I’ve made mention before that I understand the importance of branding and marketing in this game, and I’ve also made mention that I work in a bookstore, providing me with a sizeable window into how such efforts are put into play. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I’d wager that adage’s popularity is rooted in a time when graphic design techniques were less sophisticated. I’ll admit, I judge books by their covers all the time, and there’s a reason why people know who Chip Kidd is. If your cover is striking, uses bold colours, dynamic fonts or intriguing artwork, and is preferably a trade paperback at 350 pages or less, I am far more likely to pick it up and give it a perusal. I suspect this is why I never browse science fiction save the work of the Robert Silverberg.
But I lack the technical expertise to offer helpful tips on cover design. Instead I’d like to discuss the second thing I look at once I pick up your well designed book.
Real talk, people: writers, of all proficiency levels, are typically not the most attractive people in the world, present company included. But I don’t understand the the need for authors to exacerbate this issue with some of the most unflattering examples of portraiture ever captured on film. Petty? Irrelevant? Hardly. Lots of authors, at all success levels, opt not to have a photo on the dust jacket. No one forces anyone to include it, but if you do, you could at least make a minimum of effort to ensure it makes people want to pick up your book.
After the cut, a quick survey of some of the worst I’ve seen on the shelves during my time as a bookseller.
I think of lot of what causes author photos to go so horribly wrong is the tendency of someone [photog, publicist, agent, author] to try and add to the mythology and mystique of being A WRITER through the photo, which I find puzzling, since I’m certain all of the people photographed here would probably tell you that while writing is fun, being A WRITER isn’t very glamorous, or romantic, or mystical. It’s their job. A job they love, but still a job.
I think one of my new favourite authors fell into this trap early. I’d heard the praise heaped on Junot Diaz for months before I picked up the hardback of ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao‘ to have a look at [which has a great cover, btw], and immediately put it down when I saw that author photo.
Dude, why are you so miserable? You teach Creative Writing at MIT, for God’s sake. That’s f*cking awesome! I mean, is that your WRITER face? Is that what someone who is A WRITER is supposed to look like, because WRITING is such a serious business?
Thankfully, someone in Diaz’s camp realized that stern disaffection doesn’t help sell books, and threw on a new photo for the paperback edition of ‘…Oscar Wao’.
Because winning a Pulitzer should put a smile on your face.
Why be so hard on author photos? Because in some cases, it’s the first time you ‘meet’ the person behind the book. Maybe you never heard of them before, and that photo is your introduction. If the author opts not include a photo, then you’re introduced through the work [as it should be, some would say]. But if she does, it can make or break whether you read the book at all. It does with me anyway, and it did with Laurie Sheck.
Sheck is an award-winning poet who recently released the novel, ‘A Monster’s Notes’. A reimagining of the Frankenstein legend, told from the monster’s perspective, the book enticed me to pick it up despite its hefty weight on the strength of its subdued yellow cover with its delicate calligrophy contrasted against the gruesome musculature of the monster’s eye. She almost won me over. Until.
Is this what poets are supposed to look like? I fear she may collapse of consumption at any minute. To be fair, the expression on her face suggests this photo wasn’t her idea either.
But these examples pale in comparison to the previous and current title holder of worst author photo I’ve ever seen. The previous title holder was filmmaker and short story author Miranda July, who’s collection ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You‘ immediately caught my eye as I’m a sucker for covers with nothing but sans serif fonts on them. The excessive platitutdes printed on the dust jacket should have been a flashing light [I get antsy whenever the McSweeney’s crowd comes out en masse], but her photo was the dealbreaker.
“Ohh, please read my stories! They’re fragile and delicate and I’ve worked ever so hard on them. It would please me so if you read them!”
I couldn’t do it. I’ve since read some of her work in other anthologies and thought it was *makes so-so gesture*, and I liked how she used her stove as a whiteboard for her website, but that photo. I refuse to have her book in my house because of that photo.
But someone came along who surpassed even Ms. July [awful, awful pen name]. Behold, Shalom Auslander.
The photo in question comes from the back of Auslander’s memoir ‘Foreskin’s Lament‘, which chronicles his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and his attempts to reconcile it to his adult life. As someone who has friends who came up in similar backgrounds, I am aware of the lasting impact such an upbringing can have.
But dude. Honestly. Lighten the fuck up. Why do you look like you want to get in a fistfight with anyone who picks up your book? Are you going for the Chuck Palahniuk crowd? Have you seen Chuck’s photos? Happy as a clam.
Auslander already had a strike for writing a memoir at a young age [see previous post] but that photo is the absolute shits. I’m sorry you suffered a traumatic childhood, but seriously Scowly McSourpants, let’s try to crack a smile. You write books for a living. You publish articles in GQ. Your past was lacklustre, but there’s a line of people around the block who would trade you for your present. You won, you’re a survivor. Try to be happy about it, for Christ’s sake.
So please, aspiring and established authors, please make a little more of an effort to but the best face on your work. If you can’t put a best face, stifle your vanity and keep it blank.
If you can’t, at least look like you take a little satisfaction in your successes.