Friday, November 27, 2009

Branding My Bad Self

By John Gilstrap
A few weeks ago, we enjoyed an interesting discussion here in The Killzone about branding. The consensus seemed to be that because books are products, they need to be marketed accordingly. That means a unified message across all avenues of communication. We said that the author’s website should invoke the cover. Ditto business cards, post cards, etc. As I recall, I was one hundred percent on board with the consensus.

At least in principle. Last week, reality invaded my theoretical agreement.

My editor sent me an email telling me that I should consider a new author photograph—one that more appropriately invokes the aura of a thriller. Specifically, she thought that I should get a photo that makes me look like more of a—and this is her word—badass.

Do me a favor and scroll over to the right, to the Killzone mug shots. The one of me is my current author photo. Now go to the dictionary and look up “white bread nice guy”. My picture is there, too.

Folks, there is not a single cell of badass blood in my body. According to my wife, I barely have an ass at all; but I think she’ll agree that what’s there is definitely not bad—at least not in this context.

Having talked the talk, though, it’s time for me to walk the walk. I’ve scheduled the photo shoot for Monday, November 30. The photographer seems to have confidence that she can pull off this remarkable transformation, but can she do it in a way that will not trigger gales of laughter from people who know me? Lord, I hope so. I hang with a pretty unforgiving, ballbusting crowd.

Here’s my question for you folks: Does the author photo in any way enter into your purchase decision for a book? I think it’s clear that the front cover is an important part of the shopping experience, but what about the back cover?

If you go to an author event expecting to find a guy whose photo makes him look to be from the same mold as his badass character, and instead find Mr. Suburban America, will the surprise disappoint you? Anger you, maybe?

Or does everybody know that this is just the way the game is played?


  1. That's a great question, John. I've thought about it as an author, but not as a reader. So I'll take a stab.

    I don't put much stock in the author photo unless it's really bad (looks like your mom snapped it) or cheesy (some guy dressing up like Sam Spade, etc).

    If it's a decent, professional photo I really just pass over it. I'm much more interested in what's in the book and the author bio. But some care in having the photo match the material is wise. If you tend to have a goofy smile, for example, perhaps it's best to dial that in if your brand is "badass." Common marketing sense.

    As for meeting authors, I'm well aware they're people and I look at them as I would meeting anyone at a party. I don't care for someone posing as someone he or she is not. If someone's a nice, quiet person that doesn't mean I won't read their "badass" books. OTOH, if someone is trying too hard to "be the material" I'm not going to be impressed.

  2. My new author photo, I gather, makes me little a little badass. Or maybe just grouchy. I like it, but I'm not sure it was intentional, it was just one of a bunch that worked out best. (Although on my blog I put up the best 4 and the black-and-white one, which I liked quite a bit, one of my friends said it made me look like Uncle Fester. Maybe you and I have the same friends.)

    Author photos remind me of when we were selling our last house and the two real estate agents met in our kitchen and exchanged business cards that had their photos on them and immediately started comparing them. Because I'm like most writers, I know a lot of authors, I'll look at an author photo and say, "Nice, must've been taken 30 years ago when she was in her 40s." Or, "Great lighting, puts his ugly face in shadow and makes him look mysterious."

    I wouldn't worry too much about it. All publishers want their male authors to look like Sebastian Junger and their female authors to look like Tasha Alexander, and frankly, most of us are screwed in that respect.

  3. Good question, John. Never thought about it til now. I honestly think the author's pic does NOT sell me to the book. A great hook and word of mouth ALWAYS attracts me to the book. I don't care if it's a great thriller but the author's pic looks like he is laughing and having a great time, that won't influence me either way.

    It's the content, not about what the writer looks like.

    However, I get the editor's point. It's almost as if an author's pic would be on the back of a children's book and that author had a "badass" photo. It may not attract the child nor parent.

    It's understandable what they are saying. Perhaps depending on the type of book. For instance a nerdy photo of someone who looks like they aren't into fashion, but yet the books is about How to Look the Best in the Glamour World.

    Maybe some readers out there do judge the writer's image based on the book's content--but not me.

    I also think everyone has their own conclusion on how the person might be just by looking at their pic. I don't know if I would call it dissapointment if they turned out to be the opposite of how I perceived them. Just different.

  4. A few times, seeing an author's photo has broken the spell of the writing a bit for me. So I think it makes sense to have the general tone of the photo match the writing style, but not to overdo it, like Jim says. I had a plastic surgeon tell me once that he has regular author-patients. He said they get periodic "tuneups" specifically for their photos.

  5. I have yet to purchase a book based on the author's photo. For that matter, I have never looked at the author and said, hey, this guy/gal shouldn't even be writing this kind of book.

  6. I worked among the military intelligence community for several years during and just after the cold war, including Special Forces and Delta. One thing that astonished me was the fact that most of the real bad-asses. And by bad-ass I mean people who went undercover in terrorist infested nations, gathered human intelligence, spied on people who trained professional killers or killed said people themselves. Most of those real life bad-asses looked like boy scouts, or marching band types. A lot of them never played sports in school and were serious bookworms.

    As adults all of them lived for adrenaline and the life and death power moments their jobs entailed. Now, mind you I was not one of them per se. I ran the mess hall they ate at, yes, I was chef to the spies. But I got to know them on a personal level that moved behind the curtain of mystique they let the world raise between them.

    With the exception of a few Marines and a couple of Army Rangers none of them made one's spine shiver with an icy glare. (Those exceptions were truly terrifying men too, let me tell you). Those who acted the baddest in public were usually "Sigint", signals intelligence...nerds with headphones listening to the enemy from continents away.

    The public perception of bad-ass is skewed. But I guess that makes for good book covers and movie images with muscular dudes and icy stares. And they want us, the writers, to look like our imaginary friends we write about.

    Who wants pay ten bucks to see the guy they remember as the skinny coronet player, or the chubby flutist from their high school band slink through the shadowy underworld doing bad things to bad people?

  7. What about those of us who are simply hideous, and no picture is ever going to solve the problem? Can we simply leave the photo off? Tell you what, Mr Gilstrap, let's swap photos, ok?

  8. John, I don't think an author photo ever sold a book. But I do think that an appropriate author photo will go a long way toward reassuring the reader that the author somehow belongs in that genre.

    Imagine a picture of Soupy Sales on the back cover of a hardboiled crime book. Pretty scary. Scarier still would be a picture of Charles McGraw in full trenchcoat regalia on the back cover of a lighthearted, upbeat cozy.

  9. Mike, extra Kill Zone points for referencing Soupy Sales and Charles McGraw in the same comment.

  10. I like an author picture that looks like a gnome squatting in the bushes. How you can imagine ever outdoing that one, or even trying to recapture that perfect author picture...

    I love a good inside joke.

  11. JRM, I am picturing the travelocity gnome with a gun on the back of your books.

    I can't make it go away....thanks.

  12. John - ain't gonna happen! You do, however, have some badass cred, like when you talk about bullets and blowing stuff up, maybe the photographer can capture that slightly evil grin you get when discussing muzzle velocity.

    As for me, author photos don't sell books. The only thing I notice is that as a writer gets more successful, each book has a better quality photo with better hair and wardrobe. Other than that laugh, it is meaningless other than a teeny little connection with the writer, like y'alls pics here on the blog.


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