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.