People Judge Your Book By Your Headshot

author headshot

The goal of your author headshot is to cement your brand. At all times you should be asking yourself, “What kind of image am I trying to project to the world?”

We all know that people judge a book by its cover, but it’s also true that they judge a book by its author’s photo. That photo gives readers another clue as to what kind of tone one might expect from the book. Does the author convey a sense of humor? Does he/she look like a master of horror or mystery? Is the face staring out at you one of competence, friendliness, and/or compassion, as in someone you might want to take financial, lifestyle, or spiritual advice from? In other words, readers are looking at your headshot and asking themselves: Who is this author and do I want to buy a book from them?

When I had my first book published, my publisher asked me for a headshot. I didn’t have one, nor was I about to go hire a pro to get one taken. So I did the next best thing — or so I thought at the time — and I grabbed an old photo from my childhood and used that. It’s still up on my Amazon Author page.

Amazon page

I thought it was kind of cute/funny to use an old childhood photo, but now I’m not sure this photo screams, “No, seriously, this guy’s an actual published author.” So, I decided it was time to get an updated photo, and it would give me a good excuse to write about my experience and pass the tips I learned on to you.

However, keep in mind one rule: The goal of your author photo is to cement your brand. At all times you should be asking yourself what kind of image are you trying to project to the world. So for every rule I mention below — except the first one — just know that there should be an asterisk next to it saying, *unless your brand says otherwise.

Hire a pro

There’s no exception to this rule. Given your photo’s importance — just like with your book cover — you don’t want to skimp (like I did with my childhood photo). Hire a professional photographer, and preferably one who specializes in headshots. After all, your photo is often going to be making your first impression. You don’t want that to look cheap.

If you want to see the difference good and bad headshot photos make, play this little game. Go to a random author’s Amazon page, like this one from Veronica Roth. She has a rather nice photo. Now scroll down to the “Customers Also bought items by” section and click on a random author. Rinse and repeat. You’ll be amazed, as you click through author photo after author photo, just how drastic a difference there can be. Some of these photos look like terrible selfies, which absolutely do not inspire confidence that the author in question is a professional who is going to deliver a high-quality book.

I hired my friend, Jonathan C Ward, who happens to be a very talented headshot photographer.

If you can hire a professional makeup artist, do so. The camera picks up everything. Most photographers have someone they work with regularly, just be sure to let them know.

OK, more tips below:

Communicate with your photographer ahead of time. Tell them who you are and what you want this photo to do. If you have hired a professional, they will know what to do from there.

Trust your photographer. Don’t be afraid to provide examples of headshots you like and be sure to explain to them why you like those photos. Show them headshots you don’t like so they know what to avoid. The more information they have ahead of time, the happier you’ll be with your results.

Get a good night’s sleep the night before your shoot. You don’t want to look tired. Late morning/early afternoon shoots work best. I did my photoshoot at 1 pm.

Don’t make any drastic, last-minute changes to your look. Don’t get a brash new haircut or go on a week-long crash diet. You want to present the best version of your everyday, natural self. This will also pay off when you make author visits, so people will recognize you from your photo.

Focus on your face. Your author photo is about cementing your personality, and your face is (usually) the key. So all clothing, jewelry, and makeup should complement your face.

Don’t wear busy clothes. Avoid strong patterns. Anything that overpowers your face is no bueno. If you have lighter hair, wear darker clothes, and vice versa.

Keep it clean. Backgrounds should be clean and unobtrusive.

Look at the camera. It’s a way of connecting with the reader/viewer. Photos of people looking off to the side make it hard for others to identify with the subject, which is defeating the whole purpose.

Relax. Have fun. Try to be as natural as you can.

You typically don’t want to cross your arms. It looks unfriendly and like you’re trying too hard to project power. However, if your photographer asks you to try some poses with your arms crossed, that’s cool. It changes the shape of your shoulders. Just crop your arms out of the photo.

Dress like other authors in your genre dress. A three-piece business suit will work great if you’re writing a business book, but not so much if you’re writing a romance. Then again, bring several changes of clothes. Variety is good and you won’t necessarily know what’s going to work ahead of time. (This tip isn’t just for women, either. Jonathan told me to bring several outfits and I was glad I did. I got a bunch of different looks I can use for different purposes.)

Add variety. If possible, try to do your photoshoot outside and move around from site to site. We spent an hour walking around a few blocks of downtown Wilmington, NC, and between the changes of clothes, the different backgrounds, and the changing light, I got so much variety to choose from.

Solicit input. Once your photoshoot is finished, be sure to share the results with your friends and family and ask them to help you choose your photo. You most likely will get to choose more than one. (I got to pick five.) Be sure to get several opinions because others see you differently than you see yourself. You’ll find that the photo you like the best may not be the one everyone else chooses.

Hunter S Thomson headshotKeep it fresh. Be sure to update your headshot every two-to-three years. It will help keep your brand fresh.

Again, remember that you can break all of these rules as long as you are creating something that complements your brand. Just ask Hunter S. Thompson.

My photo

As I mentioned, I got to pick five photos, but here’s the one I’m going with as my new official author photo.

Scott McCormick headshot

How To Publish On Amazon

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  1. A bad photo can turn off a potential buyer but nobody ever bought a book because of the headshot. There is FAR BETTER use for the space on the cover to help sales instead of putting a picture of the author there.

    • You don’t have to put it on your cover. But a good photo on your Amazon page or your website or social media account will make you look like a pro.

  2. Thanks for the important information regarding a headshot for books. I am writing my first novel and want to make sure that I am doing the right thing for creating an image that I want to use going forward as well. I have a headshot that was done by a professional photographer for my real estate website last year. I am wondering if I should go for a new headshot? Or will the latest one, a good photo that looks just like me, work for my book?

    • The key things to keep in mind are: that your photo looks professional and be thematically consistent with your books. if those are true, stick with your current photo

  3. Excellent, practical advice! I had my headshot done by a professional photographer, and I was surprised by how much better I looked in the outdoor shots than in the studio. I like your headshot. You look warm, friendly, and approachable.

  4. Hi Scott. Thank you for the good advice! Learnt much from you.
    However, what can I do if I prefer to remain incognito? I am reluctant to use my own name or photo. Any good advice for this? Would using an Avatar be a good idea? Thanks in advance!

  5. As a pensioner, I was reluctant to dip into my housekeeping money to pay for a head shot when I published my first novel. What the heck? I knew exactly what I wanted to portray, and I had a half-way decent camera and a tripod. I would do it myself.
    So I set up the camera in my east-facing spare bedroom, on a spring morning when just the right light was streaming into the room. I placed an old screen behind a chair, an stuck a market onto it at head height. Focused the camera and set the zoom so that my head will almost fill the screen.
    Anyone watching the scene for the next hour or so, would have doubted my sanity. Set delayed exposure, press the shutter, scuttle to the chair, sit with my head in the right position covering the marker, try to arrange my facial features into the desired expression … CLICK. Repeat process repeatedly until desired result achieved. Thank goodness for digital cameras – imagine trying to do this using film!
    It worked. I have my head shot. I did not attempt to edit the shot, as I wanted to portray myself as I am, wrinkles and all.


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