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A Useful Guide to Author Photos

Nichole DeMent

Program Manager

Susan Rich. photo: Kelli Russell Agodon

As a literary artist, you will inevitably be asked for a headshot if and when you receive awards, participate in speaking engagements and events, when your short story gets featured in magazines and, most importantly, on the book jacket of your latest work. This one tool of the trade is an incredible marketing and branding opportunity that you don’t want to lose out on.

There are a few hard and fast rules to a good author photo. No group photos (and please don’t just crop yourself out of one). Props that make you look more “writerly” are a bad idea: no pens, and posing with a manual typewriter (even if you use one) has become a cliché. The main goal is to let this vital piece of marketing reflect you—the professional writer—to your audience. Ultimately, does your photo make you look like someone your reader wants to spend the next few hours with? 

Your photo is a promotional tool and should match the tone and style of the type of writing you create: a sports writer’s audience would have an easier time relating to a guy in a t-shirt over one that looks uncomfortable in a suit and tie. Be yourself—try some different outfits during a shoot to find the just-right persona. No matter what you choose to wear, solids are always better than prints, and bright fluorescent hair bows may be the hot trend in one era but not the next. It’s good to get your photo updated every few years or when there’s a significant change in your appearance. Fans and booksellers need to recognize you, not think about how much you’ve changed compared to an old photo.

The level of professionalism conveyed in your headshot is a reflection of how serious you are about your profession. Author photos are easy to come by in the digital era, but, while your friend might take a nice snapshot of you, there’s a big difference between that and having a professional create one for you. It is one of the most valuable marketing tools and a good photographer is worth every penny, but there are ways to invest in a great photo without it wiping out your savings. If you want to go the professional photographer route, there are several listed from across Washington State on our Resources webpage. If you are on a budget, ask photography schools such as Photo Center Northwest if you can post an ad to a job listing or opportunities board requesting a final year student with a good understanding of headshots. When you find someone, feel free to ask to see a portfolio and/or get recommendations. Another great resource is Theatre Puget Sound (TPS), who serves Seattle’s theatre community and the larger regional arts community. They host “TPS Headshot Days”: for $150 you get a half-hour shoot with professional photographers at a fraction of the normal rate. Actors really know about headshots, so ask your thespian friends which photographers they recommend. 

Further recommendations for author photos: have a black-and-white as well as a color version. You’ll need a high-resolution digital file for print and a low-resolution copy for email and posting to the web.  Since the author photo should align with the type of work you do, you might want to have different headshots for different projects or aspects of your professional work, i.e. corporate writing vs. post-apocalyptic fiction. Finally, be informed and prepared to negotiate the usage rights to reproduce the photos for what you currently publish and what you plan to do in the future, including your marketing and PR needs. And if your photographer asks for photo credit, make sure to give it to them. 

This article is an excerpt from the curriculum for the EDGE Professional Development Program for Literary Artists. If you found this useful, see more information on how to apply to the 2014 EDGE Program.