Does it Matter if Authors Have Faces?

Insert Photo Here_Or Not_Misfortune of Knowing WordPress BlogAn author’s appearance means nothing about the quality of a book, but that doesn’t stop publishing companies from emphasizing the importance of author photographs on book jackets. It’s part of the packaging that, apparently, sells books. In a piece for The Daily Beast last week, author Jennifer Miller (whose novel, The Year of the Gadfly, I discussed in August) recounts the advice of the “Manager of eMarketing” at her current publisher: “Without a photo, ‘people would wonder what’s wrong with the author—super homely? Recluse?’”

As a person who shops for books almost exclusively online, I rarely see an author’s photograph before I purchase the book. I don’t look at book jackets. While there are factors unrelated to writing and price that I weigh when deciding whether to purchase a book (such as if the author holds repugnant views), an author’s appearance is just not important to me.

For one thing, even if a reader believes she can tell a person’s character from facial features (as though they are Inspector Alan Grant of Josephine Tey’s historical mystery, The Daughter of Time), there is no reason to think that a photograph on a book jacket is an accurate depiction of the author–thanks to makeup, dress, positioning, and Photoshop. As author Lee Child has said about the photographs on his books (quoted in Miller’s article): “My eyes are bluer, my teeth are whiter and my skin is more tanned than in real life.” These days, it’s reasonable to assume that virtually all author photographs are heavily altered, especially considering that we can’t even expect publishers to tell us the truth in author bios.

Putting its accuracy aside, though, an author photograph could add a personal touch to a book, helping it stand out against all the other books with similar cover art in the same genre. When it works, it tells readers that there is a human being behind this book, and not just a major corporation trying to sell something. It could help a reader identify and bond with the author, thereby increasing the likelihood of a purchase. Or, if the author comes across as “reclusive” (to the horror of “eMarketing Managers” everywhere!), the book may remain on the shelf — unless, of course, their name is J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy, or Thomas Pynchon, all of whom have done quite well despite their “reclusive” tendencies.

I wonder to what extent the photograph contributes to decreased sales when it “exposes” or emphasizes that an author is a woman or an ethnic minority. Authors with these identities have a history of using pseudonyms or initials to thwart stereotypes that could result in fewer book sales, reviews, and literary awards. While Miller does not address this potential consequence of author photographs, she does discuss the double standard often applied to photographs of female versus male authors. She writes, “Female authors, especially, have trouble escaping questions of appearance,” while male authors might have more freedom.

What about the standards applied to photographs of authors from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds? Miller’s article only includes examples of white authors (except for a passing reference to one or two authors from other backgrounds). We’ve seen how absurdly “whitewashed” cover art often is (there are several examples in the YA category), making me wonder whether these same pressures apply to author photographs. I hope not, but that’s probably wishful thinking.


  1. I’m a writer, a woman, and ethnic. And, therefore, sensitive to preconceptions people might have of all these categories because, believe or not, I have had to contend with them all my life, including in grad school when a member of my “comps” panel (oral exams) asked a question that assumed all those characteristics would be a handicap. It was an “illegal” question and the panel chair told him so, in private. It was also one of the worst I’ve encountered. But the point is this: although a great number of people are free of prejudices (or, at least, relatively so–it’s human to have preconceived ideas), there are still many who are not and if you’re a writer putting your work out there to a public with a multitude of faces, you get understandably wary. So, in my books, I use an initial for my first name and my husband’s last name (which is Caucasian) although in my former professional life, I used my maiden name (ethnic). And my author page at the end of the book does not have my picture. But I’m real and, if you’re interested enough, you can find me on the internet. Rather easily, actually.

  2. Yes, I don’t judge a book on who it’s written by/their photo (or, at least, I hope so), but I do like to have a photo of an author associated with the book – even if it’s something non-serious like the cartoons of ‘Lemony Snicket’. I think it’s part of that innate human desire to relate to the writers behind the books, to see the face behind the words – like that of babes being able to recognise faces from a very young age.

  3. It really is not something that would matter to me. I go on what other readers write in review. Not those on the sites selling the book though. As for gender or ethnic reason, they would have no effect at all. It appears to be of value to some whether an author is pictured.

  4. I guess I’d almost prefer to buy a book ‘author unseen’ in order not to have preconceptions of the contents. That said, a pic of a cute-looking young woman author will not harm sales of her chick-lit story (though I wouldn’t be swayed you understand) and I guess a handsome guy with smouldering eyes in a homburg will sell more private detective volumes. Maybe I’ll try it with my next effort, see what happens.

    1. Yeah, a carefully chosen author photograph probably does help sales. The emphasis on physical appearance is kind of sad, but I guess it’s no different from almost any other profession. Research suggests that there is an attractiveness bias in hiring, but a person’s attractiveness can also backfire. Recently, for example, the Iowa Supreme Court held that it was legal for a dentist to fire a female employee because she was “irresistibly attractive” (

  5. I follow you from my genealogy blog, but came upon you through my writing blog because I had just written about getting my headshot taken. What an experience hahaha. Thanks for a thought-provoking read.

  6. JK Rowling’s picture was in none of the original Harry Potter hardcovers. I remember reading an interview with her as the series was wrapping up: she said her publisher didn’t want readers to know she was female, hence the initials. It was their assertion it would be unacceptable for a girl to write magical books centered around a boy.

    I recall another brouhaha when the male writer of a very popular blog for men revealed herself as female. She went on at some length about making more money freelancing as a male than as herself. I still wonder why she outed herself, and if it made a difference in income.

    In the m/m genre, where I mostly publish, there was a huge outcry last year when a very popular male author was revealed as being female. The backlash on GoodReads was nasty in the extreme, and the author was forced to defend herself against a lynch mob.

    All an author owes readers is the best work he can produce.

    When I was first published, I made a conscious decision not to reveal my real identity and have always used obscure avis on social media. I am not bad looking; I do this mainly to protect myself and those I love from unwelcome scrutiny. Back in the day, I used to role play in my spare time, and I ran into a couple of really unbalanced people, both of whom made concerted efforts to destroy my life. Even with my real name and appearance hidden, I still picked up a stalker last year. Lesson learned!

    It’s different these days because everyone is online. People can interact with celebrities or their favorite author in a way that wasn’t possible before. Anyone who does not guard their private life is asking for trouble. Readers are not entitled to anything from me beyond what I decide to give them. I have set boundaries and no one crosses them.

    1. It sounds like you’re very wise to use a pseudonym. There are risks to any type of interaction, including on the internet. I’m not looking forward to the day when my kids start using it.

      You may remember how annoyed I was by JK Rowling’s fake biography for “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” I didn’t really mind that she was pretending to be a man–I don’t believe men and women are all that different from each other–but I did mind that she pretended to have had experiences relevant to the book (military background that the bio claimed “directly” informed the content of the book). Perhaps the male vs. female identity matters more in the m/m genre (where unique physical differences between the sexes might be relevant to how they write about sex), but I don’t know. If a female author can successfully write in the m/m genre without being immediately “exposed” as a woman, then maybe there isn’t any reason to think whatever differences there may be between men and women matter. However, if the female author writing under a male pseudonym in the m/m genre claims that the experiences in the book “grew directly out of ‘his’ own experiences”… well, that’s a bit more misleading.

      I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

      1. “If a female author can successfully write in the m/m genre without being immediately “exposed” as a woman, then maybe there isn’t any reason to think whatever differences there may be between men and women matter.”

        ^^THIS. It really shouldn’t matter. Writers write about things all the time with which we don’t have personal experience. For example, I have no idea how to live on a houseboat, yet I wrote a series about a couple of guys who did just that. Does that make me a sham? A poseur? I think not. I’m glad I write well enough that people believed it. That’s what it comes down to: how good a writer you are.

        I agree with the rest, too. Do not lay claim to things you cannot, like having military experience when you haven’t, etc. The m/m writer I mentioned took her gender charade too far when she spoke of her coming out experience as a man.

        That being said, perhaps she experienced a different coming out and used those feelings to inform her masquerade. I refuse to judge. People do what they sometimes must to feel safe.

        Hope you and your family are having a terrific holiday. 🙂 Thanks for brightening my year with your blog posts.

        1. Yeah, speaking about a fake coming out experience is definitely taking it too far!
          We are having a great holiday so far. The kids are counting down until Christmas. Thanks for all of your blog posts, too (and for your books and photographs)! I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. 🙂

  7. I was just in a convorsation about this topic last week, related to the Elizabeth Nelson thing (an author who used a stock photo of a model as her picture and also a generic bio). My issue is, I don’t think it matters what an author looks like. I buy mostly e-books, and I’ve never actively searched for an author’s photo out of curiosity. If it’s there, I look at it (do I judge? I don’t know), but if there’s no photo, I don’t bemoan the lack.
    I do have a problem with phony pictures and fake bios, though (as we’ve discussed before) mainly because they seem so unnecessary. Why lie about something no one really cares about? It’s shady.
    Then again, I have a very plain appearance. I can feel comfortable (as a white, fairly young woman) to post my real photo and know that, even if people don’t think I’m attractive, they probably won’t be very surprised at seeing me. I have a friend who claims she can’t post her photo because she “doesn’t look like a romance author should”. So I know that for some people, this might be a concern. Weight, race, attractiveness, all might be an issue: if not for readers, then for authors themselves. It’s scary enough putting your words out into the world, tacking your likeness on as well feels like exposing a lot.

    1. Wow. I hadn’t heard about Elizabeth Nelson’s fake picture. Considering the fact that this is also the first time I’ve heard of that author, I’m wondering whether the bad publicity is generating more interest in her work. Lots of authors/publishers/photographers go to great lengths to alter author photographs to fit our ideals of beauty, often resulting in images that really look nothing like the person in real life. Using a different person’s image goes a step farther, though. It’s very problematic. It could be copyright infringement (assuming she didn’t get permission from the copyright holder) and even consumer fraud because the picture might have influenced purchasing decisions. I think it would sad if it actually did influence decisions! Can you imagine someone claiming, “I only bought the book because I thought the author was hot!” Ugh.

      It’s definitely an interesting example. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      1. Well the most interesting thing to me was that she was also accused of plagarism, and while I’m not sure I believe that accusation, it carried some weight due to the fake picture/bio thing.

        I had never heard of her either, but she has a pretty big backlist and a decent author ranking. I’m sure the controversy helped bring attention to her, though!

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