This is an important and hard truth that most authors avoid:
Readers will judge you and your book based on your author photo.
Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not.
Is it reality? Absolutely (and you probably do it, as well).
Why do people do this?
Because biologically, humans are visual creatures. It’s mostly unconscious, but snap judgments of other humans based solely on physical characteristics and facial expressions evolved as a way for humans to quickly assess threats and opportunities, and determine relative social status of a new person to know how to interact with them. A deep discussion of this topic is far beyond the scope of this piece, but basically, it evolved because it worked (there is a ton of research and science on this, and most of it falls under what is called “signaling theory”).
This might seem bad, but it is actually a good thing. Now that you understand the importance of your author photo, it means that you can ensure you take a great one, and use this tool as a powerful advantage.
In this guide, I’ll go through some examples of author photos, both good and bad, so you can see what this looks like in practice, and then walk you through exactly how to ensure you get a great author photo for your book.
The Author Photo Rule That Rules Them All
There are many different ways to take an effective author photo, and one overarching rule when it comes to author photos (or any profile photo):
Know what you want to signal to which audience, and then signal it properly.
This is the key to everything with photos. The author photo for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company should be totally different from the author photo for an up-and-coming comedian.
Why? Because they are signalling different things to different groups.
Generally speaking, the CEO’s author photo should signal professionalism, effectiveness, reliability, and trust.
The comedian’s photo could be wacky, goofy, or even pensively serious, all depending on his comedic style he wants to signal.
To make sure you’re taking the right author photo, you need to ask yourself two questions:
1. What am I trying to signal with my photo?
You say just as much with your appearance as you do with your words. Clearly your words are the more part important of your book, but again, people are visual creatures, and they will judge your book (to some extent) by what you look like.
The good news is that, within reason, it’s much easier to construct the image you want in a still photo. You can emphasize whatever traits or aspect of your appearance you want, and you can also minimize any physical limitations that would be difficult to minimize in person—height, for example.
You can signal seriousness or silliness, professionalism or pretention, positivity or pessimism…it’s really up to you.
The important thing to remember is that you cannot have them all at once.
A well-calculated author photo is one of the best ways to build a connection of trust between you and the right reader.
2. Who am I trying to signal it to?
It’s not just what you are signaling—it’s also who you want to signal it to that determines your author photo.
Why is that?
Because so much of signaling is about telling a specific group of people that you are one of them, or that you speak their in-group language.
For example, if you are trying to signal to corporations that you are a competent and reliable professional that they should trust and listen to, then you must understand that they see the conventional Western business suit as a key signal not just of competence, but membership in their tribe. Suits tell them that you are one of them.
Whereas, if you want to signal trust to the tech and start-up community, then wearing a suit sends the opposite signal; they see suits as a sign of being out of touch in their community. If you want them to see you as competent and tech minded, you want to wear more casual clothes.
The importance of understanding this cannot be overstated. Remember, signaling is not just about what you are signaling, it’s also about what other people are seeing, and what other people see depends almost entirely on what group they are part of and identify with.
Having a cutting-edge look in one field means you may be excluded in others, so knowing who you are trying to signal to and what signals they respond to is key for you.
This is all abstract. We’ll show you several examples of author photos, both good and bad, and break them down for you:
Example Author Photos
Generic Writer Photos
Good: Joanna Penn
This is a classic author photo. This signals warmth and openness. Joanna has a broad, authentic smile on her face; you can almost see her enthusiasm and joy.
By making the photo black and white, and with a close crop that frames her face, she narrows your focus onto the things she wants you to know about her—she’s positive, optimistic, and encouraging.
This makes sense for her; Joanna writes a lot of books for authors about writing, publishing, and marketing. She is a teacher and a writer, and this photo signals both trust and warmth.
Not as Good: Lisa Cartwright
This is not a good author photo at all. First, it’s tilted to the side in a weird angle that looks like an indie poster from the ‘90s. Second, its a collection of technical no-nos: blurry, poorly lit, overly saturated, etc. This could have been taken by a buddy on a night out with a disposable camera. Third, her smile seems forced and less than genuine.
What is she signaling here? My first unconscious thought is something along the lines of, “Why is it not centered?” Whether intentional or not, this picture signals unprofessionalism, amateurishness, and lack of emotional connection.
Tech Audience Author Photos
Good: Eric Ries
Eric is a big author in the tech space, and wants to signal that he is in the tech space, but is very forward thinking and high status.
Look at how he does this: Eric has a simple hairstyle, his glasses are contemporary, his smile is authentic. The photographer has shot him head on, not from below. The lighting brings out the best in his face and skin tone. He’s not slumping or accentuating any negative physical aspects of his appearance. His shirt is stylish without being ostentatious, and perhaps most importantly, look at the background. It is bottom lit and color shifting, which gives it a modern feel that is reminiscent of technology and the future.
This photo displays a very sophisticated understanding of how he is trying to position himself: a serious technical insider, but not the stereotype of the socially awkward tech nerd. He wants non-tech people to see him in a good light as well.
Not as Good: Giff Constable
Giff is obviously sending very different signals to his audience. This photo is basically the generic “LinkedIn tech person” photo. He has a parted, flat hairstyle. The inexperienced photographer shot him from below, capturing his smile at the most awkward angle. His shirt is distracting and visually unappealing. The hyper-white background makes him seem very pale, and is jarring to the eye. An overly lit background can ruin a photo.
This photo sends very clear signals—not all of which are positive. If he is writing a book for a specific tribe that approves of these signals—for example, “nerdy” engineers—and he wants to signal to them that he is part of their tribe, this author photo actually does that. If that is the only audience we wants to talk to, then this photo accomplishes that.
The problem is that this photo will repel most people who do not identify directly with that audience. Compare this photo with the one above; it’s the complete opposite. Eric and Giff are in the same field—tech—and physically are very similar. But the photos feel totally different, don’t they?
Business Author Photos
Good: Patrick Lencioni
This is a very traditional business professional author photo. Everything about this photo says that this man is an American business executive: he’s signalling solid, stable, trustworthy, and part of the establishment.
The suit is tailored, dark, expensive, and tasteful, and he has a conservative tie on. His wedding ring is clearly showing. His hair is graying, combed but not stiff, and his smile is there, but not forced. He’s sitting in front of a whiteboard, signalling that he is a holder of knowledge and full of ideas.
This makes sense. Patrick’s entire market is traditional corporate America, and this photo speaks directly to them, telling them that even though he has some new ideas (the whiteboard), he is still one of them.
Good: Jay Papasan
Jay has a different version of the business professional author photo. He is signaling that he’s a legitimate businessman, but younger and more modern and hip.
He is wearing a suit that is dark and tasteful, but he has no tie, and his top button is undone. The background is green and environmental, another code for openness and modernity.
Not as Good: Andrii Sedniev
If the author is trying to signal to the business community, there are a lot of problems with this photo. The tie appears to be from the Salvation Army bargain bin. It has poorly matched colors, is off center, and is clearly cheap. The shirt collar is not even tucked into his jacket. The tailoring of both jacket and shirt are droopy, and furthermore, the material for both shirt and jacket are shiny, which is generally a signal for cheap in suits.
His haircut is a slightly grown-out buzz cut, which not only signals youth and inexperience, but it also signals sloppiness. He didn’t even bother to get his hair cut for his professional photo.
His smile is forced, as if he is trying to hide his teeth and is unsure of himself. Everything about this photo says “amateur.” Just by looking at the photos, you can tell that Patrick and Jay are serious, established professionals, and that Andrii is not.
Good: Mona Patel
This is an example of a great business author photo. All the signals are saying the same basic things, telling a coherent story about her taste, her warmth, and her ability:
- She is sitting in a very design-forward chair, and this signals great aesthetic taste.
- The shot is in an empty warehouse-style loft, which signals a specific design sensibility, one that is contemporary and minimalist.
- The symmetry of the corridor draws the eye to her face. The off-center crop signals originality and uniqueness. It says there’s going to be something special in this book you can’t find elsewhere.
- She is dressed in a classic and perfectly tailored outfit, with stylish leather boots. This signals both excellent personal style and business professionalism all at once.
- She’s looking away from the camera and smiling warmly, as if she’s casually talking to someone in the background, signalling warmth and approachability.
- She downplays her physical attractiveness with a masculine outfit and simple hair and makeup. She dresses in a traditionally male outfit (button-down shirt and black pants), but she accentuates it by tailoring the outfit to make it feminine and by leaving an extra button open.
- The photo is black and white, which signals high design and artistic sensibilities.
If all this feels a little artsy to you, just think about how this photo makes you feel. You’re attracted to her and drawn in by her warmth and smile (but not in a sexual way). You know she’s fashionable and has great taste, and you can see her design style. But the photo still makes you take her seriously as an intelligent, professional CEO.
Professional photos can be much more challenging for serious female CEOs than for men (for many reasons), and Mona walked that line perfectly.
Two Photos of the Same Author
Here is a perfect example of how easy it is to create an air of competence and trust with an author photo. In this case, the same author has two different photos. The left is too dark, there is no smile, and it is poorly cropped. The right is well cropped, he has a good smile, and he is dressed in professional but casual clothes.
Like I said before, part of the “bad” versus “good” decision is about what signals you are trying to send to whom. If Patrick were an essayist and social commentator, perhaps the first photo would work.
But that’s not what his books are about, nor the audience he is trying to signal to. His books are about entrepreneurship, branding, and start-ups. To speak to that audience, you are better off being optimistic, positive, and warm—which the second picture signals.
The first photo makes James look less like a genius and more like a crazy person. His glasses are off center, his hair is disheveled, he is wearing a ratty white T-shirt, and he doesn’t even appear to be looking into the camera.
Compare this to the second photo. He’s dressed in dark and fashionable clothes and is set against a pleasant background, all of which signal competence and professionalism. He’s also signaling quirkiness and humor: sitting cross-legged, retaining his trademark curly fro, and wears a mischievous smile. It reflects who James is, while still signaling that he’s serious and professional and has taste.
Same person sending totally different signals and creating totally different emotional reactions in the viewer.
How to Take Your Author Photo
Step 1: Decide What Signals You Want to Convey
Before you even pick a photographer, you need to decide exactly what it is you want your author photo to signal, and to what audience. If you have already done the positioning in this book, then this should be relatively easy. There are really only two questions to answer:
Who is my audience?
What do I want them to think about me?
Once you have a good idea of that, then you are ready to pick out your photographer.
Step 2: Pick a Great Photographer
Do not shoot your own author photo. Period. I don’t care how good your Instagram account is, there is no substitute for the skills of a professional photographer.
How do you pick a great photographer? Look at their portfolios. Go to their sites and look at the headshots they have done, and see who has a style that represents what you are looking for. For example, if you want a headshot out of yourself in a forest, then find the photographer that does that really well.
Once you find a photographer who has already done headshots like you want, you have your person.
Some places to hire a pro:
This is a good way to find an affordable pro right in your neighborhood. Enter your zip code and some details about the job. You’ll receive bids from photographers in your area with links to their portfolios.
Obviously, a database of models is a magnet for photographers, and Model Mayhem has a directory specifically for finding photographers. The best part: there’s a Time-for-Print option where newer photographers will photograph you for free.
GigSalad is like Craigslist for booking services for events or productions. If you search “Headshot Photography,” you’ll get a list of dozens of photographers in your city who specialize in the exact kind of pictures you need.
Yelp is often a very good resource to find great photographers in your areas and will have extensive reviews by people.
Price: Expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $500+ for a great photographer, depending on where you live.
Step 3: Communicate Exactly What You Want
Don’t be shy about telling your photographer the look you’re trying to pull off, and point to the shots in their portfolio to help you explain what you are looking for. If you need to, bring in other photos that help explain what you are looking for. The more clear and explicit you can be, with visual examples, the better the result will be.
Also, you need to make sure to get the proper assets from your photographer. You want all of these:
- Some photographers will sell you all the shots they take for one fee, some want to charge a per photo fee. Make sure you are clear ahead of time how they are charging, and what you will get.
- You want to get color and black and white versions of the photo you select. Let the photographer do the conversion, it usually works better.
- You want to get the raw files from the photographer, as well as the online ready versions.
- You want to make sure you own the raw files and do not have to pay any ongoing license fees.
- If your primary photo is going to be a full-body shot (like James or Mona), you may want to also get some headshots—rather than you trying to edit/crop them yourself.
Step 4: Test Your Author Photo (optional)
If you are unsure whether or not your author photo is conveying the signals you want, there is a way to test this: use a service called Photo Feeler. You can upload your photo and get ratings on multiple dimensions that tell you exactly what people think about it.
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