Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writers and PR Photos

Writers are called upon to do a lot of different things beyond writing—teaching workshops or large classes, organizing and running conferences, serving on awards committees, soliciting donations from other writers for worthy causes, marketing books, and more. Many of these require the dreaded PR materials—a bio and a photograph. (It seems a mean irony that the joy of the solitary profession of writing now comes with the dreaded publicity tour.)

I have figured out a number of bios, but the PR photograph is something I avoid as much as possible, which is why most people think I’m ten years younger than I am. But this month I had to come up with something new, so I have studied publicity photographs to get a sense of what my options are and what I should try for. If I had known this exercise was going to leave me so depressed, I wouldn’t have bothered—I’d have substituted a gray blank with a little circle drawn in.

Publicity photos of writers come in a variety of types. First, there is the serious look—face front, eyes studying the photographer, not a flicker of humor anywhere, an expression almost of accusation for anyone wanting the author to engage in such frivolity. Some of these even come with an uplifted eyebrow, a furrowed brow, a down-turned mouth to emphasize the somber nature of the personality of the creator. These are the authors of serious books—about revenge, dark mystery, rogues of the business world, and worse. I suppose writers (and others) go for the serious look because it makes one look weighty and implies that anything this person is associated with must be significant. Just look how somber they are! We are meant to take these writers seriously—and I do—but alas, when I try to look like that, the photographer tells me I look unwell and would I like to sit down? When I say I’m fine, I’m usually told to relax, don’t look so grim.

The same frontal look with a smile reveals the sexy, the polished, the makeup artist, the good friend, the man or woman with a great sense of humor. For me, I just look like I have a double chin.

Then there’s the pose with props, including glasses or hands—the hand on the face, below the chin, resting on a shoulder, clasped behind the head, on the throat. My all-time favorite is the hand and fingers splayed across the face so you can barely identify the person behind.

Lots of photographs come with other props, usually a pet—a cat but also dogs, horses, and other moving breathing creatures—but also items indicative of the topic of the book. For books about cooking, the author standing over a big brass pot or a tray of food always works. And the most obvious one—books—is sometimes the least workable for me because my bookshelves are stuffed with books and pottery and stacks of paper and old artwork and CDs.

And of course, there’s the setting—with a city in the background for anyone who travels or writes about exotic places. This one would work for me if I could remember to get a photograph of myself when I’m traveling, which I can’t seem to do. The background is a great idea, as long as it supports the theme of the book and, in my mind, reduces the image of the writer. Part of setting is the clothing—a suit for a business book or a person in a yoga outfit for a fitness book.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable having my photograph taken, but while I was working out what might work, I looked over a lot of photographs of other writers and came away with the unexpected feeling that there really are an awful lot of nice people in this business, if their photographs are any guide. A few faces smiling back at me were sometimes artificial and posed, and obviously so, but many more of them had expressions of delight and curiosity and wonder and friendliness. I could imagine more than one saying, Omigod, that really is my book you’re looking at! I really did it! I wrote a book! The warmth and enthusiasm in the other women who must have fretted about double chins and lank hair and dull wardrobes and all the other unimportant things in a life put an end to my fussing. For heaven’s sakes, it’s only a photograph.

So I stopped procrastinating and finally got a photograph of me in front of my bookshelves—books and me, half hidden behind a hand, looking pinkish with no makeup, but at least recognizably me. And now, thank you to all the other writers who have gone through this cheerfully, leaving your portraits to encourage me.

(If you want to see the final selection, check out my website.