When it comes to making judgments, we should never judge a book by its cover. But authors know better than most people that everyone judges a book by its cover.

Like it or not, that judgment doesn’t stop with book covers. 

Why is your author portrait so important?

Readers immediately judge you by your author portrait. If your photo is grainy, blurry, or you can tell it was taken in your backyard with family members cropped out, editors, agents, and readers will be able to tell. They will judge your book by the quality of your headshot. 

Humans are relational creatures, and if a reader is going to spend hours reading a book, they want to know about the person who wrote it. If that photo doesn’t convey who you are, you’re in trouble. 

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Taking a snapshot in your backyard and using that photo as your author portrait in your books or on your website is the wrong approach. 

A bad portrait can ruin a good book cover. When a reader walks into a bookstore to buy a book, the first part of the book they see is the spine of the book. Then they pull it off the shelf and look at the front cover. Next, they flip the book over, and their eye immediately goes to the image of the author. 

Your author photo is the third encounter with the reader, and it often closes the sale. Before they even read your back cover copy, they judge your professionalism by the quality of your photo. 

Having a good author photo is not about being objectively pretty. Because of the culture we live in, attractiveness may help, but a good author portrait is not about being a pretty person.

The bestselling fiction authors are not supermodels. Some of them are not necessarily attractive, yet they have very attractive author portraits. Those photos make them likable, approachable and make readers want to read that book. 

It’s important to have a solid author portrait, so here are seven tips to help you make the best first impression.

Tip #1: Hire an actual professional photographer (you get what you pay for).

Your family members don’t have enough distance from you to know whether they’ve taken a good photo. They like you too much, and they are looking for that thing about you that gives them a good feeling inside. They’re not looking for a technically sound photo. 

 As the one being photographed, you often have a blind spot about the quality of the photos your friends and family take. 

Professional photography takes thousands of hours of practice. Chances are, your friends and family haven’t spent that kind of time taking pictures. You want a professional who has experience taking millions of photos. This isn’t just a snapshot for Facebook. This is your face for your media kit, speaking engagement advertisements, the back cover of your book, and your official website. 

Portrait photography is a learned skill that comes with years of experience. 

To distinguish a good photo from a bad photo, look at the subject’s eyes. If you can’t easily see the eye color, it is not a good photo. If you can tell what color the person’s eyes are, that photographer is savvy enough to capture the eye color. They know how to adjust the aperture, framing, and other elements that make a good photo.

Hire a professional who knows how to pull out your personality and take the highest quality photo.

Tip #2: Shoot the photo for the audience, not for the author.

If the decision comes down to using a photo you love that your audience hates or a photo your audience loves that you hate, always choose the photo your audience likes, even if it’s not your favorite.

You need a photo that resonates with your audience, which means you need to talk with your photographer about who your audience is. An author photo that appeals to teenage boys will be different from a photo that appeals to middle-aged women. A good photographer will know how to tweak the setting and framing to reach your specific audience.

Stephen King, a horror writer, will not have the same kind of author portrait as David Berry, a successful humor writer.

Describe your audience, book, and the feeling you want to portray so your photographer can create a portrait that reflects you and your writing. 

Proper lighting can convey a feeling. A horror writer will want dramatic colors and lighting with deep shadows. If you’re a humorist, you want light, friendly lighting. You’ll notice these differences in movie posters. The photo lighting and colors will be different. 

A professional photographer knows how to use lighting and color to convey the feeling.

Tip #3: Bring lots of outfits for the photographer to choose from.

Most people want to wear their favorite outfit, but your favorite outfit might not be the best choice for the photo. Multiple outfits will give your photographer a palate of colors and textures to work with. In their mind, they’re creating art. If you give them options, they can see which will work best with your eye color or the background. Give them as many tools as you can to create the best portrait.

Solid colors are preferred over printed fabric since digital cameras can get confused by stripes or plaids. If the digital camera misinterprets a pattern in the pixels, it may blend blue and white stripes, for example, into a gray-blue solid color. 

For the same reasons, you want to wear simple or minimal jewelry as the lines and patterns can confuse digital cameras. When you watch TV, you’ll notice most hosts are wearing solid colors, and any subtle patterns on clothing tend to disappear.

You may also consider bringing a prop. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve all seen that senior portrait where the trombone just doesn’t seem to fit in the photo. But if you have something that reflects your personality and writing, consider bringing it to your photoshoot.

A great photographer can use a prop to make a good photo outstanding. If you’re a man writing literary fiction, maybe you’d consider using a pipe as a prop. The photographer needs to be calling the shots because they know what works. It’s better to bring the prop and not need it than not to bring it and wish you had.

Tip #4: Insist the photographer shoot in landscape mode.

If the photographer has been around for a long time, they may be used to taking photos in portrait mode. In the early days, that was the easiest way to manipulate photos that were to be printed on paper. 

Today we use digital photos, and they’re easy to crop. Many websites will show landscape-oriented photos for their speakers. Web design prefers zoomed-out photos with negative space where you can add text. 

The landscape-oriented photo can always be cropped, so there’s no reason to shoot a portrait-oriented photo. Professionals are going to be holding the camera horizontally, wide rather than vertically. It gives them more options as they crop and edit the photos for you. Even you can easily crop a landscape-oriented photo.

Tip #5: Use caution with photoshop techniques.

Resist the temptation to remove all your wrinkles and make yourself look far younger than you are. 

 When someone meets you in real life at a conference or speaking engagement, you do not want their first thought to be, “She looks way older than her photo,” or “He’s gained a lot of weight since he took that photo.”

They should be able to recognize you right away. 

Use Photoshop or other editing software to make you look like your best self, not like someone else or a younger, thinner version of yourself. You can subtly improve the photo, but you should use your editing tools sparingly.

Our society is obsessed with youth and beauty, but people crave authenticity. When you look like the photo on your website, people will value your authenticity and find you more likable.

A great photographer can coax a genuine, confident smile that makes you look like your friendly, confident self. 

Tip #6: Buy the full copyright to your photo.

You need to be able to use the photo without having to credit the photographer in each use because the photo will spread around the web. Other people will use your photo when you’re a guest on their blog. Even coordinators will use the photo in their advertising. Amazon.com may use it, and you don’t want to pay a royalty to your photographer or add a photo credit every time you use the photo online. 

Negotiate these rights ahead of time. Even if the photographer doesn’t usually sell the full copyright, they will probably be willing to sell you the rights once you explain your reasoning. 

Pay for the photographer’s time rather than paying by the image. I prefer to pay for their time shooting and editing and receive a bunch of images rather than paying per image. Paying per image can create some conflicts. It can also create tax liabilities depending on whether you paid for a service or a product. Depending on your jurisdiction, photography products may be taxed while services may not be. 

Tip #7: Update your photos frequently.

If your hair has changed color or your weight has changed, update your photo so people can easily recognize you in real life. I recommend updating your author photo at least once per book or once per year (or two) if you are prolific.

The longer you wait to update, the harder it is psychologically to update your photo. It’s not about looking young. It’s about being authentic. 

Do your research when choosing a photographer. Look at their portfolios and, at a minimum, see if they have captured the eye color of the subjects in their portraits. A professional, authentic author portrait will help you make a great first impression with readers, agents, and editors. As a representation of the quality inside your book, it may even increase your sales.

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