Tuesday, 15 September 2009

APPEARANCE + PERSONALITY MATTERS

Let me start by offering huge congratulations to successful author and reader of this blog, Daniel Blythe? Why? Well, partly because he sent me the link that is going to inspire this post. And partly because I see that his newest book, Autonomy, is .... sound the trumpets .... No 1 in Tesco! Hooray in spades! (NB - that's a link to the live chart and the trouble with being No 1 is that ultimately there's only one way to go, but he WAS No 1 in Tesco and that's more than I can say.)

Now, this well-deserved success of Daniel's got me thinking about the link that he'd sent me a while back, suggesting I blog about it. And, though he didn't say so, I'm guessing he imagined I'd blog about it in a crabbit way, throwing my hands up in horror and in support of the irritated Guardian reviewer who wrote the article. (Sorry, can't see the name of the writer.)

Go and read it if you haven't already, and then come back.

Are we talking about the appalling prospect of books being sold / reviewed on the basis of how good-looking their authors are? Which would be, clearly, an appalling prospect. If it was the prospect. As the author of the piece points out, none of the books offered on the basis of author videos was reviewed, for one reason: they weren't good enough.

Or are we talking about marketing people using any angle to get books noticed even if the angle is tacky? Which is, er, not very surprising. Nor new. I'm pretty sure that Byron overcame some of his badness, madness, and dangerousness with more than a hint of Byronic gorgeousness. Frankly, anything that can get an author noticed will be used.

Thing is, I think the author of the piece was over-reacting a bit. First, the authors are described by their publishers in terms such as "endearing, intelligent and attractive" and "very personable". For all we know, the "very personable" one was personable solely because of a charming smile, with no other classically beautiful features. Now, I don't have a charming smile: I have a twisted one and an asymmetrical face because I had my jaw joint removed, but I don't have a problem with those who do have charming smiles having attention drawn to them, because I'd hope instead to score in the "endearing and intelligent" stakes, or possibly the "serious and piercing" or even "blonde" (it costs me to maintain, but blonde I can do reasonably well).

With all respect to my fellow members of the Society of Authors, who are all published authors, a rather large number of us do not fall into the obviously gorgeous category. Yet we manage to be published.

Also, as one of the commenters on the piece says (and the comments are worth reading), no one was saying the authors were "young and beautiful". Even the word "attractive" can mean many different things. And very definitely depending on the beholder. An "attractive" author can mean all manner of interesting and various things. As we all know, attractive does not have to mean picture-postcard perfect. Plastic surgery is absolutely not required or desired.

Seems to me we all do whatever it takes to create an "appealing" public persona, especially in this visual age and born as we are into a visually-biased species, and if "dark and sexy" fairly describes you, then what do I care if your publisher says that? Our websites give a whole load of info that you'd think no one would really want to know and which on the face of it has no bearing on our books - how interested are you in the fact that I love anchovies, for example? Well, my website gives you that info. You can ignore it if you want. You'd be surprised how many people find it fascinating - so fascinating that when I removed it and other silly stuff, a school teacher complained that there was no "personal" info for her pupils to use for a project.

When I read someone's work, I confess I am interested in who they are - how old, male or female, something about their background, why they write. Doesn't make me listen more or less, but I'm interested. I don't want them to be perfect, just human. They are talking to me, after all, and I like to know who is talking to me. I read the little biogy bits at the front of books; I am hungry for author info.

Which brings me to our hero, Daniel. (Apologies, D - I didn't warn you about this! You can get me back on Facebook, if you like. Besides, it's a small price to pay to see your latest book plugged, wouldn't you say?)

See, as all good authors do, and especially authors for young people, Daniel has a website. From which we are to learn the things he wishes us to learn about him. He will have selected the info in order to portray a certain picture - no doubt a true one, but it won't be a complete one. He does this not, I presume, because we might fall in love with him (I should warn you that DB has a wife and kids and he is presumably precious to them, so hands off, please, blog-readers) but because he'd like us to read his books and he thinks (rightly, imho) that the more we know about him, within reason, the more we might do so.

On his website we learn all sorts of things, many of which have nothing to do with whether the words in his books are any good. There's his wife and two kids, the fact he lives near Sheffield - let's hope he has real electricity, unlike poor Jane Smith. He is younger than me - the bastard. (Does this make me not want to read his books? Nah, I'm bigger than that.) He likes tea. And he lives in a place which some people think was the birthplace of Robin Hood. Yeah, right. He got an annoying number of O-levels and A-levels, speaks a ridiculous number of languages and went to the wrong university. Am I beginning to hate him? Well .... No, of course not. I am beginning to know him, or at least that part of him he wishes me to know, which is fair enough. And probably far enough.

As to whether he's good looking or not - well, a) that's for his wife to say b) we don't care and c) I would hate to embarrass him further. He looks personable, relaxed, on holiday. He's wearing shades so either a) he's got something wrong with his eyes b) he's very cool c) it was a sunny day or d) any combination of the above.

Thing is, what we know is that Daniel has a personality and, being human, we respond to that. Of course, we could be being deceived; everything on his website could be a lie. In which case, way to go, Daniel!

So, I disagree with the Guardian blogger. I respect the viewpoint but I disagree. I do want to know something about the authors whose books I read. Including what they look like, not to judge their attractiveness but to begin to connect.

Which reminds me. Must go and buy Autonomy. But not from Tesco, if you don't mind - I'd like to see it No 1 in my local independent. Vanessa - do you have it? If not, why not? He's good-looking, for crying out loud.

23 comments:

Catherine Hughes said...

Hmmmm, this is a subject cose to my heart. If it were only possible for attractive authors to sell books then I wouldn't have a hope in hell.

But I don't believe that's the case. And all the things that have combined to make me unattractive also form the basis of what I hope might be a fairly interesting backstory in that I have turned to writing to help me overcome a rather difficult medical history. I am one of a few people whose significant excess weight is down to endocrinological problems and surgery, rather than overeating and being idle.

I learned long ago not to let my looks bother me or upset me, although sometimes, I confess, I experience hearty twinges of envy, mostly because my body has been distorted as well as outsized.

Despite what's happened to me, I still have an adoring husband, and adorable kids - if I can have those things notwithstanding my lack of good looks, then why not a publishing contract?

And if I can't have one because I'm not good looking, then I wouldn't want anything so meaningless and shallow anyway.

That said, I do agree that we all need to present ourselves in the best light possible. I get asked to do a lot of radio shows because my voice is apparently nice and clear, and I speak well without either hesitancy or unnecessary persistence. So I guess I'll be making the most of that ability if ever I need to publicise a book.

Sally Zigmond said...

As usual, I find myself with a foot in each camp. Although I believe it's the duty of anyone who has a product to sell to smile, be personable, polite and kind, change out their old coffee-stained tee-shirt and scrub up thereby not biting the hands that feed them, I do get weary of all the air-brushed photos of authors in their books, websites and magazines/newspapers --and why oh do they never change and are all taken about 10 to 20 years previously?

(Sorry, I seem to be writing very convoluted sentences lately but I'm in that sort of mood.)

I am interested in writers but unless I know and like them as friends, I couldn't care less whether they prefer Blue Stilton to Camembert and last year went scuba-diving in Transylvania with the King of Spain. I don't care about their wonderful spouses and cute adorable (also air-brushed)kids because hey, I have a wonderful husband too and great kids but like everyone else there's a great deal of my life that isn't perfect or pleasant or even interesting.

That is why I don't want my own website because I find most writers' websites cringe-worthy unless they're about the books, book tours, book news and nothing else.

What makes people tick fascinates me and not surface gloss. I prefer to seek out that picture in the attic we all have and that you will never find in publicity handouts and on websites. But you may well find it in their fiction.

David J Griffin said...

Yes, I hope too that it will never get to a stage where published authors have to "compete", not only with their novels, but the way they look.

And anyway, if/when/if/when/if/when I get published, I can't afford plastic surgery... ;)

But of course, it helps to be presentable and be able to converse well and speak well. (That last one frightens me: to have to make speeches. The few I have made terrified me).

On that last point, I might use the following a few more times, taken from a book of speech quotes somewhere:

"The brain is a wonderful thing: it starts the moment you are born...and stops the moment you are about to make a speech".

DanielB said...

Good response! I knew you would take your own angle on it.

I suppose I found myself siding more with the Grauniad writer because the word "personable" makes my hackles rise - it's so often used as a euphemism for "blonde and perky". Not that there is anything wrong with being blonde and perky, but if you want to be a blonde, perky published writer one would hope that the ability to write would be a more useful qualification than blonde perkiness.

I find there's a difference, as well, between wanting to find out the "human side" to a writer you already like (which is what my website and other people's do - and yes, I was on holiday!) and trying to "market" their writing on these extraneous factors. I remember reading an online review of "Dreamworld" by Jane Goldman (Mrs Jonathan Ross) in which the reviewer admitted he had only bought the book because of the photo of Mrs Ross, who scrubs up rather well, looking fetching on the inside cover. I don't know - is this worse than not buying the book at all?...

Nicola Morgan said...

I guess what I'm saying, partly, is that humans are the way we are (including all being different in many ways) and that we are drawn towards making connections rather than solipsism. And that books are not entirely solo things disconnected from their writers. Pieces of literature, for example, are always analysed alongside where the authors were coming from when writing them.

Patently, the idea that books are judged according to the beauty of their authors is highly distasteful but I don't think it really happens - the Mrs Ross story is kind of an exception but in some ways not because the book was bought but not judged for that reason. In fact, sometimes, the blonde effect has the opposite result.

I think I'm saying it's the way of the world/human behaviour and we have to work within it.

Catherine - your ability to get a publishing contract will not have anything to do with your appearance, trust me. The authors in the story were all being marketed, not at the satge of a decision about the books. Yes, a marketing dept will make use of what it can, but that comes later. MArketing depts use all sorts of things other than appearance - eg difficult backgrounds, unusual route to publication, impoverished single mum writing in a café .....

Sally - I do understand, but the more people put on their websites, the more you can read beneath the surface. You can learn whether they'r cocky or modest, friendly or snooty - it's very revealing. And, you do blog .... Which tells us lots about you and helps us know you. And like you!

David - yes, the public speaking terrifies most people at first. It did me too but now I love it. not everyone does love it even after practice, but you can largely avoid it if you really want to. And there are tricks. Fear not!

Caroline Dunford said...

With the rise in popularity of book festivals there is growing necessity for authors to be performers. Of course, this isn't a new thing - Dickens' success was at least supported by his personal retelling of his stories and Chaucer didn't really have any other option if he wanted the general populous to know his work. We've not quite got as far as authors having to stand up and act out their entire work, but in what is a very media driven/global village/blog-your-heart-out age it does seem authors do have to gird their laptops and step away from the keyboard to interact with their public. I believe attractiveness may not be essential to success, but being approachable and interesting is becoming increasingly important.

emmadarwin said...

I do agree that 'attractive' is more about personality than sheer abstract good looks. That kind of attractiveness is a lot about communication, non-solipsism as someone said, about being a person that other people are happy to be interested in.

Many - most? - debut novels are signed without the publisher having laid eyes on the writer: I know mine was. And I was blonde in those days...

Thomas Taylor said...

I'll keep my comb-over then.

It's no surprise to me that publisher's marketing departments would emphasis an author's personal attributes in the context of a video interview. It is tough that writers -- largely a solitary bunch -- have to sing and dance for their lunch, but I don't see that we have much choice. In the public mind, being on a bookshelf is tantamount to being on TV.

Elen Caldecott said...

Slightly off-topic, but I just got back from watching The September Issue, which is a documentary about Vogue. There was a scene where they took three different photos of Sienna Miller and said things like 'The neck is good in this one, but the teeth are awful', 'This has a good mouth, but a dreadful jaw' etc. They took the pictures and made a composite. If Sienna can't get away with it what hope is there for the rest of us! Sigh...

catdownunder said...

Purrhaps there is some hope for me if I just keep my fur groomed, my claws trimmed and clean and my whiskers polished - then purr politely and pleasantly?
I was once told by a very eminent author that I would never write anything worthwhile because my experience of the world was not 'normal'. I do not like his books. They are supposed to be very, very good but my view of him is going to be forever coloured by his comments.

Melinda Szymanik said...

As a children's writer my main aim is to not scare the children, except for when I read my scary story in which case looking frightening is what its all about.

I just make sure I'm not having one of my bag-lady days when I step out to meet the readers. I'm not going to change how I look - ( I like to think the inside of my brain is the pretty bit) but a little spit and polish goes a long way. And if in doubt I wear my red patterned Chuck Taylors which are a great distraction...

Ebony McKenna. said...

Speaking of attractive people.
mmmmm, I like the bloke on the cover of Autonomy. :-D

Sarah said...

I get a twist in my stomach at the thought of attractiveness being part of an author's success. I need to master the craft of writing, run down an agent, revise till I can't see straight and then be ready for a TV close-up?

Come on....

However, I had quite a few job interviews this summer. Dressing well was part of that process. (This was for a teaching position!) Looking put together couldn't make up for a lack of education or experience. But it did (I think) make interviewers take said education and experience a bit more seriously.

Amanda Acton said...

GASP! Are you saying that I have to give up the doughnuts for breakfast and embark on a 3month bootcamp to ever have any hope of being published? Gosh.. and here I thought it was the WRITING that was important.

Totally slashed my dreams. Into tiny little pieces. I'm shattered.

:P

Nicola Morgan said...

Amanda - Dont panihow'Show me where I even begin to suggest that! of course it's the writing that matters (unless you are a celeb -possibly another post needed for that!), as the piece very clearly says. BUT then all authors have to engage their readers and how you engage them will make a difference. Eg, be nice, smile, pretend you like them! But first, read my blog post again (please) and maybe you'll realise what I'm saying.

Marshall Buckley said...

@Nicola:

I think Amanda *may* have been joking... :)

Nicola Morgan said...

Marshall - let's hope so. It's not always easy to tell ... Clearly my irony detector failed.

I'm guessing you all also realised that my previous comment went without my full permission - halfway through re-jigging the first sentence. Although I love my iPhone, it doesn't make commenting easy.

Michael Shawn Keller said...

Hi, I really believe that there is far to much judging in ALL industries and we all should judge by actions, works, and hearts! The cutest people in the world are the ones who have true smiles and don't judge someone because of crooked teeth, chubby belly, etc... The same is true about publishers and business - Go with the ones that have both of your needs in mind.
Mike Keller
author

Amanda Acton said...

Lol! Sorry... yes. Sarcasm. I DO have a problem with being to "subtle" in my approach, apparently, because a lot of people seem to take me seriously for reasons I can't understand. :)

But it was a YOKE! A YOKE! :P And no, I don't really eat doughnuts for breakfast either... though it might be a nice change... :P

Nicola Morgan said...

Mike - a) that doesn't contradict my point and I think it's clear I agree with you but b) we have to live and preferablly *succeed* in the world as we find it, and sometimes our lovel of "success" will be determined by to what extent we are able to engage with the rules of the game

Amanda - oh jolly good (about the doughnuts). Sarcasm/irony also risky when dealing with agents and editors as well - they tend to have detectors at least as insensitive as mine! And thanks for your separate email - will reply asap, I promise.

behlerblog said...

As an editor, I always want to know about the person behind the writing because I'll be working with them for a long time. I also want to know about them in order to sell them because I know readers are naturally curious.

A book won't sell based on the author's bio - unless the author's bio IS the selling point.

We know that author appearances sells books. People attend events and like what they hear and see; and I've had many instances where the author sold out of every book at the event. I've also attended events where the author was dull, antagonistic, rude, or exceedingly shy. They had lots of unsold books.

From a promotional standpoint, appearance an personality matters a great deal. Should it be the only element? God forbid. And that's the problem; many authors get confused with their promo persona, hello Katie Price, or think that going over the top will grant them some sort of legitimacy, hello Ms. I'll-Wear-A-Billboard-And-Look-Stupid. All it does is make us grateful that we have a shred of humility.

Jane Smith said...

Coming to the party late once again, I have to say that I find the workings of an author's mind FAR more interesting than their looks (although to sidetrack this whole discussion for a while, I'll admit that a little while ago I forced my way into Mr Blythe's home and insisting that he made me a cup of coffee and I can tell you all that he's "personable" both physically and intellectually).

Looks help. Of course they do. Especially if you've got a not-quite-stellar book to promote. But if you've got a bloody brilliant one, then you can get away with anything. There are plenty of plain-as-a-pikestaff authors out there who should reassure us all (and you'll notice that I'm not naming them, because I'm in a rare sensitive mood).

Lisa said...

It looks to me like we're actually talking about two slightly different things.

1) The Guardian article, and the beginning of this post, are referring marketing departments trying to get their authors interviewed by the press in a video format.

These are behind-the-scenes publicity machinations. What will make someone who puts together video interviews select THIS author over another? That’s why the language includes not just terms about attractiveness, but also claims that the authors can handle “anything you throw at them”--in other words, be good interviewees.

This makes sense. If your author won’t come off well in a video interview (because they’re prone to one-word answers, say), hopefully you will instead pitch them as an “erudite subject” with a “pithy wit” for a written interview. (Though I think the case would have to be extreme to turn down any additional press.)

2) But most of the examples that are being cited are from a consumer standpoint. Do I, the person browsing, pick up a book because of its author photo? Will an attractive author make me more likely to buy? Will interesting hobbies make me want to read someone's novel?

We make these decisions about whether to pick up, read about, & possibly buy a given book in a split second. I agree that the Jane Goldman story mentioned by DanielB in the comments is unusual, but only because the reviewer was so conscious of the effect of an attractive photo. People are drawn to words like "SEX" on a cover--that's why you see it so often in the bookstore--but I’m sure most of us think it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to us. Yet every little last thing about a book's design is specifically intended to appeal on a visual & tactile level. I don’t buy the idea that having a pretty blonde on the jacket is just as likely to be off-putting as it is enticing. In fact, it’s extremely likely to have enticed a potential reader long before their conscious mind could kick in and tell them that they’re not the sort of person who cares about an author’s looks.

The visual is most immediate when browsing, but I do think a good personal story can be hugely influential in helping people remember the author & helping them give word-of-mouth recommendations.


…Gosh, I sure talked a long time. I hope I made a sensible point somewhere in there.