The Author Photo

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


October, 2004: unbeatable

Dave and I are practically supermodels, all the camera time we log.  But leggy beauty aside, for me it’s still a painful exercise trying to get the right author photo.  I knew it was coming–it’s a standard request when you have a new book in the pipeline, but Algonquin’s letter threw me into a panic, a perfectly workaday letter from the very kind publicity assistant down there in North Carolina, one Sarah Rose Nordgren.  “Your author photo,” Sarah wrote (and I know she’s never said this before–this missive was for me alone),  “along with a copy of the attached photo contract, should be sent to me no later than August 3rd, 2011.  It’s important that we receive your photo by that date so that we can use it for all promotional materials, including our catalog and advance reader’s copies of your book. Your photo should be in color. We prefer a high-resolution digital  file (it must be 300 dpi, 5×7 inches or bigger, and approximately 10  megabytes), but you can send a hard copy instead. Dress for your photo can be casual, but we prefer that you not wear t-shirts. Please use the attached agreement when you contract a photographer to shoot your author photo. The photographer can be a professional or a friend.   Please let me know if you have any questions or if you will have a problem making either of these deadlines. Thank you!”


I would have no problems making the deadline.
But then for some reason I waited till the deadline was upon me, like August 4th, and got to work.  I’m an inveterate do-it-yourselfer, also the star of the hit series, “I Used to Play in Bands,” so, out into the backyard with my 14 megapixel Canon PowerShot, the same camera I use for (have I mentioned this recently?) “I Used to Play in Bands.”
And I tried the same approach, holding the camera out in front of myself, maybe a little above, shot after shot.  But in a video, you’re alive.  Your face has the time and space to give off human cues and clues.  If you’re a good guy who’s written a great book, you look like one.  The still shot, it’s like, Where’s the casket?
Digital cameras, though.  You can take 6,500 shots for no extra cost.  And all you need is one good shot.  I danced in the dew, I leaned off the deck, I stood by the stream, I held up a mushroom or two, I took the 6,500 shots.  And they all sucked.
So to the self timer.  Ten shots a pop.  The usual backgrounds.  Tree, like a high school yearbook.  Sitting on some steps, hand on chin like Gore Vidal.  A couple of different stone walls, various seductive leans toward the lens.  Serious, artsy, Jolly-Roger grins, big guffaws, modest nods, the works.  Finally back indoor for the fail-safe BOOKSHELF shot, a classic of the form.  All failed, all in the end pathetically centered on a man with wild hair and an exhausted look in his eye, or demented.
Elysia would save the day.  She took 6,500 more shots, though she kept making fun of my poses.  I mean, what does it even mean to say that a person looks like Chuck the evil sandwich guy?
Her photos were much better than mine, a fond look in my eye, at least, at times a roaring laugh, but the trouble with HD is that it’s obvious when it’s time to shave one’s chin and comb one’s hair, exfoliate, stop down at the Jiffy Lube for some full-body Botox treatments.

Always self-effacing


At my studio computer, Elysia used I-photo to touch me up.  Quickly, she grew exasperated. Soon, she’d erased my mustache altogether, gave me Lil Orphan Annie eyes, got rid of the nose: Voldemort.  And then she took out the rest of my face.  And sadly, that shot, once she was done, looked better than any of the other shots we’d gotten.

Juliet tried next.  6,500 more shots.  Finally, as the rain began to come down in earnest, and dusk to settle in, we hit upon the idea of using the flash and got a shot we all liked.  You can see the rain in my eyebrows, and that my shirt’s getting wet.  You can even make out raindrops in the background, like so many falling stars, pretty nice.  The deadline was upon us.  I sent the photo.


Kelly Bowen, the publicity manager at Algonquin, sent me the gentlest possible note.  They all liked my shot just fine, she said, but the building in the background would be unreadable in the extreme cropping they’d have to do.  And hey, there’s a nice shot on your website, the one from October 2004.

My author photo had been rejected!

Get the that guy out of the shot...


And you can’t use what will be an eight-year-old shot as your author photo.  You just can’t. People picking you up at the airport for readings will quietly slip away when they see what’s become of you.  Worse, former friends will accuse you of vanity.  And taken to court I’d lose on that charge.  I mean just look at all the work I’ve done on that absurd mustache!


Right away, I brought my camera to a party and asked everyone there to take a couple of shots of me.  Something would have to come out well.  Some rare thread of compassion in one of the friends assembled there.  Some synergy between camera, subject, photographer, and alcohol.  The pond looked great.  The other people, wonderful.  The best shots of me were in the dark.  No, let’s face it, the best shots were completely dark.

4:00 a.m.


A plain background, that’s all I needed.  I stayed up till all hours (yes, all of them) tripod and self-timer and flash, and got some really crazy, like, Gerhard Richter out-of-focus stuff, pretty cool.  Five in the morning, I finally got a shot I liked using a flashlight, three house lamps, and the camera’s flash setting.  And at 5:30 I emailed the picture off, not noticing that my likeness was biting his lip with anxiety.  Not to mention the skin tone, like a figure from the anxiety wax museum in Rome.

Kelly was very polite.  The deadline was past.  “You have a nice smile in that one,” she said, which I took to mean, “You look 100 years old and worried about life insurance.”  But at least the background was neutral.  I resigned myself.

lip biter

Then I un-resigned.  You can’t have a bad head shot.  It will appear in newspapers, magazines, catalogs.  People will not buy books by an anxious person who’s that pale.  I told my editor, Kathy Pories, of my unhappiness.
“Who took that photo,” she said.
“I took it,” I told her.
“Well, then, that’s the problem,” she said.

photo Sarah Sloane

Luckily, and just a few days later, I got into a camera conversation with my ornithologist friend Sarah Sloane (she’s the world authority on bushtits, as it happens).  This at another party.  My birthday party, in fact.  Long story, but it ends with her at my house the next day and me up against a neutral background.  Ten shots or so, just another bird, and she’s confident she’s got me captured.
I am going to pay her two dollars, launch her professional photography career.
The many faces of Billy R:

Elysia's favorite shot

Novelist or Survivalist?


Buy my book and keep me alive!


At least I have a good-looking kid!




I really don't see what's wrong with this one.

Not only younger, but hipper, too

  1. Caroline Gerardo writes:

    In this public world and times why worry? I think the shot with daughter is the best. Post is so funny and true

    • Bill writes:

      Honestly, I’d really like to just use my daughter’s photo. My own favorites are the our-of-focus ones–let the reader project her ideal writer upon the blur!

  2. Paul Davidson writes:

    I’ve never “danced in the dew” but it sounds like fun.

    Your post made me think of something my mother-in-law said when my wife and I got married.

    “Take as many pictures as you can, because you’ll never look this good again.”

    How’s that for truth?

    • Mardi Link writes:

      I got married last August, a week after I got a book deal. Budgetary romantic that I am, I had the wedding photographer take some head shots. Who cares if I’m in a white lacy dress? Not me!

  3. Tommy writes:

    Tom Selleck has nothing on 2004 you! Thank God for Sarah Sloane, she made you younger, brighter, thinner and happier than “lip Biter”. Just goes to show, anyone can take a picture, but you need a photographer to make a protrait. Well done!

    • Bill writes:

      I might pay Sarah 3 dollars, now that I think about it… Tom Selleck is 6 or 7 years older than I… And somewhat richer… I was 50 in that shot…

  4. monica wood writes:

    Sweetie, how many times do I have to say this? A pink shirt would have saved you HOURS. But I like what Sarah Sloane came up with. A sweet, approachable, handsome you.

    Regarding “I don’t really see what’s wrong with this one”:

  5. Janine Winn writes:

    love it. As someone who is never happy with photos of me (and there are precious few since age 30) I feel great empathy for your process & frustrations.

  6. Valerie Lane writes:

    And BTW Happy Birthday!

  7. Valerie Lane writes:

    This is so funny Bill. I love it. Okay. My favorites– 1st: You standing in the door. 2nd: Elysia’s favorite. 3rd: The outdoorsman, novelist or survivalist? (Of course the really best one is the younger and hipper one. Like a Jack Kerouacish slash Jack Nickolson look.) Which did you choose?

    Congratulations on your new book!! I can’t wait to read it.

    • Bill writes:

      Sarah’s photo got the nod… I wish I could use the old one–I was about 25 in that shot, and knew everything.

  8. Angela K Roe writes:

    Forgive me for saying so, but I laughed all the way through your blog. I can relate to the struggles. The picture on my website is at least six year old but as I’m the one always holding the camera, I’m in very few shots. Fortunately we’re having family portraits done this month and I plan on having several individual shots taken at the same time…I’m sure the family portraits will be stunning and mine will be…well, they’ll be of me…

    • Bill writes:

      I’m glad you laughed. Just as long as you don’t laugh when you crack open my book and see my photo! Really, there’s no photographer good enough to capture our essence, right?

  9. Morgan Callan Rogers writes:

    Thanks for this hilarious post! How can a camera EVER capture the elusive beauty we all have. It’s impossible. When someone did my first headshot for a book, I had to put hairwax into my hair because the photographer said that it was ‘fly-away’. Devastating. I’d always thought it was wild and free. Now, I look at it askance… Anyway, very funny.

    Morgan Callan Rogers
    author with a self-conscious photo of herself with smooth hair on her book jacket

    • Bill writes:

      Hairwax! Why didn’t I think of that! I used to have a tube of something called butch wax when I was a kid maintaining my flat-top.

  10. edie nussbaumer writes:

    Oh, btw, I am a girl.

  11. edie nussbaumer writes:

    Hey Bill,

    It was a pleasure to meet you at Haystack (week 7). Thanks for the early morning laughs. I had difficulty even focusing on the pix.
    I have never had the honor of a publicity photo request, but would struggle just the same. It is strange how we are often required to condense ourselves to mere snapshots.

    I have gone shopping for a bathing suit, during the dead of winter, in a N. J. strip mall. Any correlation? Although you are psyched about the vacation, it is still a revealing moment.

    edie nussbaumer

    • Bill writes:

      Listen, shopping for a bathing suit in a strip mall is better than shopping for a bathing suit in a strip club… Luckily, I broke my camera on a camping trip this past weekend. Wasn’t Haystack the best?