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Picture Me

Let’s get superficial. At a party a few days ago, I ended up having conversation with Marion Ettlinger (who is, it turns out, a kick in the pants). While I idiotically pretended I knew very little about her work, she spoke about photographing authors as “a calling.” In other words, once she began doing it, she very quickly realized that she wanted to do nothing else. She liked taking pictures, she said, of people whose notoriety comes from something entirely other than the way they look.

Shya Scanlon
My author photo for Forecast


I have a couple books coming out next year, and I’ve decided to put author photos on both of them–different photos, at least one of which is silly–but it strikes me as a pretty questionable decision. Why indeed put a photo of yourself on a book? Doesn’t it just distract people from your work? Shouldn’t an author be concerned that it will effect people’s judgment? We’ve all heard the rumors about how some young authors–even literary authors–are given a bigger advance if they’re attractive.

If you’ve had a book out, did you put an author photo on the cover? Whether or not you did, was it something you specifically decided, or did you just go along with the publisher’s expectations? If you haven’t had a book out yet, have you already decided what your author photo will be? How did you make the decision? Is it simply “looking your best?” Or is it looking your most literary. Or is it something else.

23 thoughts on “Picture Me

  1. My four-year-old just saw your photo and laughed, then said, “That’s a pretty weird picture.” And then she asked me, “What is he doing?” I told her I’d ask.

  2. I figure if/when I have a full-length book come out, I’ll include some kind of author photo, just because it seems kinda standard, but I know I specifically preferred to not have one included on/in the chapbook just because I wanted to keep it — the design, etc. — as clean and simple as possible.

    Often, when I think about this issue of author photos, it reminds me of this: when I first started reading books, I often picked up what I’d heard had just sold movie rights, typically to someone I “liked,” having no other real guidance. I remember buying and reading a book about this this really “cool” guy — lots of gambling, cavorting, etc. Thing was, I couldn’t help but look at his author photo, time and time again throughout my reading, and he just looked like such a… well… dork. And it really affected my reading. It made every situation where a girl wanted him, or where he was just generally this hot shit guy in town (and there were *lots* of instances of both) and I know it is really superficial to say, but it really negatively affected my reading, in that I just kept thinking he wrote the book primarily as this geeky wish fulfillment thing. I don’t know… maybe that’s what all/most books are, but I couldn’t *not* let that image affect me.

      1. I really don’t remember. Either the name of the book, or the author. I’ll look around a little though.

        That said, I think this has actually happened at least 2 or 3 times. It’s that “geeky guy writing the first person narrator as alpha male novel” genre that’s def. out there.

  3. No author photo on mine – my publisher didn’t care one way or the other. I feel awkward about author photos and it just seemed inappropriate on my book, especially considering that drawn images are such a big part of it (I feel like I’d have to draw myself, which I didn’t feel like doing – actually, on Action Yes’s Masthead page, there are drawings I did of me, Joyelle, and Johannes – the one of me is old and I feel funny about it – but I leave it there). I thought the author photo would serve as a distraction. I finally got something of an author photo because people are often asking for them for reading flyers and sometimes contributor pages. I used to always use a picture of me pitching a Wiffle ball in Prospect Park, because I love Wiffle ball and I remember that my slider was breaking particularly well that evening, but that picture got a big cloying after a while (although I still kind of like it).

    So, Shya, why’d you put photos on our books?

    1. That’s an interesting point: it does seem like I’m being asked more frequently for a photo to go along with other contributor info (general bio stuff). I think this is probably part of being involved in web publication–images are both easy to incorporate, and expected by Internet users.

      I’m using photos because I like to look at them personally. I’m certainly aware of the risks–Aaron’s “geeky guy writing alpha male” among other bothersome or embarrassing combinations–but in the end, I just think it’s an interesting thing to provide my readers, and to be provided by writers.

      There are likely to be people here who feel differently, but for me, writing is a way of connecting with people as a human being. Sharing my photo is another way. It’s complicated and imperfect, but that’s what makes it interesting. Also, that’s the understanding I base my author photo decisions on. The one embedded here is a joke (or is it?!), but the one for In This Alone Impulse isn’t too far off:


  4. i have author photos on my books, but i really dislike having my picture taken. there are party photo websites where the pictures are marred by my middle finger (i also really dislike party photographers). i would like to combine the two someday — be in a marion ettlinger author photo doing the hand swear. that way my readers would feel like they were getting flipped off by a ghost.

  5. Here’s a follow-up question: do you have a favorite author photo?

    Aaron’s comment above reminds me of one of my favorites: Barry Hannah, on some first edition (I don’t remember which book), it takes up the entire back cover (always another good idea), and he’s wearing an 80s black leather jacket, and I think he’s holding a cigarette.

    I can only assume it was dreamt up and composed by some creative director wanting to exploit Hannah’s bad boy reputation. It succeeds only in making him look like an action writer or a b-movie actor. But it’s fantastic. I’ve thought of trying to reenact it for Forecast.

    update: I found it! http://www.pagina12.com.ar/fotos/radar/20070318/notas_r/barry_hannah.jpg

  6. my favorite author photo is stephen king on the back of cujo. he looks like a mountain man. it is beautiful.

  7. There was no author photo on my book and we didn’t even discuss it. I don’t think it even crossed my mind. When I did press stuff I was asked for an “author photo” so I ripped off the Marion Ettlinger pic of Raymond Carver. I’m back to being amused by the picture, but remember having a panic attack right before the story ran.

    Good posts these last few weeks, Shya. They’ve been fun to read and mull over.

  8. I hate author photos. I hate being asked for them. I hate taking them. It makes me feel so awkward. I don’t think there’s an author photo out there where a writer doesn’t look ridiculous. I fought really hard to not have to give my publisher an author photo for my first anthology but it was part of the contract. I lost that battle and I’m sad about it. I’m not happy with any of the pictures I had taken so now I need to do it all over again. It’s a whole thing.

  9. No author pic on my forthcoming books – I have been asked but have declined – I just don’t want to taint an imagined image of me that is, no doubt, somehow always better than I could be in actuality.

    we nixed the author pic from WE TAKE ME APART too because we were worried (Molly and myself) that the resolution would not be enough to look as professional / sharp as the rest of the book design

  10. It seems like it’s a real bind sometimes for women especially… don’t want to look unsexy, but not too sexy, want to be approachable, but still be taken seriously, not too old, not too young, etc.

    I’ve got one writer friend who changes her social networking photos frequently because she worries what impression she’s giving… smiling, not smiling, from coquetteish to severe and back again, etc.

    Seems like a no-win scenario.

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