An 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.