Facing Up to the Importance of Your Author Photo

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

by Porter Anderson (@Porter_AndersonThe Hot Sheet
If Helen’s face could launch a thousand ships, why can’t yours draw a few good readers?

Maybe it’s because your picture looks like a boozy moment from your homecoming reunion at the old alma mater last fall.

It’s ironic how many fine independent writers are fully onboard with professional-class editing, design, and production, and yet when it comes to their author photos, you’re likely to be looking at a gallery of amateurism. Raise your hand if a family member took your shot.

Take a look at your current author photo:

  • Is a part of your spouse’s anatomy visible in your shot? (That disembodied arm around the shoulders, you know.)
  • Does your photo present you as just one of several landscape features in the beautiful meadow outside last summer’s vacation cottage?
  • Does the expression on your curiously shiny face tend to bring spare ribs and coleslaw to mind?

Let me make you feel better. Those of us who program conference events know that when you ask even a top-level publishing executive’s office for a photo to use in program notes, what arrives can be pathetically inadequate. Even the greats seem to have trouble finding their way to a professional photographer.

But that’s what they — and you — need. Every two years, you need a professionally made career headshot. It might cost anywhere from $150 to $450. It’s worth it.

Points to keep in mind:

  • Dying laughing is not a positive experience. Try to resist the hysterically happy shot. It’s not attractive, it’s annoying. We weren’t in on the joke, we feel left out.
  • The best background is no background. Friends won’t let you drive drunk, and professional photographers won’t let the Eiffel Tower emerge from your left ear.
  • Don’t hold your book(s) in your shot. Nothing says carnival barker like an author clutching his or her book(s) in a photo. Remember: dignity is a virtue.
  • It’s a headshot. Not an upper torso shot. Not an arm-on-the-back-of-the-sofa shot. Not a you-and-your-kids shot. Your photo has to convey accessible, intelligent personality in the tiny space of a Twitter thumbnail. “Headshot” means your head. We want your face up-close, not your furniture.
  • Get your shot in color. You can convert it to black-and-white when that’s requested but unrelieved black-and-white gets old fast.
  • File it carefully. When we journalists ask for your photo and we receive a file named “me.jpg” or “AtCapeCode.png” you’re begging to be misidentified.
    • Title your image file something like: YourName-credit-PhotogapherName.jpg
    • If no photographer credit, simply YourName.jpg
    • You can even add your Twitter handle, many folks will appreciate it: YourName.@TwitterHandle.jpg
    • The main thing is info. What bit of data might help a time-strapped journalist or intern be sure they have the right photo and credit it properly? Don’t make them research you. Make it easy for them to identify you correctly.

Go through some good shots and choose something to show your photographer that’s close to what you’d like. Send that ahead of time, and your photographer will be able to set up the studio with the right lighting, seating, reflectors, etc.

There are many good sources for headshots but one of the best might be the HOW Design Live conference’s speakers page. The conference, a fixture on the May events calendars of some of the best commercial design people in the country, draws a top-flight round of speakers, most of whom have very fine shots. They’re designers, right? Good ideas come to them and they know how to communicate them to their photographers.

The most important thing I can recommend is that you think about something. It can be almost anything. We won’t know, after all. But the true secret to a great photo is always having something on your mind at the time the picture is taken. It’s so easy to go mentally blank as soon as the photographer says, “Ready?” So be ready with an idea, an image, a voice, a person, even your grocery list. Just put your mind to work on something and your personality will surface nicely.

Which is the real goal: personality. Yours. Put it across with the most professional flare you can muster: in a crowded marketplace, they’ll be glad to spot your friendly face.


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Porter Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in book publishing. Formerly with CNN, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media, he is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, founded by the German Book Office New York, the magazine for the international publishing industry. With Jane Friedman, he produces The Hot Sheet publishing-industry newsletter, providing expert analysis and interpretation in a private subscriptionemail newsletter, expressly devised to give authors the news insights they need, free of agenda and bias. Anderson also writes the #MusicForWriters series on contemporary composers for Thought Catalog.