can walk away with at least a half-dozen images. (Ideally many more.) If you were in Nashville, I could recommend a number of photographers for you.

    Go for it. You deserve it. Okay. I will end this annoying comment.

  • […] marketing, Patricia Smiley looks at why you should hire a freelance publicist, Lisa Kusel is in search of the alluring author photo, and Jessica Strawser has 5 reasons you should attend other authors’ […]

  • […] essay of mine was highlighted this week on LIT HUB […]

  • Judith Beck says:

    I very much liked the second shot of you, after the dog one. You looked like someone I’d like to talk to. Someone smart. As much as you (and I) might wish to look like Jhumpa Lahiri, her photo makes her look exceedingly uninteresting and exceedingly unreal.

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