Author Photos

I’m one of those people who’s not wild about having their photo taken. I’m not neurotic about it, like certain folk who cover their face, turn their back, or run away (how do they escape in a world where phones take pictures?). Even so, there are many things I prefer to do with my time: clean public toilets, eat thumb tacks, become a politician, ghostwrite a book for a big-name author whose work I loathe.

I blame my sister, Niki Bern. She’s a visual effects artist who’s worked on films like The Quiet American, Charlotte Gray and Matrix Reloaded. She started as a photographer.

She first caught the photography bug in her early teens. We lived in the same house, so I was her model. I was also her older sister, her mean, vicious, evil older sister who’d cruelly tormented her from the day she stopped being a cute compliant baby and started talking and expressing opinions, some of which were not in total accord with mine.

Niki picked up her first camera, looked at it, looked at me, and smiled. Revenge at last.

She started slowly, getting me to stay still just a bit longer than I’m good at (say, 45 seconds or so). “Can you hold that position?” she’d ask sweetly. “Got to check the light.” Gradually she built up my tolerance so that I was statue-like for minutes at a time while squinting into the sun as Niki barked instructions at me. Then there were the photos up trees with scratchy bark while a small boy’s soccer team watched and laughed. The Twister photos, the naked photos with hats, the romp with vicious biting cat photos.

I didn’t twig until the middle-of-winter photo session where Niki swathed me in a full-on-goth velvet dress and had me lie in a bathtub filled with cold water—she claimed anything warmer would create steam, wrecking the photos—and hold my whole body under for as long as possible. She’d taken less than ten photos before she cracked up completely. Laughed so hard she almost dropped her precious Hasselblad.

Humiliated, frozen and very wet, I finally realised what she’d been doing. I was no longer fooled by the fact that these session produced decent photos. (Actually, really good photos.) Niki had been inventively punishing me for my evil older sister ways. I deserved everything I got.

So I’m not wild about having my photo taken. But now I write books and apparently there’s a law somewhere that says all books must have author photos (APs) on the back. Apparently books with author photos sell better. I’ve been told this by almost everyone in publishing: booksellers, editors, agents, publicists, writers. But like Nathalie Rachelle Chica and Lorie Boucher I have my doubts. I’ve never been persuaded to buy a book because the author looks like a babe, though I’ve hastily put books back on the shelf because the AP was too scary.

Most author photos are hilarious. I know this because Scott and me recently spent a ridiculous amount of time peering at the back cover flap of many books in several homes, as well as a vast number at Abbey’s Books, Better Read than Dead, Galaxy Books and Gleebooks. We pulled book after book off the shelves, laughing ourselves silly and starting to hate writers who didn’t have a photo, swearing that we’d never buy any of their books because they were wasting our time. We saw so many APs our eyes almost dribbled out of our head, our jaw muscles seizing up from laughing so hard. Out of that lot we saw three that were good and ten more that weren’t too foul. The rest! Oh my.

Here’s what we learned:

Never stare straight at the camera. Not unless you really want to look like you’re in a police line up. Check out Scott’s author photo for Evolution’s Darling, an excellent example of the I-am-a-criminal-who-writes-books-on-the-side look. (Sadly, Scott wouldn’t let me scan it for the reader’s enjoyment.)

Keeps hands away from the face. Why is Rodin’s “The Thinker” the sole model for so many author photos? Especially serious non-fiction or “literary” books. For a glorious example, check out my author photo on the back of The Battle of the Sexes. No doubting that deep, deep thought went into the book: Look! She’s still frowning and her brain is so large and heavy she has to hold it up with her fist. (Sadly, I wouldn’t let me scan it for the reader’s enjoyment.)

Why did we torture ourselves looking at so many awful, try-too-hard APs? Our publisher (Penguin/Razorbill) was asking for APs of our very own. Weather and our tight schedule in NYC mean that we couldn’t get them done by Phyllis Bobb (She took our wedding photos. They were wonderful.) Instead, a good friend of Niki’s, Samantha Jones, took them. My sister swore blind she wouldn’t torture me.

She didn’t. Not too much anyway. Sam had this cunning plan. She used whoever wasn’t being photographed as her asssistant, which meant we had to hold up the big sun deflector thingie, our arms slowly developing pins and needles and falling off. All of a sudden having our AP taken seemed like motza fun. Well, okay, not, but less foul. Sam was a very calming influence and managed to distract me from thoughts such as, “Is this the kind of expression that will make lots of people want to buy my book? Or will it make them run screaming from every bookshop in the land?”

We kept our hands away from our faces and looked anywhere but at the camera. And the photos were great.

At least I thought they were until a few days later, when we went through each one carefully deciding which we could live with on the back of our books. This elicited such observations as:

“No way. My forehead’s practically glowing.”

“It looks like I’m smelling that dog shit you trod in.”

“There’s no nose in that photo.”

“Way too smug. Who’s going to buy a book written by some smug bastard?”

“Are you kidding? Not that one. Looks like my bladder’s about to burst.”

The process of elimination was dead easy. The few remaining photos, those without glowing foreheads but with noses, we sent off to New York.

That’s when I had my stunning realisation (to me—I can be a bit slow). It wasn’t the photos that were a problem, but the context. We both look great in most of our wedding photos because we were happy as hell and not thinking about what effect those pictures would have on our future economic well-being. Author photos are used to help sell books. That’s why most of them are hilarious. Serious literature can’t have a smiling or giggling author. A goofy book has to have a smiling or giggling author. Being on the back of a book makes any photo look bad, no matter how good it might be elsewhere. Beggars never look good.

APs are a mug’s game.

Sydney, 29 March 2004