Tips for authors: The author photo

I can still remember the days (long ago) when an author’s photo on a book cover was optional. Sometimes there would be one, often in black-and-white; sometimes not. Now, however, in these days of “mediagenic” authors and digital imagery, the author photo is no longer an option. Which is a little stressful for those of us who have a disproportionate number of bad hair days or who may not love the camera.

But, as Jane Friedman writes in this blog post, every author needs a professional head shot. For one, if you hope to promote yourself and your book, you’ll be asked for one — and, as Friedman points out, a photo can do wonders in terms of giving you credibility or establishing trust … or have the opposite effect.

Jane’s post offers excellent tips for what you’ll want in a photo, and I’ll add a couple more:

Stay within your budget, or you’re sure to be even more stressed about it. There’s nothing worse than spending money you don’t have … but especially on a photo that will remind you of it at every turn. Many wonderful photographers out there know that we writers don’t make a lot of money; find one that you can afford, then relax and enjoy the process.

Invest in a good camera, and find someone who knows how to use it. It’ll pay off in the end — for one, you can take photos on your book tour and at other events, which are always nice to have. Two, you can take a few good shots to offer in addition to your Official Author Photo. And, finally, you may even be able to use it for your Official Author Photo, especially if you don’t like or can’t afford the more formal studio shots. The photo I’m currently using was taken by my husband (who put himself through college in part by working as a photographer), and while it’s not a professional studio shot, I like the more casual feel of it.

Be yourself. Have you ever been to a reading where you couldn’t identify the author because he/she looked so unlike the photo on the book cover? Beware of this. You’ll want to look your best, but don’t go too crazy with hair and makeup; most of all, you’ll want to look like yourself. And, while it’s certainly tempting, avoid using a photo that captures your youthful self but doesn’t at all resemble your current self. In this blog post, author Mary Akers concludes that author photos should be updated every ten years — and this seems just about right; it allows us to put off the trauma of author photos for a good amount of time yet still keep our image somewhat up-to-date.

Interview photographers. This is a great idea no matter what, but especially if you’re going to spend a lot of money. Once you’ve narrowed down your list based on the portfolios you like the best, schedule a meeting or a chat as well. Make sure the photographer knows exactly what you want and can achieve this for you. And make sure it’s someone you feel comfortable with, or you won’t be looking very relaxed in your photos.

– Check out this Q&A with photographer Rosanne Olson, below.

I first encountered Rosanne’s work in her beautiful book, This Is Who I Am, a collection of images and essays on women, body image, and compassion that Kate Winslet called “an absolutely wonderful book” and declared, “Every woman needs to see it!” As well as an author, Rosanne is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist who also has more than thirty years’ experience as a teacher and lecturer. She is particularly passionate about telling stories through portraits — of women, families, business professionals…and, yes, authors.

Rosanne generously agreed to chat with me about author photos, offering more important tips for authors to keep in mind. All the photographs below, including author photos of Wendy Call, Susan Rich, and Kelli Russell Agodon, are courtesy of Rosanne. Visit Rosanne’s website for more on her work.

 

What do you think makes a good author photo?

The photograph needs to convey how the author wants to portray himself/herself. Usually that means approachable, intelligent, engaging. Some people are more dramatic in how they want to be seen. Some are more friendly or sophisticated.

What advice can you offer to writers who are nervous about having their photos taken?

People come to me with varying degrees of “nervousness” about how they look and how they “photograph” (“No one has ever taken a good photo of me” is a common complaint). This is very natural. My approach to get people to relax is to spend time talking to my clients before I pick up my camera. I also will likely read some of their work prior to the session. I make recommendations about clothing and makeup, and then, as the session proceeds, share some of the digital images with the client. I like to make them feel that they are in competent and compassionate hands with something that is very precious to them. After the session, I get them to sit with me to edit the photos to make sure they get the look they want.

What are the biggest mistakes authors make when it comes to their photos?

Sometimes people come here with too much makeup on. Or they bring their clothing stuffed into a bag so everything is wrinkled. Believe me, not just authors do this but lots of people. It is actually pretty amusing except for the fact that clothing then needs to be pressed or steamed here. Aside from that, people are usually willing to trust me to do the best possible job that I can with them. It is an exquisite collaboration.

What should an author expect to pay for a professional author photo?

Photographers’ fees vary across the country, but most charge somewhere between $150 and $2,500. If you pay the least amount possible for a photo you may get something okay. Or even just fine. But will it work for years to come? I try to work with people and their budgets. It is definitely an important investment.

Do you recommend color or black-and-white for author photos — and why?

Things are shot digitally these days so all images come out in color and it takes an extra step to convert them to black-and-white or sepia. That said, I think color conveys more because it is, well, color.

Do you have any recommendations for authors who are looking for a photographer? What questions should they ask?

An author photo is an important piece of one’s “brand.” If you have a photo you like, you can use it for years. When people see it they will think of you and of your work. I think of some of the famous, famous photos of people like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and how they convey so much at a glance. Pick your photographer by looking at the photographer’s web site and perhaps talking on the phone. Also, ask for references from other artists and authors who have been photographed by that person.

 

Meet our Smith & Corona

We so enjoyed creating our Remington Rand notecards that we’ve created a new card featuring our 1929 Smith & Corona. (Now our worry is that the other typewriters will be jealous, though frankly, not all of them are ready for their close-ups just yet…)

Here’s an image of the new cards, now available:

And, if you’ve got a soft spot for antique typewriters, check out our public service announcement and join the campaign to save the typewriters.

Ask the Editor: DOs and DON’Ts for query letters

Q: What do you look for in a query letter?

A: A good query letter (in our case, that’s the cover letter that accompanies submissions) should be professional and to the point (“to the point” meaning it should be no more than one page long); it should tell us about your book and a little bit about yourself. It should also tell us why you chose to submit to Ashland Creek Press (i.e., it should reveal that you’ve done enough research to know what we publish, which takes about two minutes on our web site) and show passion for your work.

Easy, right?

Here are a few more general details, for writers looking for either an editor or an agent…

 Have a hook. You’ll need to be able to describe your book in one or two sentences, which can be as challenging as writing the book itself. Yet this is essential for selling your book to an agent or editor — and for your publisher to sell your book to the rest of the world. For example, Blair Richmond’s book Out of Breath was described as “a vampire novel with an environmental twist.”

– Include a short bio. The key word here is short — two to three sentences at most. Include your best publishing credits (not all of them) and any awards you may have received. If you don’t yet have a publishing history, include something about your unique experience and/or qualifications for writing the book, i.e., “I am a park ranger at Yellowstone, where my novel is set.”

– Note why you’re choosing a particular agent or editor. This helps a lot, as agents, editors, and publishers usually specialize; it’s not a one-size-fits-all industry. Even if you read that an agent accepts “general fiction,” take a look at what he or she represents (is it mostly mystery or mostly romance?) to get an idea of whether your book will be appropriate; it’ll save everyone’s time in the end.

– Be polite and professional. This should go without saying, but we’re always surprised by how many letters we get that aren’t. Check your spelling and punctuation, of course, and know that your query letter gives agents and editors that all-important first impression — if your tone is cranky, unprofessional, or entitled, it could affect how your proposal gets viewed.

And, finally, here are some DOs and DON’Ts, which come from a long mental list I’ve kept of queries I’ve received over many years as an editor.

DOs

  • Use an agent’s or editor’s name rather than “Dear Agent/Editor.” It’s more personal and shows that you’ve spent at least a little time researching before querying. (We are always charmed when writers include our General Manager, Theo, in their query letters.)
  • Let a publisher know if your book has been self-published. Many publishers (including us) will gladly take a look, but they need to be aware of potential rights issues for authors using vanity presses.
  • If you mention a famous writer you claim to have studied with extensively, be sure to spell this author’s name correctly.
  • Make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
  • Include word count, but recognize that anything over 100,000 words is often viewed as too long; while there are exceptions to every rule, most editors/agents prefer a word count between 70,000 and 90,000 for novels.

DON’Ts

  • Do not refer to an editor as “yo.” (Yes, this actually happened to us.)
  • Don’t send poetry if the publisher does not publish poetry; don’t send short stories if an agent doesn’t accept short stories, etc.
  • Don’t bad-mouth your previous editor/publisher/agent. We might think you’re not very friendly.
  • Don’t threaten to self-publish your novel if we don’t take it on. (We don’t need to know this, and it doesn’t really help your case.)
  • While we appreciate knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list every single editor/agent/publisher to which you have simultaneously submitted your book.
  • Don’t refer to your book a “fictional novel.”
  • While comparing your book to a similar title or two is helpful, you don’t need to list a dozen famous authors whose books all resemble the one you’re submitting.

For additional info, check out these tips from author, editor, and agent Betsy Lerner … agent Nathan Bransford has a comprehensive post on queries as well. And for helpful, hands-on tips, visit literary agent Kristin Nelson’s website for detailed notes on how to write a good query letter.

And in case any of the above sounds a little fussy — well, anyone who gets a lot of queries gets a little jaded after a while. But when we say “we look forward to reading your work,” we really mean it. No agent or editor or publisher can get by without authors — we all know this and embrace it. So…we look forward to reading your work. Truly.

Tips for authors: A new year of writing

With another new year having arrived, my new list of writing goals now reads: Writing Goals of 2011 2012.

Sometimes we don’t accomplish everything we hope to — but that doesn’t mean we can’t re-evaluate and move on. So I thought I’d offer a few writing tips as we welcome 2012 (though I admit I probably need them more than you do).

It wasn’t even two years ago that I discovered Priscilla Long’s List of Works, and I still find that it’s among the best tools I have for keeping track of what I’m doing (or not doing) as a writer. In brief, a List of Works allows you to note what projects you’ve begun (and when), at what stage they are (published or circulating), and what you need to revise, finish, and/or send out.

In all, 2011 was a great writing year. Forgetting English, which went briefly out of print, has a fabulous new life thanks to Kevin Morgan Watson and Press 53. I did a book tour with my dear friend and writing buddy Wendy Call, the award-winning author of No Word for Welcome. I published five stories, won a fiction contest, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Then, of course, there’s the rest of it. I’m still working to complete three unfinished stories (two of which I began back in 2010), and I have a half-dozen ideas for stories that are still waiting for attention (and again, some of these ideas have been sitting there, half-baked, for at least a year…or more). I have half of a new story collection that I’d hoped to finish last year — and then there’s that novel I’ve been working on for the past two years.

But this is what it’s all about: accepting both the good and the less-than-good. Finding the balance. Celebrating the great news and resolving to make great news from the rest…eventually.

So if you’re like me — juggling storylines and submissions — here are a few tips for 2012…

Create a List of Works. Whether you’re just beginning to write or whether you’ve been writing for years, you should have a List of Works. Create it in whatever way works for you … just make sure you write down every single project you begin, and be sure you create one for every calendar year. Most important, go back through your ancient files and list every writing project you’ve ever begun…you never know what might happen when you rediscover these “old” ideas.

Take a close look at unfinished projects. I’ve found many a gem in a long-abandoned project. Even when I have only a vague idea for a story, I’ll jot down a few notes, file it as a “story in progress,” come back to it at least once a year. Often it just sits there for another year, but sometimes I’ll find it at just the right time, and it’ll come to life in new and surprising ways. Never abandon old ideas; you never know when they’ll suddenly be relevant.

Track all your submissions. This may seem incredibly obvious, but I’m always surprised by how many writers don’t keep track of submissions. Thanks to many magazines and publishers accepting online submissions, it’s easier now than ever — but you’ll still want to have some sort of system for whatever you submit in print. I use an Excel spreadsheet; one writer I know keeps a loose-leaf binder; other writers keep simple lists. It’s helpful for many reasons (among them, making sure you don’t submit the same piece to the same publication twice, or forget what you sent when a form rejection arrives) — but most of all, it’ll remind you to keep sending work out there. It can take dozens of rejections before you get an acceptance, and you’ll want to be sure you keep your work circulating.

Take stock of your progress at least twice a year. And quarterly is even better. Taking inventory will help you see what you’ve begun and how far you’ve come — and how far you still need to go. And keep in mind this isn’t meant to stress you out about what you’re not writing but to inspire you to stay on course. You may find that you haven’t gotten anywhere with the novel you’d hoped to write but that you found the perfect ending for a short story you’ve been working on for years. Or you may find that the poem you started isn’t coming together but that it would make a better personal essay anyway. Be open to taking things in new directions.

– See how you can use your new work to better promote the work that’s already out there. When Forgetting English was reissued by Press 53 in April of this year, it was in an expanded version with two new stories. One of the stories, “Lost Art,” hadn’t yet appeared outside the collection, so I thought it would be great to find it a home of its own, which would in turn help promote the new edition of my book. I found the story a home in a beautiful online journal, Escape Into Life, and it was a win-win all around. (Note that you may need to check your publishing contract before embarking on such a venture.) If you’re working on a novel, see if you can send a stand-alone excerpt to a literary magazine to start building buzz as early as you can. And think about how you can use what you know and do best to highlight your own work — for example, this year I’ve also done interviews, Q&As, guest blogs, and magazine articles about the writing process and the writing life, all of which I hope are useful to readers but also bring new attention to Forgetting English.

Happy new year! May 2012 be your best writing year ever.

 

Dark clouds (with a silver lining): Predicting the year ahead in publishing

When the CEO of one of the world’s largest publishing houses says he sees dark clouds ahead in 2012, this is big news.

It’s big news not so much because there are dark clouds on the horizon, but because a CEO is saying so.

That is, I believe he is preparing his employees for major structural changes in 2012.

And I’m not just talking about staff reductions, though I’m sure those are coming as well. Cost cutting alone is never the solution when an industry is being disrupted.

Reinvention is the only solution in times like these.

So what does all this reinvention mean?

I have a few thoughts, which I’ll translate into predictions for 2012:

1. Big publishers will stop accepting free returns from booksellers

For years, booksellers have been free to return any unsold books to the publisher, often for a full refund (or full credit). This is a practice that’s unheard of in almost all other retail businesses, and it really hurts publishers. Shipping books back and forth alone is expensive, and small publishers (like us) have been forced to not take returns (except for special circumstances, such as author readings). This industry-wide no-return policy has hurt us because booksellers are used to the no-risk policy supported by larger publishers. Yet I believe that even the large publishers are going to start testing the waters with booksellers in 2012, trying to move away from this practice. This is just not a sustainable practice for either party. Booksellers will naturally be forced to order fewer books and to only order those books they truly believe in, but I think this will ultimately be a good thing; hand-selling books that an employee believes in is what good bookselling is all about. Naturally, I’m a little biased as both an author and publisher: Changing these policies will give authors a more realistic view of sales (i.e., no more huge sales numbers, only to be reduced once the returns come in), and it will level the playing field for all of the small presses.

2. Booksellers will reinvent themselves as cultural curators, publishers, community centers, and gift shops (or all of the above).

I don’t want to live in a world with no local bookstores. And I do not believe that Amazon will win and all local bookstores will lose. I don’t believe this because I’ve already seen signs of bookstores reinventing themselves. Many already sell a mix of new and used books, as well as gifts and locally curated art. A few small stores are also becoming local publishers (many indie bookstores with Espresso Book Machines, such as Vermont’s Northshire Bookstore, run small publishing imprints). And a few others are becoming non-profit cooperatives. I’m also optimistic that we’ll see bookstores begin to embrace books from small publishers again. Booksellers need to embrace their role as cultural curators, separating the great books from the awful books instead of just taking co-op funds from large publishers and promoting the same books as Costco. To survive and thrive, booksellers need to stand apart.

3. Big publishers will take fewer chances on new authors.

Based on what we’re hearing from authors who submit to us, it’s brutal out there. Big publishers are cutting back on new authors and putting more money behind fewer authors — and this is great news for us: The quality of the work we’re seeing is amazing. Truly. And, honestly, it makes sense for the large publishers to put more resources behind their established authors. After all, bestselling authors are now being tempted into self-publishing, and the large publishers need to create compelling reasons for them not to jump ship.

4. Small publishers will take a lead in publishing books that matter

This is hardly much of a prediction, as it has already happened. Look at the nominees and winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. We’re talking small presses. But the bad news is the university presses are being hit hard as universities cut budgets.

As a small publisher, we’re well positioned for 2012 because we’re small and we’re focused. We’re building a brand centered around “books with a world view” and “eco-lit,” and we’re embracing technology. That doesn’t mean we won’t be in for a bumpy ride as well. But where others see dark clouds, we see a silver lining.

PS:  Publishing guru Mike Shatskin has a great blog post on this as well.