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The Essential Reasons You Need A Professional Author Photo

Since readers "eat with their eyes," you want to make sure you are representing yourself in your author photo as professionally as possible. With so many books to choose from, you want to make sure your professional photo sets you apart and showcases you in your best form.

by Jenna Kalinsky, Founding Director, One Lit Place

As a writer, you may want to believe that people will buy your book because of the promise of an intellectual and/or emotional experience. That is, after all, what you’ve put your heart and soul into creating.

But if you’ve ever acted like a reader and flipped to the back page to check out the author’s photo before buying, you can rest assured that that while, yes, people do buy your book for the ideas, they equally buy it once they see the person who wrote it–and the person with whom they’re entering into a relationship. 

Eating with our eyes is just part of being human, which is why your author photo can actually make or break your book’s sale.

In a world filled with excellent books, why would you even consider anything but a professional author photo to give your book the best chance at success?

Are readers actually that shallow that a professional author photo can sway them to buy?

Yes. Or sort of. 

People like pretty things, so, like in life, if you are pretty and/or prettily presented on your book jacket, that may translate into more sales. 

Even if you’re naturally beauty contest-winning-level stunning, you still need a professional author photo for two reasons:

1) Photographers are trained in making anyone look great by using the right lighting, camera angles, background balancing, and filters. It’s their job to make their subjects shine.

2) The overall effect of a professional photo that’s thoughtfully composed, lit, and posed vs. a home-spun one is that the former shows the world a boss and the later an amateur. 

Your photo either subtextually indicates you are thoughtful, professional, and intentional in all you do—including book writing—and can become iconically yours (as it has with many famous author headshots), or it shows you are a little budget and possibly unserious, and therefore by extension, your book is possibly these things as well.

As an example: Would anyone think these authors are anything but at the top of their game by how professional their photos are?

4 famous author photos
Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri
four well known writers' author photos
Alice Walker, Lucie Brock-Broido, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith

(Nope, they would not.)

Most serious writers labor for months or years on the drafting, editing, proofreading, and formatting. They will invest in professional editors, don’t blink at hiring a cover designer to ensure the image is arresting and encapsulates the essence of the work, and if self-publishing, will often have someone handle the formatting of the book as well.

Yet it’s common to see that for the all-important author photo, the one visual element of a book that can establish a relationship with the reader and in a split second communicate their professionalism as an author, many authors decide to DIY it and have a spouse snap their pic or (shudder) use a selfie stick. This homespun effort can undermine everything they worked so hard to achieve.

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The History and Cultural Background of Author Photos

Artists have a long-standing history of being present visually in association with their art, first through portraiture as early as the first century B.C., and all the way through to modern photography. 

 

Throughout time, little has changed: we judge authors based on how they look, and women continue to be judged far more harshly—and cattily—than their male counterparts (surprise, surprise). 

Writer Frances Wilson suggested we “get rid of the damn things,” which is a refreshing, if not new, perspective. Imagine: separating the book from its creator to free up the work to stand on its own merit and democratize the playing field.

Shakespeare portrait in a book

[...] while it may not necessarily hurt you if it is “bad,” it will most certainly help you if it is “good.” “An enticing author photograph can really help your book,” advise Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry in The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. “This doesn’t mean you have to look like a model; it just means you have to look your best.”

Cornelia Powers, “The Insidious Rise of the Author Photo.”

Throughout time, a few authors have tried this strategy, most recently, Elena Ferrante, whose name is a pseudonym and who has fiercely protected their privacy to let their books stand as works of literature to be valued or reviled on their own merit.

 

Our celebrity-obsessed culture however has not been keen on allowing Ferrante to remain anonymous. Many lost their minds trying to figure out who this mysterious figure was, including an Italian journalist going through the trash of the person they believed to be Ferrante and publishing a nasty-spirited article to “out” the real author, triumphantly, as though they’d done the world a great favor by setting the record straight. 

Obviously, while it’s a noble idea that art be appreciated on its own terms, the fact is, we are culturally trained to want to know who is telling us their story or sharing their ideas. Author photos on books as a permanent feature are not going anywhere.

 

So if how you look in your photo can determine whether a reader will feel warm toward you enough to buy your book, you’d better believe a professional author photo is going to be an investment you want to make for the future of your book.

DIY vs. Professional Author Photo

woman in light dress and dark cardigan with blond hair sitting on ladder
Ruth Andrew Ellenson
woman with brown and blond hair in green jacket
Jenn Melyan
woman with silver hair wearing navy shirt against forested background
Nicole LaPorte
blond woman smiling in white top
Chrisitine Lennon

Above author & professional headshots of Ruth Andrew Ellenson, Jenn Melyan, Nicole LaPorte, and Chrisitine Lennon by Los Angeles photographer, Orit Harpaz of Orit Harpaz, Photographer

logo

You only get one chance to make a first impression. A professional author photo can tell a lot about who you are, what you are trying to convey to your readers, and what your author brand is.

There is no end to how much a writer can spend on preparing their book for publication. But it can get exhausting (never mind untenable) to bleed money without ever being sure it will be recouped.

That last step of getting a professional author photo is where many writers falter because while they don’t have the artistic or graphic design skills to create a cover, and it’s impossible to proofread your own manuscript, everyone knows someone with a camera (including themselves!).

But this isn’t the time to cut corners. Like with the editing or your cover, if you want to look like you know what you’re doing and that your work should be shelved with the higher-ups, it’s essential you entrust a professional.

 

6 author headshots of different ethnic backgrounds
Author headshots, photo credit: Marion Voysey

Do You Have to Have a Fancy (Expensive) Professional Take Your Author Photo?

Toronto photographer Marion Voysey, who specializes in author headshots, has built her business on helping authors [and other creatives] look and present their very best selves. Her stunning body of work illustrates that a photo is worth a thousand words, and all of them clearly show the authors’ unique and beautiful personalities best.

As a writer, you want to make the best impression possible when offering a new publication to the world. You’ve put your heart and soul into it your work – now it’s time to adorn it with an image that conveys your professionalism and artistic integrity, your confidence and pride – to present yourself to the world in a way that will be seen and remembered.

Marion Voysey, Marion Voysey Photography

Professional author photos can range in price, but like with many things in life, you will often get what you pay for. A professional author headshot photographer will be able to capture your essence quickly and artfully, ensuring you present your best self to the world.

Professional headshots are important for writers and creatives to give readers a connection to the heart and soul behind it all. Books provide such a personal wellspring of information and story that beg for human connection. There's no better way to welcome readers into your world than with a catchlight in your eye!

Krista Fogel, Krista Fogel Photography

various headshots of people in business attire
Business & Branding Photography, photo credit: Krista Fogel

What About AI Author Photos?

Like with AI-generated written content, AI-generated headshots look like AI. What AI can’t do (yet, at least) is tap into what is warm-blooded and human in a photograph. Any AI photo will tighten up your pores, give you dynamic backgrounds, and make you look like you only better … but also not quite like you either. 

While you could probably get away with using an AI photo, answer these two questions first: 

1. Would you have entrusted AI to write your book?

2. Is a “created image” of you how you want to authentically put yourself out into the world?

If You Must DIY, Use These Criteria for Getting a Great Author Photo

Viewing your photos as a valuable investment for the good of your book and to enhance your reputation overall may take the sting off of the fees involved in using a professional.

That said, if using a professional’s services is not feasible, as an alternate option, you may be able to enlist a talented friend who knows their way around a camera or catch an up-and-coming photographer early on in their career when they need to build their portfolio, enabling you to pay far less or barter for their services.

Whether you use a professional’s services, get a camera-savvy friend, or DIY your photo as a placeholder until you can get a professional author photo, be sure the images meet the following criteria:


What this means is don’t stray out of your lane!

⇒ If you’re a business/thought leader, do a range of business-oriented shots of you both smiling and serious, and avoid artsy-fartsy- style photos

⇒ If you’re a novelist, or it’s “on brand” for you to be a little freer and/or creative, avoid a suit or seeming overly business-y and let your personality shine through.

A vintage camera in front of pink peonies

Author Michelle Wildgen has 12 tips for authors who are getting their headshots done. These are especially useful if you don’t have a top professional guiding your shoot. 

Getting the Most Mileage Out of Your Professional Author Photo

A professional author photo is not only an investment for your book(s), but it’s useful across many different purposes.

Since a professional photographer will likely give you a few poses, you can include them on your promotional materials such as your social media profiles, promos for events, talks, courses, and absolutely, on your author website.

Your author photos will become one of your most-used assets throughout the publishing process, from publicity to production. Therefore, investing in a professional photographer is in turn investing in yourself.

With luck, you will be blessed with a long, illustrious writing career involving numerous book publications. Presenting a consistent look and feel of yourself will go a long way toward creating a “brand” out of you and your work.

This consistency instills confidence and enthusiasm in your reader for you and warms them for wanting to explore all you have to offer.

You will see all manner of author photos across the web and on books, but the fact is a homemade approach will cheapen the perceived value of your book and competence as an author overall.

If you spend anywhere from a few months to a decade to get your book to the point of being as good as possible for your readers, then it’s essential you take this last step to make sure people know they’re engaging with the highest quality author possible.

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