Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What does an author look like?

When you close your eyes and try to picture the quintessential author, what/who do you see?

I mean, when prompted with 'football player' you probably think of a big, muscular guy. 'Basketball player' probably summons images of someone tall. How about librarian? Do you suddenly picture a woman in glasses maybe? Okay, so these are stereotypes, but at the same time they are stereotypes because they are common.

So what is the stereotype of an author? What is the first image that pops in your mind? When you read an author's work and then find them (either in person or online) are you often shocked by their appearance?

I get the feeling I might not be what most people picture as an author. A series of recent responses to my appearance prompts this particular observation. In particular, a recent interaction with a bookstore employee really left me wondering. The encounter went down something like this:

Me (approaching the information counter): Hi, my name is Kalayna Price and I have a book being released by Roc next month. I was hoping you could tell me who I should contact to inquire about setting up a book signing. 
Bookseller: I'm sorry, we don't have signings for self published books.
Me: (blink)
Me: (pause)
Me: Well, it's being released by Roc. That's an imprint of Penguin.
Bookseller (no pause): Having a signing will depend on if the book is returnable or not.
She did eventually give me the email address of the person in the store who handled book signings, but I couldn't help being perplexed (and a little put off) by her immediate assumption that I was self-published. Perhaps she'd had a recent encounter of her own that made her act so prickly, but I have the feeling my appearance had something to do with her reaction. It might have been my age (I'm in my twenties--though many of the writers in my genre are in the late twenty/early thirties range) or perhaps the fact my bangs are blue currently. I clean up fairly well, as in I was wearing conservative makeup and business casual clothing the day I went to the bookstore, but certain things--like the blue hair--are hard to hide. Maybe there is some factor I'm not considering for her reaction, but the fact I didn't fit into some perceived concept of what an author should look like is the first explanation that hit me, which is why I'm curious what you out there think an author looks like. 

For me, what an author looks like is a murky subject. I mean, as I am an author, I'm rather biased. Also, I break down 'what an author looks like' in to two categories: the writing author and the public author.

In my experience, the writing author looks like your average joe on a Saturday (maybe even slumming it a bit) because when writing, with the only people we encounter during the day being those in our heads, things like putting on make-up and dressing sharp are just distractions that take time away from writing the book.

But the public author? The one at conventions or book signings? Well, she or he is a much more complicated and diverse breed.

From what I've seen when meeting other authors, business casual to suits are the norm--though not the rule. I've seen authors show up in everything from jeans and tee-shirts to tuxes/ball gowns to costumes of one of their characters (and everything in between). While my personal tastes gravitate toward big black boots and corsets, I do try to dress approriately for the situation. That means at professional writing conferences I pull out my suits and try to minimize the fact my hair is two or more different colors (at least one of which isn't found in nature) at any given time and I save my fishnet gloves and stripped tights for fan conventions.

Situations where expectations are less defined are a bit more difficult. As Grave Witch is just over 20 days from release, I'm having to consider what I want to wear to signings--which I have started scheduling despite the above bookseller's response, though that response does give me pause.

These are my questions for you: How much does a person's perception of what an author should look like influences their impression of an author's work if they have never read said work? If you were at a bookstore and saw an author standing by a table with his/her books, would their appearance affect whether you stopped to look at the books? Would you be more intimidated by certain looks? More likely to take someone who looked a certain way more seriously? 

I'm extremely curious, so please chime in!
Happy Tuesday everyone!


Jessica said...

The way an author looks has never effected me about reading their work. Sometimes I don't get to know what they look like! Kim Harrison's author picture was obscured for the longest time, so I never really knew what she looked like until I met her before her third book released.

Sometimes I am surprised after reading a book and find that the author is a little older, but it's only a minor surprise.

I know that when the day comes and I am published :) people will be surprised by me. I am constantly mistaken for a teenager, high schooler when really I already graduated college. I am told constantly that I look younger than I really am and I will be grateful for it later on.

Until then, I continually get carded when it comes to buying alcohol, luckily I don't have much taste for it!

But an author's appearance or whatever will never deter me from reading their book. It's the book that interests me in the first place. After reading and loving it! I become a huge fan of said author no matter if they have the "look" of an author or not.

Stacia Kane said...

I've gotten this at a bookstore near me, too. They haven't been quite that dismissive, but pretty close. And all I wanted to do was sign some stock. That was already on their shelves! I just wanted to say hello first so they didn't think I was some random person defacing books.

I think they really are so bombarded with vanity authors, who all sign their checks and then immediately run to bookstores to start talking about being a Published Author and set up booksignings, that they're completely jaded. Not that that's an excuse, because it isn't. Heck, I went to one near me, picked my books off the shelf, introduced myself, asked for the person running the fantasy section. I was introduced to someone, had a nice chat with her. I told her I'd bring her an author copy of my next release.

Went back the following month with the book. Couldn't remember her name so asked for the person who runs the fantasy section. Was told no such person existed.

??? I explained I'd been there the month before, and I thought her name was Jenny. The guy just stood there smirking at me, insisting that no one ran their sections. So...why did someone lie to me before? Why wasn't he even trying to help me figure out who I spoke with? Why was he a complete dickhead? I don't know, but I do know it's why I don't shop at that bookstore, and probably why that chain is in such financial trouble *coughcough* because I've never had a pleasant experience with their employees. Whereas the employees of the other chain are almost without fail friendly, helpful, pleased to meet me, etc.

I wouldn't worry about it. Next time have your publicist call them, or ask to speak to a manager straight off. Tell them first thing that your publicist at Penguin Roc told you to come talk to them. Make it clear that you're not an amateur. Maybe that will help. I dunno, just guesses.

(I've never arranged a booksigning because I don't wanna do one, cuz I think no one would show up and I'll feel ridiculous.)

Kalayna Price said...

Jessica: Oh, I remember Kim's early author pictures! She was always wearing a hat low over her face and/or she was turned away from the camera with her hair obscuring her features. Author photo's like that intrigue me simply because I wonder why all the mystery. Of course, most authors who go that route write under pseudonyms so anonymity might be very important for a variety of reasons.

Stacia: Did they not want you to sign the stock or just not believe you were the author? (Or did they think you were trying to sneak self published books onto their shelves--lol)

Weird on the disappearing fantasy section organizer. Maybe the first time the employees just picked the bookseller who liked fantasy best.

Oh, and Stacia, I would totally go to your signing if it were nearby. The first Downside book (finally) worked its way to the top of my TBR. I immediately bumped the rest of the series to the top and am now in the middle of the third book. I meant to get them signed during Dragon, but I was running around like a crazy woman and never managed to meet up with you. ^_^ Some other time.

Anonymous said...

I only ever had a weird interaction like that at a chain bookstore in my home town. I went in and offered to sign stock, and they refused to believe I was me. I offered my ID, but the bookseller wouldn't even look at it.

:D Misty

Kalayna Price said...

She wouldn't even look at your ID, Misty? Crazy! So what did you do? Did you leave without signing the stock?

Oh, here is a specific question for you Misty: the first few times I met you in person you wore fancy pirate garb, but the last few times I've seen you at cons you've skipped the garb. Was this due to reception or some other reason? (if you care to share--you don't have to.)

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I'm with Stacia - I think the bigger bookstores are bombarded with all kinds of bizarre "authors." Once I did a signing at a local bookstore with two other authors and this guy came in with his self-pubbed book and sat down at the table with us! The owner finally had to ask him to leave. He wasn't gracious about it either. I think establishing relationships with the store managers or event coordinators is key.

Kalayna Price said...

Jeffe, did he say anything before he sat down at the table with you? And what was his plan--for customers to pay him for the book? Wow. Well, he had balls, I'll give him that--but no common sense or common courtesy.

It is probably true that bookstores are overwhelmed with self-pubbed books. I mean, I used to be the assistant manager of a chain store and part of my job was taking care of signings. If I didn't recognize the book or author by name, the first thing I did was look it up in the computer to see if we carried it/could order it. It was true that most of the people who walked in off the street weren't in the system but you typically gave someone the benefit of the doubt. What is even more shocking are the stories I'm hearing about having trouble signing stock! I guess the theory is that if you're important, you don't do your own PR work.

Jean V. Ryan said...

I think the problem may be genre related. A lot of booksellers like to live in the ivory tower of "real" (read literary) fiction, even though it is genre that's paying their bills.

As for what you wear, as a ROC author (way to go. They are my dream house) you can go business casual or more goth. I've been told that in several workshops. If you are comfortable wearing Goth, go for it. It makes you feel more like your books and people know what they are getting. I'll admit, I feel a disconnect from a paranormal author if they are too normal. Blue hair sounds great to me. Holly Black always has some color streak in her hair.

Bart said...

I have a friend who is lucky that way, he looks like an author. Tall, cragy good looks, full head of grey hair. They (publicist) told him to wear a black shirt to interviews and signings. Lately he's been sporting black turtlenecks and jackets.

So, yeah, you gotta look the part.

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

It's sad, for those of us who don't look much like "real" authors--being short and dumpy is NOT what people expect!

Jill McCullough said...

Blue hair? I love it! If I get published, I want to do a signing next to you!!

I never have any preconceived notions of how an author should look, although flipping to the last page to see their picture and read their bio is one of the first things I do when I pick up a book. I like it that writers come in all sizes and shapes, just like their books. No one wants a One Size Fits All writer anymore than they want a cookie cutter book. (At least that's my opinion and I'm sticking to it).

I love writers who have a strong sense of style, which is defined not just by their appearance and their clothes, but by the things they say, and the genre they write in.

I did have a funny experience somewhat similar to your bookstore one. I'm currently trying to put together some materials to build a website and thought it was high time I had a professional headshot taken. During the pre-shoot discussion with the photographer's assistant, I asked whether the photographer ever does location shots -- or at least shots with a different background than 'plain vanilla.'

The assistant said, "Of course, you probably want one of you at a desk with a cup of tea or something, right?" Now there's nothing wrong with the image, but I had to laugh (to myself). That may indeed be how I spend my day, but I'd been thinking more along the lines of a location shoot at an architecturally interesting site with lots of gargoyles and gravitas or a spooky old cemetery or something like that. But I kept quiet. (Location shoots are prohibitively expensive for me right now anyway!)

As to your specific questions, I think your appearance should be a combination of yourself and someone your audience would be comfortable approaching. Your blue hair fits perfectly with paranormal. Embrace your sense of style and have fun with it!

Good luck with your GRAVE WITCH release. Enjoy!!!

(BTW, I'm from FF&P. I don't post on that loop much but your topic interested me so I had to check it out).

mynfel said...

I haven't really had the chance to experience this yet - my first book doesn't come out until Feb 2011 - on the other hand, I did inquire at my local indie bookstore a few months ago about possible doing a signing later on.

They weren't rude exactly (since I know they *do* do author signings - I see signs on the door every once in a while proclaiming "Local Author", but when I asked them if they would be ordering my book, they just told me they would sell it on consignment if I wanted.

I tried to explain that it was going to be released from Pocket, but that didn't seem to matter.

Not sure if I will bother with them now.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I left the store without fighting about it. I called back later and fussed at the manager, but I really don't go in too often. There's a great local store and a nearby Barnes & Noble that both treat me like a star, so I just go to them instead.

Honestly, wearing garb depends on the temperature at the time and the possibility of someone being present to help me dress, since I cannot lace my bodice or my corset alone. I do like to garb properly when I can. I'll definitely be wearing my seagoing best when I appear at the Carolina Renaissance Faire Literary Weekend!


Kalayna Price said...

Thanks Jean. I've never met Holly Black in person, but I'd love to. I adore her "Tithe" series.

Bart, black turtle necks, huh? That sort of makes me think poetry, but I guess I can see author too. ^_^

Cindy, we will break all the preconceptions, right?

Jill, I'll save you a seat! I love your idea of a location shoot. I'm currently on the look out for somewhere with a dark romantic look--gargoyles and gothic arches would be a plus, or maybe a crumbling castle. I think I'm in the wrong country though. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad the discussion caught your interest.

Kalayna Price said...

mynfel, from all these stories, I'm starting to wonder if the bookstores actually want authors to visit! Hopefully all of us have much more pleasant experiences that will wash away the disparaging remarks of a couple jaded booksellers.

Misty, I know exactly where you're coming from with the corset! I don't know how many people I've taught to tie one simply because it takes a second person to get me fully dressed when I go to a con and I'll take whichever extra pair of hands can help.
Hopefully I'll see you at the Ren Fair!

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Regarding our signing-crasher: well, he did introduce himself and show us his book. I'm not sure what his plan was as he only had the one copy with him. He was a little bizarre and had no professional/social skills. In some ways I think he just wanted to sit with the "real" authors.

Further to the "bookstores don't want to do author events" like Mynfel's story: they really don't. I had a friend who managed an indie bookstore (same place as the signing I mentioned) and she really didn't like author events much. A lot of work for her, a lot of financial outlay for very little return. Unless the author is a bestseller, the store rarely makes money off the effort. Now that so many stores are about bottom-line business rather than passionately promoting authors, I think they're less inclined than ever. Unless they know and love you, like my friend did, or as others, like Jessa, mention.

Val Robertson said...

When I met Robert Crais a couple of years ago at a local conference, he told the story of the time he walked into a B&N (I don't remember if he said where) to do a booksigning and they thought he was there for a job interview, even though his picture was on the signs announcing the event.

Simon said...

A couple of things come to mind. One is that bookstore employees probably don't get paid enough to care about much more then selling books (and coffee). So they might be less willing to deal with people who are not there to look up books or buy books. Not having worked in a bookstore I could be wrong about this. The second thing is that I don't really pay much attention to the author picture in a book or their bio, those are normally the last things I look at. The story is more important to me. And I have never been to a book signing, though I would.

Marcia Colette said...

I'm more likely to approach an author if they're dressed up (blue hair, jeans, fishnets, etc.) than I am if they're in a business suit. That tells me they like to have fun and are open to just about anything, including good conversation. Anyone in a business is likely to scare me away. I deal with pressed shirts and ties on my day job. I don't want to see them in my off hours. But that's just me. ;-)

As for what an author should look like, I say whatever fits their mood. If they're feeling steampunkish, the by all means go with the goggles and top hats. If they're feeling urban fantasy, then go with the leather and boots. If they're feeling horror, then please leave the sharp objects and at home. ;-)

But I'm with Stacia. I'm sure booksellers have their reasons for not wanting to deal with people, self-pubbed or otherwise. But, that's not an excuse for rudeness regardless of the publishing credits. Explaining whatever their policy is and pointing the author in the right direction takes a lot less time and is more memorable for the right reasons than acting like an a**hole. Leave it upon the author to act like that, as I'm sure some do.

Oh, and I don't do booksignings either unless it's with a group because I'm worried nobody would show up. Next momth, I'll be doing my first local because it'll be sponsored by my HCRW chapter.

Pamela K. Kinney said...

I have done signings and you get reactions of all kinds from booksellers of all types out there. Some are entusiastic, others are "Yeah, sure."
I got in there professional like I always was when I worked for jobs as writing is my business. But that doesn't always mean a signing. Best thing, Kalayna, keep trying. You look super to me.
I've signed with fellow author and most times, alone. I do get people in and best way to make sure if you feel no on will come, is make eye contact with people walking in, and mention you are doing a signing of your book (or books) today. If they come up, let them look through the book. Be friendly and direct. Say thank you and hand a card even if they don't get it. I've have many come back afterwards.