Monday, August 21, 2006

How Much Do Looks Matter?

A few weeks ago, I went to have professional author photos taken for THE MARK, the first time I'd had any sort of professional photo taken since my sister's bat-mitzvah. Per the photographer's instructions, I brought along four shirts of varying color and a pair of jeans (there was no way I was wearing a suit). About 500 (literally) photos later, I had a newfound respect for women whose job it is to lie around on a beach half naked. Taking photos is exhausting stuff, and the psychology behind it is actually quite interesting (I can honestly understand why a photographer with more personality will get better shots). In the end we particularly liked four or five of the pictures, I sent them off to my publisher, and one of them will be used in my book.

But aside from my mom saying, "You look cute in that one!" or me being happy I don't look like John Mark Karr, how much will my author photos matter? Is somebody really going to walk into their neighborhood Borders next July, pick up a copy of THE MARK, compare it to the new book from this guy, and say, "You know what, that Jason Pinter doesn't look like a human ingrown toenail! I think I'll buy his book!"

On that note, much has been written about debut novelist Marisha Pessl. Much of what has been written has focused on her looks. Seems a lot of people were upset that her publisher paid "another pretty face" a reportedly large advance, feeling that in today's publishing world how you look is more important than what you say. Today's New York Times looks at the issue, and notice how the very first paragraph focuses on the promotion, how her publisher tried to steer away from her looks and focus on the book. Commendable...but again, the first paragraph is, in essence, talking about how good she looks, not how good her book is...

Now I haven't read Marisha's book. From a "guy" standpoint, no offense, she's relatively good looking, but if you stick her in most any Manhattan bar she's Just Another Girl. That's not a disparaging remark, but perhaps because the public doesn't think of authors as being particularly glamorous, anyone who has straight teeth and wears a halter top in their author photo passes the, "Wow, she's a hottie literati test!" So let's not overplay this SWEET JESUS SHE'S SO GODDAMN HOT, OH MY GOD HAS THERE EVER BEEN AN AUTHOR THIS HOT rhetoric. She's decent looking. End of story.

I've never bought a book based on how attractive an author is. Doesn't mean I don't notice author photos, but we're talking about books, not movies. You can't substitute Kathy Bates for Angelina Jolie in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and expect to have the same experience. But take Marisha's photo and replace it with, I don't know, Margaret Atwood, and page one will still read the same way.

Every publisher wants their books to get publicity and print coverage. Most of the glossy magazines prefer people in their pages to at least exist on the same planet as "Heather the Size Zero." So if a book's author is attractive, the better chance they have in landing in "Maison Derriere" or a similar glossy mag, the more exposure the book gets, the more copies it likely sells.

Now just because I haven't bought a book based on an author's looks doesn't mean nobody else has. In a New York profile of Judith Regan a few years ago, she was reported as fighting hard to get a full face cover photo of one of her authors, her reasoning being, "Women will buy this because they want to fuck him!" (pardon my French) Without a doubt, from a business perspective, Judith Regan is one of the most successful and influential publishers of all time. So something's working.

If I'm Marisha Pessl, I'm thrilled my novel is getting so much attention. Considering how publishers and authors fight tooth and nail for every word of coverage, I'd be thanking my lucky stars they took an interest in my book at all. But I'd also hope that the attention to the superficiality crosses over and sells a few copies. Her book has been getting very positive reviews. Next week it will debut on the New York Times extended bestseller list. Viking has a reported 80,000 copies in print, outstanding for a debut literary novel. So again, something is working.

In the end, of course, I'd like to throw it out there. Have you ever bought a book because of what the author looked like? Please be honest.

Full disclosure, I bought the autobiography of Dom DeLuise for that exact reason. He's just a big, hot slab of man meat.

19 Comments:

Blogger tess gerritsen said...

I don't think readers care all that much about an author's looks. But the media does. And selling books these days is all about getting publicity.

Which explains the inherent age-ism in bookselling. The media goes nuts over the 20-something debut author, but not the 50-something debut author. You'd think that the novelist who has a lifetime's worth of rich experiences to write about would have the edge.

But no. Not in our MTV world.

10:39 AM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

Tess is right on the money with that.
I have this horrible habit of imagining what the author may look like based on their work, their email, their posts and I'm never right. People I think talk like a 25 year old are actually in their 60's. Literary heroes I assume are 40 feet tall are shorter than me. It's fun, actually, to see how far off the mark I really am. Does it influence my buying? Hell no. I don't care what you look like, I want to be entertained.
That said, the new author photos are great, Jason!

11:56 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Usually people do not look as good in person as in their head-shots. What's really sexy is PERSONALITY and CONFIDENCE. And a large book deal. Yeah, baby.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

These are some interesting comments, especially since, at 26, I fall under the "20-something debut author" umbrella. I don't know if my age had anything to do with my book selling, but it's something I've wondered.

On a personal note, I REALLY wanted to have a book deal before I hit 30. Not so I could have a big head, but because my first thriller featured two protagonists in their twenties, and I wanted their experience to be somewhat personal. I felt this was a demographic vastly underrepresented in crime fiction, or at least by authors of that age.
I wanted to write a thriller series featuring younger heroes, and wanted to have the "street cred" of being around that age as well. I wanted to write a book that would appeal to traditional thriller fans, but also my generation. And trust me, THE MARK is not an MTV book. In fact, I loathe the current MTV generation and I think it shows in the book.

But here's another comment/question...it's assumed that appearance tends to be most important when it comes to chick lit, or at least books that appeal mainly towards women. Media and publishers like it when authors of these books are attractive...but why? Men aren't going to buy them, and why would most women care if the female authors are hot?

I can tell you, as a guy, I kind of resent seeing a male author who looks like they just got primped, coiffed, and moisturized for their jacket photo. I'm not saying authors don't want to look good, but there's something disingenuous about an author who looks like they spend more time at the salon than in front of the word processor.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Loved your story about your photos, Jason. I fortunately have a husband who is very good with the camera and we did two separate photo shoots at the State Capitol where I used to work. We picked six that I liked--from over 20 rolls of film--and my editor picked one from them. It "says" suspense author, which was my goal.

Tess is right--readers really don't cares about the photo, but having a decent author pic helps with ancillary publicity.

12:28 PM  
Blogger JD Rhoades said...

From a "guy" standpoint, no offense, she's relatively good looking, but if you stick her in most any Manhattan bar she's Just Another Girl.

I'd hit it.

But seriously folks...I've never photographed well. I'm sort of like baseball and the Grateful Dead...you've got to see me live to really get the experience.

So I was ocnsidering doing my next author photo with my back turned. Not only will the reader be spared the experience of what a friend once described as "a face that was made for radio", but it'll likely spark a rumor that I'm dead.

Hey, it worked for that Confederacy of Dunces fella.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Tomorrow's column:

Authors JD Rhoades Would Hit.

1:18 PM  
Blogger JD Rhoades said...

That's "authors JD Rhoades would hit, yo."

1:30 PM  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

I think they wasted a lot of space in the NY Times describing Pessl's looks. When, at the end, they started talking about the book, I actually got interested.

2:31 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

We've never had an author picture and we write under a neuter pen name (our protag is a biracial man). A good 90% of our fan mail comes to "Mr. Parrish." And every time I show up for a TV interview, the talking head blurts out, "But you're not black!"

I am thinking of using Taye Diggs' picture or maybe that hottie tennis star James Blake's mug on my next book.

3:13 PM  
Blogger pacatrue said...

I can say that I have never bought a book based on the picture of the author (my favorite authors seem to be dead English professors from the first half of the 20th century), but I don't think I am truly immune. I fully confess that if the singer on a CD cover is really really good looking, I am highly inclined to give the CD a listen. It doesn't make any sense. There is no relationship whatsoever between appearance and musical talent or skill, but yeah I notice Shakira album covers and want to give her a chance.

And thinking further, people do in fact buy books based on appearance - that's the cover art. I notice cover art with attractive women; I laugh at cover art that is dumb and it pushes me away from the book. I see no reason why the attraction to a book based on cover art would not also extend to attraction based on the hot author. There is a reason that the entire back cover of early Grisham books were pictures of him looking all rugged like.

Finally, people seem to enjoy buying celebrity books. That is rarely because they think the person can really write (Steve Martin might be an exception; you can make a guess as to the tenor of his fiction from his celebrity persona). Instead, they like the celebrity because he or she is hot and this attraction extends to buying their book, too.

So, in short, I can't think of a book I have ever bought because the author was hot, but it makes full "sense" that I would.

8:43 PM  
Blogger pacatrue said...

I can say that I have never bought a book based on the picture of the author (my favorite authors seem to be dead English professors from the first half of the 20th century), but I don't think I am truly immune. I fully confess that if the singer on a CD cover is really really good looking, I am highly inclined to give the CD a listen. It doesn't make any sense. There is no relationship whatsoever between appearance and musical talent or skill, but yeah I notice Shakira album covers and want to give her a chance.

And thinking further, people do in fact buy books based on appearance - that's the cover art. I notice cover art with attractive women; I laugh at cover art that is dumb and it pushes me away from the book. I see no reason why the attraction to a book based on cover art would not also extend to attraction based on the hot author. There is a reason that the entire back cover of early Grisham books were pictures of him looking all rugged like.

Finally, people seem to enjoy buying celebrity books. That is rarely because they think the person can really write (Steve Martin might be an exception; you can make a guess as to the tenor of his fiction from his celebrity persona). Instead, they like the celebrity because he or she is hot and this attraction extends to buying their book, too.

So, in short, I can't think of a book I have ever bought because the author was hot, but it makes full "sense" that I would.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Pamela Milkweed said...

Nicholas Sparks is a good looking guy whose looks probably have some effect on his sales (since he writes a lot of romantic books). Go to one of his signings, and see the women swoon.

10:25 PM  
Blogger SPB said...

I guess maybe I am the shallow one here, though this post might have more to do with an author's "look" as opposed to an author's "looks", if you know what I mean.

My favorite writer is Joan Didion. I bought a book by her partly because I found her "look" rather interesting. I thought she was the most haunted-looking person I'd ever seen (I was a sixteen-year-old high school senior; she was also the first person I remember thinking of as "haunted-looking".)

And I do remember when Sebastian Junger's book came out, tons of my female friends (and many of my gay male friends) all chatted endlessly about how handsome the dude was. So, readers may not CARE that much about an author's looks, but I think readers DO sometimes RESPOND to author's looks.

To be even more shallow, if I may, I remember the first time I saw Toni Morrison in dreadlocks. I remember thinking, Gee, I wonder why she wears dreads now? Fashion statement? Religious conversion? I compared her photos in dreads with her older photos (where her hair was permed) and I liked the old ones better. Maybe because she reminded me of my mom and other women I grew up admiring? Maybe the earlier pics seemed more "writerly" to me? I also like Toni's earlier novels more than I do her later ones...Go figure...lol

I remember wanting to "look good" in my first author's photo, but that's only because I hate taking photos and I was worried I'd look as insecure and ridiculous as I felt, and potentially turn away readers! But maybe that's because sex played such a large part in the book...I wanted to seem a teensy bit sexy...

11:44 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

No offense to Marsha, but I was expecting Angelina Jolie -- and that's not what I got. Why is anyone even making a big deal over this?

I, frankly, would rather NOT know what an author looks like. Beautiful, ugly, somewhere inbetween. All that matters are the words.

1:56 AM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

Marisha? Is it Marisha or Marsha? Quit screwing with my head.

2:03 AM  
Blogger M.J. said...

I agree with the "look" intriguing me - not how the author looks. I remember seeing Joyce Carol Oates photo and thinking - weird looking - wonder if she write weird.

On the - how shallow am I - front I will admit that I've met three men at different confrences over the years who I though were utterly sexy and so went and got their books.

But it was their sexy personalities not just how they "looked".

On the preoccupation front. Anything that will make any author stand out and encourage press is something that will make a publisher more interested. Be it looks, amazing youth or even being very eldery (Helen Hovemeyer, jail time. a weird background (think Katheen McGowan being J&MM's decendant)

8:22 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

While I doubt I'll ever pick up a book because of the author picture, having it there on the back cover of the book you're trying to hide under your t-shirt as you wait for someone like Joe Konrath to walk into a bar can be awfully helpful so you don't do something odd like start talking to morticians, wondering if this is Joe.

8:14 PM  
Blogger LindaBudz said...

Jason, you asked: why would most women care if the female authors are hot?

I learned 20 years ago in my communications media class that women will look at ads with pix of good-looking guys and guys won't pay much attention. But an ad with a pretty women attracts attention from both men and women. Which is why advertisements, especially print ads, tends to use more women models.

12:24 AM  

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