Does it matter what an author looks like?

Have you ever scheduled a professional photography session, then woken up five minutes beforehand, not taking time to wash, brush your hair or gather enough energy to smile?

Neither have I—at least, not since a hot guy I liked looked at my college ID photo and said, “Ugh! Looks like you just woke up from a crack sleep.”

Authors take a lot of care over the photo that will be printed in the back of their books and all around the internet as they promote their work. Debut authors today even get their blog, Facebook and Twitter followers involved in selecting the best photo.

Why? Because, to a certain extent, it matters what we look like. We all want to present ourselves in a way that makes readers feel connected with us, and humans connect when they can read signals in each other’s faces—like a friendly smile. And thank God we do that, because looking around the animal kingdom, it seems that the alternative is sniffing each other’s rear-bits, and I dread to think how publishers would replicate that in the back of a book.

The problem is that we’ve all got insecurities, right? Please tell me I’m not alone in this. Several weeks ago I asked a professional photographer friend at work if he’d take some pictures of me for my blog. Most of the photos I have of myself are taken on holiday, where I look happy but sweaty or tired. Ever since Mat agreed to take my picture, I’ve been putting off the date. My hair’s too shaggy. My brows are too bushy. My chin’s too…well, let’s be kind and say “undefined”.

Those are mostly things I can control. But what about characteristics that we can’t control—like our age—which can lead to others judging us?

Personally, the only reason I look at author photos is because reading a book is an intimate experience, and when I love a story I want to see the person whose amazing imagination developed it. I don’t care whether I personally find them attractive or not, and I’ve never judged an author for looking a certain way.

This isn’t something I’d thought about much until last week, when the Daily Fail, *cough* excuse me, Daily Mail, printed an article that would offend anyone with half a brain and a smidgen of heart. I recommend you don’t read it.

The journalist (and I do use that term very loosely here) went to the summer party for the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, and came back with an outrageous article called “The Blue Rinse and Bodice Rippers: In twin-sets and pearls meet the ladies behind Britain’s steamiest novels”.

The gist of the article is “Ew! Old ladies write pervy books!”

This kind of prejudice against authors seems reserved for romance novelists. In a genre where we tend to write about youth, beauty and sexual attraction, the assumption is that any novelist who doesn’t fit society’s image of those qualities is somehow fair game for mockery. Forget her talent and dedication to staking out a career in a notoriously difficult industry. Forget the years of life experience that she could draw on to create deeply nuanced characters.

Forget everything about her, except that she’s old.

Author Kate Johnson came up with the idea for authors to post pictures of themselves with the title “This is what a romantic novelist looks like”. There’s a Facebook page where writers can come together and celebrate the diversity of our genre by showing you can’t pigeonhole romance novelists as being any one thing.

The Facebook page does brilliantly focus on the diversity of our personalities—as anyone who follows lots of romance novelists online can quickly see we’re a quirky bunch, no matter what we look like.

But is this continued focus on what we look like a good thing? Does it continue to marginalize older authors who might feel their picture would be unwanted because they may fit the stereotype? Or authors who are self-conscious about the way they look anyway? Should it really matter what we look like?

As difficult as it is to make non-romance readers appreciate the genre, should we not focus on that instead?

What do you think?


  1. As you indicate, I like photos of the authors because of the human curiosity of wanting to put name to face to story/ideas. It feels more personal. But I also understand how finding that “right” picture for the back cover would be a challenge. My sister took one of those sorts of photos once for a project and it looked nothing like her–I did not recognize her at first!

    But also as you note, what becomes infuriating about the whole-picture-on-the-book necessity/practice is the stereotpying that goes along with it from way too many in society. I wish there was a way to control that. Identifying the practice is a first step, so thanks for the post. I have no idea on how else to invite others to the genre, but I suspect there are ways that are separate from the literal look of the novel’s cover, photo included.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Patti. I doubt stereotypes will ever go away. Hopefully, the more vocal people are when infuriating articles are written, the better.

  2. Thanks for posting the link to the facebook page. What a fantastic idea! The world now knows what a wild West romantic novelist looks like.
    My publisher doesn’t print author photos in the books, although they do spread our pictures around on websites and other media. But if I really like a book, I always flip back to look at the author photo a few times as I’m reading it, just to get a sense of who’s telling the story. I don’t care if the author is svelte or drop-dead gorgeous. I want her to look friendly and interesting. And sometimes “matronly” is a good thing!

    1. I’m exactly the same, Joanne. I want to connect with the person who’s inspiring me, and all I care is that they’re human and friendly-looking.

      Glad you got involved in the campaign!

  3. this is a very interesting topic. it doesn’t matter at all what an author looks like, but we all get judged for our appearance, writers or otherwise.

    i’ve always tried to avoid having my picture associated with my writing, because i’ve been judged my entire life based on my appearance. and i don’t want those biases to automatically be applied to my writing.

    it’s sad, and we all do it, to writers, to everyone. 🙁

  4. Unfortunately, we are often defined by our appearance. For me, I want to be engaged and inspired. I don’t care about their outer appearance. It’s whats in the inside that matters most.

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