Author Photos – A Help or a Hindrance?

Alison Morris -- September 4th, 2008

How do you feel about seeing an author or illustrator’s photo alongside their author bio? Do you like it? Hate it? Do you think it somehow helps sales, helps build their audience, gives you a personal connection to them?

I’m generally indifferent on this matter. Seeing the face behind the fiction (or nonfiction) generally doesn’t enhance a reading experience for me, nor does it detract from it. From the perspective of working with kids, I think author photos can be truly useful — they remind kids that, yes, there are real, live people who write these books and illustrate them. (Sometimes that’s a useful lesson for adults too.)

From the standpoint of a book industry professional, I like that author photos enable me to recognize people when I see them at conventions. I would think that most authors and illustrators would like them for this reason too. It’s much easier, after all, to reach a sort of "celebrity status" when people can recognize you long before they’re close enough to read your name tag.

However, if an author uses the same exact photo in their books for YEARS and YEARS, that sends a completely different message. A confusing and rather creepy one, in fact. Imagine what it’s like for readers to show up at a public event expecting you to look a particular age and then OH. WOW. You’ve suddenly leaped forward twenty years into the future — or at least that’s how it appears to everyone who knows you by that ONE photo you’ve been using since time immemorial. I think it’s best not to put your readers through that freaky type of time shift. Just as it’s best not to take up any habits that might be acceptable now but later be considered a "bad influence" and therefore digitally removed from your images when you’re no longer around to raise an objection. (Fun to predict what those might be!)

I think about these photo issues a lot as I’m thumbing through publisher catalogs, which often include pictures alongside authors’ and illustrators’ bios. Often I like seeing their smiling faces staring back at me, but every now and again a photo comes along that is just… CREEPY! Or such a bad, blurry photo that you can’t help wondering if anyone at the publisher thought to suggest that they have a professional do the job. In such cases I sometimes feel that the presence of an author’s picture is a bad thing.

I also think it can be a bad thing when a person’s appearance looks COMPLETELY unlike the type of characters they’re creating or the genre they’re writing. For example, readers of your sleek urban novel about rap stars and gang wars might be more likely to send you letters if they don’t note your striking resemblance to, say, June Cleaver. Likewise, your arrest photo probably isn’t a good choice for that sweet little picture book about kittens. Or really for any book except Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, which you should be reading RIGHT now if you haven’t read it already. Seriously. Skip the question bit at the end here and go pick it up.

But what do you think? Photos good or photos bad? Bad photos good? Good photos bad? Please weigh in with your thoughts, and share your photo-related stories or Photoshopping-related predictions (á la Clement Hurd).

15 thoughts on “Author Photos – A Help or a Hindrance?

  1. writeroffthelake

    I find it annoying, especially with fiction. To me it’s a waste of space that could be better used to give more of a blurb about what the novel’s about. With non-fiction I’m more receptive to author pictures, although I’d still rather see the space used to give more of a book description. As for children’s books, I agree that an author picture is a good reminder that real people write the books, and if the author can be shown doing something that relates to the book rather than just a head shot, I think that’s a plus for a children’s book.

  2. Nancy

    Author photos didn’t use to be on children’s books at all. It makes me think of Eudora Welty’s memorable remark. “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.”

  3. Lisa Yee

    I asked my editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic why they rarely have author photos. (Not even JK Rowling has her photo next to her bio.) I was told that kids sometimes look at the author photos and think that person is the protagonist of the book.

  4. Cheryl Rainfield

    I really like seeing author photos next to their bio–AFTER I’ve read the book. While I’m reading a book, I have the author’s voice in my head, and it doesn’t necessarily match the photo. Seeing the photo sometimes feels jarring, and I like to stay firmly in the author’s voice. For that reason, I like that the photos are often placed in the back matter. I also like updated photos; I think it helps give a sense of the author over time.

  5. Susan Heim

    I love to see author photos. Sometimes people have the misperception that one must look glamorous to be an author. It’s refreshing to see that authors come in every shape, size, color, age and gender. It’s inspirational for anyone who strives to write a book.

  6. Gayle Carline

    Nowadays, we’re so media-driven, I feel suspicious when an author’s photo is NOT included. I don’t much care what they look like, altho I agree that they should keep their photos current. I was a little disappointed when I saw that Dean Koontz had shaved off his mustache…

  7. lisa chellman

    There is almost always a point during a book where I flip to the back flap to check for an author photo. I guess it’s me wondering what sort of a person would write this story, and hoping to glean something from the photo and bio to take with me back into the story. A little “author function” at work maybe?

  8. Kat Brokaw

    As a reader, seeing a pic with the bio satisfies a small and quiet curiosity. But it’s not like I’m going to hate a good book because there’s no photo or the author is cross-eyed with a big nose. As an author, I don’t usually include a photo. I don’t have one on my site.(www.katbrokaw.com)It’s such a pain to get a decent picture, I don’t look anything like what I write. And I’m kinda shy. But if someone asked, I guess I could.

  9. kidzbkcrusader

    99% of the time I love seeing the author and sometimes illustrator’s photo. The inner warmth of Kevin Henkes, Steven Kellogg, Kate DiCamillo and Jerry Pinkney radiates from their pictures and translates into their books. Updated photos are great. No one will think worse of the authors because they’ve gotten older. As for Silverstein’s picture-someone has to dig into the archive’s for another photo of him. I’ve been freaked out by that picture for years.

  10. Debbie

    As a reader, I always flip to the back to see the author’s picture. It’s nice to put a face with a book. Sometimes I’m shocked at the difference in the author’s picture and the picture I already had in my mind. I agree that the old pictures should be banned. Sometimes when I read a new book, it’s obvious (by the clothes or hairstyle) that I’m looking at a 20 year old picture. Spring for a new one, authors!!!

  11. Pauline Cormier

    I work with young children, ages 7 to 12 who want to learn how to write and illustrate story picture books and have them professionally published. We have 40 books in our catalogue at present and each published book has the picture and a short bio of these young authors & illustrators. When they do a book signing it is great and it will be interesting in future years to see what they accomplish in life. http://www.daisymay.ca

  12. Julianne Daggett

    Most of the time an author’s picture doesn’t matter either way, but with “Bats at the Library” Brian Lies had turned his picture upside down, like a bat, which still has me occasionally giggling when I think about the book.

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