Do your looks matter as an author?

by Tess Gerritsen

Recently I received the following question from a writer:

My debut novel will be coming out soon from a major publisher and I’m traveling to New York to meet my editor for the very first time.  Here is where I get worried.  How much will my looks factor in with regard to how marketable my book is considered to be?  My book is fiction; I know I don’t need a platform in the way that non-fic does.  I also know that novelists aren’t likely to be put on TV, so TV-looks shouldn’t be necessary, right? 

I’m clean, healthy, strong, and I have a pretty face.  I’m also overweight and nearly forty.  No matter how nicely I dress and how subtly and gracefully I do my makeup, I am, at heart, frumpy.  Should I be concerned how this may affect my editor’s view of me as a writer to promote?

I would like to answer that one’s looks don’t matter one iota, but then I wouldn’t be entirely honest.  Because, I’m sorry to say, studies seem to show that looks do make a difference when it comes to one’s career.  Attractive (and tall) people are more likely to be popular, to earn more money, and to be promoted more quickly at their jobs.  It’s one of those unfortunate facts of life, and even though we may rail at the unfairness of it, there seems to be little we can do to change it.  Like books, human beings are too often judged by their covers.  The short guy and the homely gal have to work far, far harder to prove their competence — even if they’re rocket scientists. 

So to a certain extent, the writer’s concerns are grounded in reality.  When we see that some gorgeous author is being well-promoted, we have a sneaking suspicion — perhaps well-founded — that she got all that attention because of her looks.  I remember seeing photos of Sebastian Junger (THE PERFECT STORM) being plastered all over magazines, and thinking that no matter how good (or bad) his book might be, he was one darn good-looking man.  A bookseller told me that the line of women who showed up at Junger’s booksigning stretched around the block.  "I’m sure they came in because of that photo," she said, pointing to the giant bookstore poster featuring Junger’s drop-dead handsome face.  "Because I’m damn sure most of them couldn’t care less about meteorology."

But gorgeous authors, like gorgeous people in general, are the exception.  The vast majority of writers are simply average looking.  When I attend writers’ conferences, and I look around the people gathered at the cocktail parties, I don’t see Hollywood-level glamor.  I see gray hair and bald heads.  I see faces that have never been touched by a plastic surgeon.  And I see a lot of people who could stand to lose a few pounds.  (When you’re parked in a chair eight hours a day, and the refrigerator is just a short walk down the hallway, weight gain is an occupational hazard.)  Yet many of those average-looking people are powerhouse authors.  Check out the photos of authors who are regulars on the New York Times bestseller list.  Very few of them would turn your head if you saw them on the street.  And some of them are downright homely.  Never forget that V.C. Andrews became a mega-bestselling horror author despite the fact she was chronically ill and bedridden for her entire career. 

Good looks never hurt, of course.  If you’re a debut author, being gorgeous may get you a bit more attention from visual media like TV and glamor mags– you know, those shallow folks who care more about eye candy than gravitas.  But after the first book, your looks become less and less relevant, because something far more important takes center stage: the quality of your writing — and your sales.  If your books (and sales) suck, no publisher cares how gorgeous you are.

Which is why we writers are lucky to be in this profession.  It’s one of the few jobs in which one is allowed to grow old without consequences, as long as we can turn out a quality product.  Aging actresses find their roles drying up.  Businessmen who turn 65 find themselves shoved aside by energetic young up-and-comers.  But we writers can potentially keep writing books into our eighties.  Our readers won’t care, as long as they keep loving our stories.  We can even hide ourselves from the public if we so choose, as VC Andrews did all those years ago.  Or we can slap a decades-old author photo on our book jackets and remain eternally ageless, as Dear Abby did for decades. 

So here, in the end, is how I answered that writer’s question.  I told her to give herself a little lift in spirits with a new haircut and a nice new outfit.  Beyond that, I told her not to obsess over her looks and instead focus on writing a really terrific second book.  Because that’s all the editor really cares about: whether a writer can turn out a great next book, and a next, and a next.  Editors want an author with the potential for a long career.  They want an author who’s reliable and pleasant.  They want an author who can write.

No matter what she looks like.


21 thoughts on “Do your looks matter as an author?

  1. Kevin Wignall

    Tess, I actually think the only time your appearance really counts is in that first meeting with the publisher – because if your appearance energizes them, that will have an impact on the way they take the book to market. And that doesn’t necessarily mean looks or youth. If a large middle-aged lady turns up dressed like Isadora Duncan and has an infectious personality, they’ll go for her because they can see her working a room, having an angle. So I suppose the lesson is do what you can, remember that you must have a “public face”, and that your appearance should matter – but I agree entirely that you shouldn’t obsess about it, and you should always put the writing first.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    It’s so great to have someone knowledgeable and honest addressing this issue, thanks, Tess!

    I’m with Kevin on this one, too. How you present yourself DOES matter. But gorgeosity doesn’t matter as much as style and charisma. Writers need to own that they’re inherently sexy – because they’re smart as hell and do such a magical, mystical thing (we don’t have to let on how neurotic it really is).

    And personal style, whatever your style is, is always a magnet – and a cinch for creative people to develop if they put their minds to it. It’s all about creativity.

  3. tess

    I should have added that when your looks match your genre, it also helps. I think that the author of scary looks is helped by looking a bit intense or eccentric. The author of romance novels is helped by looking like one of her own heroines. And as for SF writers, they could look like Stephen Hawking, and their readers might consider that a huge plus.

  4. pari

    . . . and Alex Solokoff looks like what she writes; it’s a perfect fit. You should see HER work a room 😉

    Tess, this is a great post. Since I’m such a PR gal, I know that looks matter. But they don’t matter in the way most people think.

    Kevin has it right. If you’re comfortable in your skin, present as a professional with personality (not another “talking head”), people will go for it.

    When my first book was published, I shed the sweats (at least at public events), learned how to use a little make up and bought what is now my “uniform.” I go for “classy” and professional with a dash of quirky. It works on two levels: people who meet me take me more seriously AND I take my public persona seriously when in public.

    Then it’s back to the house and cooking dinner and doing the damn laundry.

  5. Louise Ure

    And then there’s the stately, good looking man who came up to me and said that he’d had his “head shots” taken (I didn’t break it to him that authors don’t call them head shots) and had finished a three page synopsis of the novel he wanted to write. “That and the photo should be enough to get them interested.” Ha!

  6. Allison Brennan

    Overweight and nearly forty? I swear, I didn’t write that letter to Tess!

    Like Kevin and Alex said, Attitude is more important than looks. When I go out in public, though, I leave the jeans, sweatshirt and bunny slippers in the closet.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    [I would so pay to see Allison wear those bunny slippers at the next convention.]

    I agree that personal “appearance” is really not about looks–but about confidence, eye contact, decent personal grooming and simply being a fun person to be around. Matching up with the genre is good as well… if someone writes dark and gritty gruesome murders and dresses in cheery floral prints, there’s going to be a cognitive dissonance between what they are and what they do. That dissonance won’t really matter to the general public probably (unless the writer’s doing a whopping huge book tour), but it might undermine a meeting with a publisher or agent.

    But also, it’s important that whenever a writer is meeting with people in the publishing business that he or she dresses in something that they enjoy or feel comfortable wearing, that fits his or her personality. Comfort with one’s self translates to others in a room and people enjoy doing business with people who make them feel comfortable.

  8. JT Ellison

    Tess, wonderful post.

    My mother always taught me that looks can be deceiving. And man, was that ever the truth.

    Writers are such cerebral creatures, it’s inherently sexy. There is nothing, NOTHING better than being in a room of smart writers, editors, agents and readers. (Okay, maybe one thing. But that’s not for public consumption.)

    Looks fade after about a second, it’s what’s on your mind that counts. I’ve seen people who wouldn’t be classified as gorgeous tear up a room, and those that are supposed to be hot turn the world against them because of their exceptional arrogance.

    That said, I did submit an author photo to an agent – a long time ago. His site said he wanted one. I found out later it was a joke. Color me stupid. And praying he doesn’t recognize me at a con one of these days…

  9. Jake Nantz

    I’m glad looks don’t matter TOO much. Alex can attest that I need to hit the treadmill more and the chair at my desk a little less. Still, I think this is GREAT information, especially that your appearance/dress matching your genre can be an asset. This is why I love this blog!

  10. Becky Hutchison

    “Writers are such cerebral creatures, it’s inherently sexy. There is nothing, NOTHING better than being in a room of smart writers, editors, agents and readers.”

    JT, I totally agree. It’s wonderful being around people who have intelligent things to say and can tell a good story. And thank you, Tess, for sharing your letter and response. I too think what one writes is more important than what one looks like.

    And ditto on what Toni said about Allison in her bunny slippers. I’d go see Allison wearing her slippers for a conf. panel, maybe one titled, “Comfortable Clothes, Excellent Writing” or “How My Slippers Define Me” or something much more clever…

  11. ec

    Conversely, a woman who is deemed TOO attractive has to work harder to convince people that her success is merited. One need only look to Sarah Palin’s brief VP campaign to be reminded of this. I was not among Governor Palin’s supporters, but I really hated seeing the focus place on her Carabou Barbie image.

    I don’t mean to start a political debate; this is simply the example that’s likely to be on most people’s minds. But it illustrates the abiding steotype that beautiful women are probably not very bright.

  12. Richard S. Wheeler

    Excellent post and on the mark. Both male and female authors can do much at appearances simply by attending to appropriate grooming. A male usually can do well with a tweed sportcoat, with perhaps a dark turtleneck underneath. A woman can do well wearing a suit. The public has a sense of the ways authors should dress and will flock around an author who seems innately literary. Authors who wear bizarre clothing or makeup usually don’t help their sales along, no matter how many people stare.

  13. ec

    “A woman can do well wearing a suit. The public has a sense of the ways authors should dress and will flock around an author who seems innately literary. Authors who wear bizarre clothing or makeup usually don’t help their sales along, no matter how many people stare.”

    That may be true in many cases, but one must still consider the author’s genre and the venue of the appearance. I wouldn’t wear medieval garb and a cloak to a book signing in a big Barnes & Noble, but neither would I wear a suit to GenCon, a large science fiction convention. At many fantasy and SF events, a conservative suit would stand out more emphatically than full Klingon drag.

  14. Kathryn Lilley

    I don’t think looks or age matters at all. My manuscript was accepted on the basis of the draft–to this day, I haven’t met my agent in person. I was well into production before I met my editor. Although I will admit, I had a wee bit of plastic surgery done for the author’s photo–but unless your photo is on the back of the book, people don’t see that. I think it’s like everything else–people worry about their looks, when it’s their writing they should be worrying about…

  15. Elizabeth

    Great advice, Tess! It’s good to know that writers aren’t usually judged by their looks. It’s hard to not worry about how we look when it comes to impressing others. I try to wear casual but professional clothing when meeting with someone, but I do admit I’m addicted to sweats and tee shirts. Heh.

    I stumbled on this blog completely by accident and I just wanted to say that I love your books. You are one of my role models and I hope to one day be on the bestseller lists with you. Thanks for Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli.


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