The evolution of my author photo

As part of readying my book for its launch on January 5th, my publisher asked me for an author photo for the inside flap of the jacket’s backside.

The resulting email exchange (which has been edifying and hilarious but must remain private, at least until publication) made me reflect on some larger issues:

  • identity,
  • image,
  • authenticity,
  • message,
  • style etc.

In meditating on these, it helps that the stakes are low — very, very low.

Suffice it to say that my publisher made us go three rounds (“us” = my wife, who took the photos, and me).

I will show you all three, but in no particular order. And I won’t say (yet) which one the publisher chose. (Yes, it’s the publisher, not I, who did the choosing.)

And then, at the bottom of this post, you get to vote. And if you’re so inclined, you can comment more fully below.

Herewith:

Now vote:

51 thoughts on “The evolution of my author photo

  1. This, more or less, was my thought process: “OK, #1’s nice; not sure how I feel about the background … ah, #2 is very formal [compared to #1] … oh my, #3 is too informal [compared to the other two]” … so I defaulted to the “average” one. Which makes me wonder how easily you could rig this poll….

  2. I chose Number 1: relaxed, but professional. Darker background seems to work a bit better for you too. Number 2: I like your suit and tie, but not a big fan of the tilted pose. Number 3: I like the picture but not sure it’s professional enough – I bet that columbia jacket is nice though (light, but warm). All three would be fine – not sure anybody but publishers actually care that much about book jacket photos. Unless you looked absolutely ridiculous, would anybody’s purchasing decision change based on something like this?

    • “Unless you looked absolutely ridiculous, would anybody’s purchasing decision change based on something like this?”

      I was entirely in your camp. Who needs a photo at all? And who cares?

      And I said (and still say) the same for that other dreaded back-flap clutter, the “blurb”.

      And yet, and yet. The truth, as my publisher told me at the very beginning of this process, is that nobody knows why some books sell and others don’t. All new books face the same barrier: obscurity. There is NOT a perfect-information market out there in which “good” books rise and “bad” books sink. So, in the absence of ANY clues, publishers sweat details like …. blurbs and author photos. Not because they think those things make the difference, but because they have nothing else they can control.

  3. Each picture has its merits.

    In picture #1 you look as if you’re in the vicinity of a yacht club. Therefore the picture conveys that you mix with the wealthy and the powerful. The turtleneck is a nice touch, and gives off a cosmopolitan aura. But, is it sufficiently American?

    Since the Businessman may be who your book is aimed at, picture #2, in which you wear a suit, would at first sight be the best. However, the suit doesn’t seem to fit you properly. Also, you seem not quite at ease in a suit, which may be why you are trying to appear nonchalant by leaning slightly to your left. If you were to lean, perhaps it should have been ever-so-slightly to your right, so to convey the impression that your socio-political views lean that way too.

    I like picture #3 the best. You are obviously on a beach, and a lonely beach. This, plus the windbreaker and tousled hair, convey the impression that you like to take long solitary walks along wild windswept pristine shores, while thinking profound thoughts.

    • Oh, that’s delicious, Philippe. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      #1) the “yacht club”: It’s a public restroom. Admittedly in the vicinity of a beach (a public one).

      #2) The suit that doesn’t fit: I thought it fits fine. But how would I know? I wear it so rarely.

      I should “lean ever so slightly to the right” to reflect my socio-political views? 🙂 🙂 So that’s where you’ve pegged me, after a few years of following this blog? I bet that could lead to a lively debate all by itself.

      Incidentally, there is something else about this “suit” picture that you must know. I’ll explain it below, when I give a way the answer….

      #3) “windswept pristine shores” … “thinking profound thoughts”: See, that’s what I would have thought too! But that’s not the reaction I got. More below.

    • You said, ……..I should “lean ever so slightly to the right” to reflect my socio-political views? So that’s where you’ve pegged me, after a few years of following this blog?……..

      When I said “….If you were to lean, perhaps it should have been ever-so-slightly to your right, so to convey the impression that your socio-political views lean that way too…….” I was careful to include the words “……to convey the impression…..”.

      I didn’t mean to imply that these are your views, only that you may want the prospective reader whom your book may be marketed towards – the Businessman, a species whose views tend to be ever-so-slightly right-of-centre – to think that you see the world through the same ideological spectacles as does he.

    • Actually, that’s a misunderstanding: I really do NOT want to target “the Businessman”. Recall that I was upset when my publisher dressed the little guy in front of the elephant on my book jacket in a suit and tie.
      The book is a soulful book of life lessons drawn from history. There is only one single “businessman” in it, and that’s Steve Jobs. And I don’t even consider him a businessman in the first instance.

      Just FYI

    • And again, that’s exactly what I would have thought. And yet, that’s not at all the thing that my publisher found worth pointing out about this one.

      More below, in due course.

  4. Number 1!! Sheesh! How much more “In a way he was like the country he lived in…” could you possibly be?

    No, seriously, I like it.

    But I suspect your publisher chose number 3.

  5. I chose #1 because it was simply better than the other two; more relaxed, more approachable looking, more casual. But, if I were the publisher, I would have said, “Get me a couple of other shots, these are too stiff.”

    For an example, look at the jacket photo of Dean Koontz.

    • Google “dean koontz” using images. Find the ones with his dog and sans mustache. All of his jacket photos seem to be with the dog (possibly to show him as more human and less creepy). I actually would have voted for your profile image, the one that accompanies your comments. In it, you are happy, friendly, and a bit vibrant.

      I don’t know what sells books either (like your publisher says) but, personally, the author’s jacket photo is nowhere near being a factor.

  6. I’ve been reading this blog for 18 months, and in that time I’ve read back to the very first post.

    I’ve read (and been astonished and edified by) your thoughts on everything from minimalism to Marxism.

    And yet, somehow, I still feel that seeing through three photos has changed/added to/refined what I think about you. It’s not necessarily in a way I can articulate, but it has had an impact.

    How odd that despite spending so much time in the company of your thoughts, my understanding of you can be impacted by something as superficial as three (posed) photographs!

    • I’ve thought about this sort of thing a lot lately: How reading “pure thoughts”, ie words, from somebody you don’t know in the flesh can be more intimate than meeting that person in the flesh.

      I totally know what you mean. And I suspect that if you met me in the flesh you would change your mind again, and that if you then, having met me, returned to reading my words, you would change your mind yet again….

      And ditto for me, if I met you, or any of the other commenters/readers here.

      But your final thought (“my understanding of you can be impacted by something as superficial as three (posed) photographs”) is the reason why the publisher considers this photo somewhat important.

  7. For the record, I voted 2.

    First, because I tend to assume that when you’re communicating with someone the less you know about their expectations of you the more formal you should be. When you’re committing to a message *now*, to be received only when someone picks up a copy of your book in Waterstones, you know absolutely nothing about them so the more formal the better. This probably says more about me than anything else though.

    Secondly, I liked the pose, which has a dynamism to it that is slightly in evidence in 1, and absent from 3.

    Finally, although it is a suit, shirt and tie it’s not intimidatingly formal. The suit is soft around the edges and open, the tie is soft and relatively loosely knotted, and the shirt collar is not too stiff.

    All of them are good, and if you’d shown us any one of them in isolation I doubt I’d have had anything but praise for it.

    • “… when you’re communicating with someone the less you know about their expectations of you the more formal you should be….”

      Very articulate, and probably wise advice, not just for author photos.

      Yes, the presumption of informality can really be a form of disrespect, almost, toward strangers. Or an indulgence. I think you’re onto something subtle and big.

  8. ““… when you’re communicating with someone the less you know about their expectations of you the more formal you should be….”

    Very articulate, and probably wise advice, not just for author photos. ”

    Thank you. It’s one of those principles that I suspect I picked up from my grandfather, although I don’t think he ever put it in quite those terms.

    I remember once having an informal conversation with a novelist I know slightly. He was preparing for a book signing in a couple of days time, and asking our advice on what to wear. He seemed fairly open to suggestions, so when he asked me directly I humbly put forward the theory that while I doubted people would care that much, I’d always taken the view that if people were coming to something to see you, then you should probably turn up in a something fairly smart.

    Rather to my embarrassment it turned out that he was one of those people who think that suggesting a suit has any objective merit, other than as a personal choice, was one step away from full-on fascism, and expressed himself quite thoroughly on the subject.

    I suppose I should have spotted that everyone else in the group was basically suggesting what he was already wearing.

    He even returned to the topic in his speech, for which he wore jeans and a fairly ragged t-shirt. He stopped short of mentioning my name, but it definitely wasn’t flattering.

    So I’m gratefully to you for taking my thoughts more sympathetically 🙂

    • “… I suppose I should have spotted that everyone else in the group was basically suggesting what he was already wearing….”

      🙂

      I feel your pain.

      One thing I have vowed, by the way (and I plan to announce this more explicitly), is that I will never become a prima-donna author. You know what I’m talking about….

  9. For 1, I say as a photographer who has made this mistake in taking headshots of others, you don’t want a bunch of horizontal lines going through your head. Distracting. (My mistake was trying some shots in front of bookshelves for people. They need to be far away from them, and the background needs to be blurred, for this to work.)

    2 is actually the best shot, but it will work better for a book that’s not about a badass on an elephant. Save the shot, which I like, for your book about what’s wrong with California, which I await eagerly.

    So I pulled the lever for 3, which looks adventuresome, like a man who would invade the Roman empire in an unprecedented way. It has one of the same problems as (1) – a horizontal line decapitating you. This could be mitigated with some Photoshop blurring the background.

    We just had new headshots taken at the NY bureau today. Awkward! I love taking pictures, but man is it hard to pose for 40 minutes for one.

    I had the same back-and-forth with wife and publisher for my jacket shot. It took forever. We did a rooftop-in-NY shoot, and nothing from the hourlong shoot quite worked for me. So I sent the publisher a self-portrait that I like (and which I use on my own site), but the publisher declared it “severe”. The ultimate choice was another self-portrait from the same session. I feel like I’m smirking, but the editor liked it. I asked the publisher if they could leave out the photo credit, since having my name with the photo made it clear it was a self-portrait. For legal reasons, they said “no”, but made it tiny…

    Anyway, I did a lot of agonising about this silly thing…

    • No fair. You get professional headshots in the NY office.

      This is great analysis, Lane. It shows that you’ve been through this.

      I think your photo is great. I might have liked the “severe” one even better. I sort of LIKE severe.

      Above all, I’m glad that your editor also made you suffer for this silly thing.

    • In keeping with your posts on the beauty (and importance) of simplicity, the ambiguity was purposeful. I like the simplicity of your “suit shot”. (Compli
      ments to your wife’s photography)

      No distractions in shot #2. No Jerry Garcia tie to distract. I like it. You look great in that shot.

    • Thanks. I’ll pass that on to my wife. (Just shoot and click, really. But as she said, there’s no such thing as a good photographer or a good camera. There’s only good light.)

  10. Alright, it’s been over 24 hours, so here is the answer:

    The chronology was 3, 1, 2.

    So the first one was the one on the beach. (my wife’s favorite)

    the publisher objected to “the parka” (as he insisted on calling it), which he deemed insufficiently “neutral”. He suggested a jacket or sweater.

    hence the one with the sweater, which seems to be overwhelmingly your favorite, and also mine.

    Here the publisher objected (privy to the high-definition version) to the fact that stubble is apparently visible. Oh my, and I hadn’t even noticed, nor did I care. But there you are.

    At this point, the debate almost veered off into Groucho Marx logic: This is a big-idea book, intellectual and bold, etc etc. With the implication: Nobody who looks like this could write such a book. Hmmm.

    So it was onto the jacket and tie. Did I feel as though I were “selling out” to the suits? Not quite, but I did have to stay me: So, I dressed up only from the waist up. From the waist down I’m wearing yoga shorts and sitting in Lotus. (As I am wont to do.) As they say in real estate, cropping, cropping, cropping.

    In summary, the “mature” voices here (let’s stipulate that they include Lane, Cheri and Thomas Foster) had the “right” instinct, defined as the publisher’s. Thomas reminded us that a certain formality is appropriate, and I think that’s what Cheri had in mind with her “plain and simple” sign-off.

    Margaret Saunders, in her comment in the actual poll (if you click on “results”) said that I should have used the little shot of me with one of my wee’uns on my head, because that is natural. Well, yes, it’s natural. But I’ve learned (and Lane confirmed it above with his experience) that “natural” is not always, in real life, what the situation calls for.

  11. If I understand correctly, the picture of you in the Business Suit is the one that will appear on your book’s jacket. A wise choice. Your publishers are to be congratulated.

    Notwithstanding that the Business Suit as apparel is aesthetically repellent, the picture of you in the Business Suit in the blurb will go nicely with the little man in the Business Suit on the cover who rides the elephant.

    The Business Suit conveys Authority and Trust. It gives us confidence that its wearer is wise, and that what he says is true. It is not for nothing that our world is run by men wearing the Business Suit.

    I’m reliably informed that there are few women who can resist a man in a Business Suit. It therefore doesn’t require too big a leap in the imagination to see that there will be few women who will resist a book written by a man in a Business Suit, and so will more likely buy a copy.

    Your publishers seem to know what they’re doing.

  12. I’ve just read the other comments. The favourite has not been chosen!
    I see a timelessness to it so I’m surprised.

    • I was surprised, too, not so much by the actual choice as by the process my publisher used to arrive at it. In other words, by the actual email trail. As I said in the post, one day (and that day is not yet) I’ll make the actual emails public. They are hilarious. And of interest to anybody who is dreaming of one day publishing anything.

  13. “I’ve learned (and Lane confirmed it above with his experience) that “natural” is not always, in real life, what the situation calls for.”

    Sage words. Sometimes what feels natural isn’t even what looks natural.

    There’s an episode of the Simpsons in which Bart and his friends visits a film set. They ask why a stage hand is painting a horse black and white. They’re told it’s to make it look like a cow – it seems real cows don’t like look cows on TV, so they have to use painted horses.

    Ralph: What do you do if you want something that looks like a horse?
    Painter: Ehh, usually we just tape a bunch of cats together.

    This feels like a similar thing.

    I suspect it’s because what may look “natural” to someone in your close to you (say, in your Dunbar group), might look eccentric or peculiar to someone outside. Strong, bold, simple and above all well-established signals are the best way to communicate with strangers.

  14. Ah! I read that on the train this morning and I thought it was you. Apart from the location, it had a strong, if indefinable, feel about it.

    It was also very interesting, taking into account three hundred years of history; a fair bit of geology; and acute assessment of contemporary LA (in your final sentance) and, as you say, doing so with a subtle but unmissable sense of the ironic tensions inherent in the story.

    Conveying so much meaning in so few words (indeed, saying such extraordinary things with such ordinary words) is a real craft.

  15. Ah! I see I have been misunderstood in my frivolous comment of choice of photo for the book – I did not actually use the word ‘natural’. I said happy, relaxed, ebullient, warmhearted – as in inscrutable laughing-Buddha mode… anticipatory, if anything, rather than natural; which, to me, reflects much more the slightly cocking-a-snook, whimsical and subversive puncturing of cosy vanities, with the probing of the paradoxes and ironies of success and failure that would appear to be the themes addressed in the book: such a stance could only be conveyed by a versatile and ingenious mind, one which came up with the Hannibal conceit! And why not be able to suggest photographically that we are going to be invited to challenge our preconceptions? Of course, I pre-empt the book…and hazard a guess at its revelations and wisdoms. If Buddha-mind is natural, then so be it: but it is also inscrutable. And those who profess to be imparting wisdom are paradoxically both natural (because alluding to truth) and inscrutable (because truth is elusive). I await the book in gleeful anticipation.

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