A few months ago, an editorial staffer at Lucky put the word out among New York book publicists that the magazine was looking for "an attractive female author...between the ages of 25 and 35" for a planned feature. Somebody leaked the e-mail to the gossip website Gawker.com, and then I had some fun with it on my own blog, putting together a batch of "hottie literati." I began posting more lists after readers started submitting their own cute nominees (of both sexes, including a gorgeous drag queen).
It was all fun and games, but it did raise some serious questions about how writers, women in particular, get treated in the publishing marketplace—questions that were reinforced when The New York Times Book Review published a list of the "best American fiction" since 1980, which was widely criticized for ignoring the contributions of women writers. Do women have a tough time getting noticed in the literary world and, if so, does looking good give some women an edge over their competitors?
"I remember a friend telling me that her publicist had said she was pretty enough to go on television, and I was horrified," says Lisa Selin Davis, author of the novel Belly. "I assumed this was one industry where it didn't matter what you looked like." But now Davis believes that good looks can work to a writer's advantage. "Most of us, as we're reading, flip back and forth between the text and the picture, trying to imagine the person in the photo in the midst of writing," she says. "And most of us are drawn to beauty—more interested in folks who are attractive."
Mystery writer Laura Lippman is skeptical. " 'Pretty' is on a par with a great cover," she says. "It might get someone to pick up the book, but I'm not sure it can do much more than that." Another author points out that the young-adult novels she writes as E. Lockhart have no author photo but still sell much better than other books published under her real name that have a "relatively cute" picture on the jacket. "It's easier to get certain kinds of magazine press if your author photo is attractive," she concedes, "but that doesn't equate to sales, which are much more driven by distribution."
Still, author photos are a significant step on the path to publication, and writers can develop a lot of anxiety about the shoot. "For months, I put off having my author photo taken with the vague expectation that I'd first lose 10 pounds," recalls Whitney Gaskell, author of Pushing 30. "Then two blue lines showed up on my home pregnancy test, which meant that I'd soon look like one of the tutu-wearing hippos from Fantasia. I called the photography studio the next day."
Novelist Tracy Quan says she doesn't "go to extreme measures" to maintain her appearance but admits that she lived on a pineapple-and-fish diet for a month before the publication date for her latest novel, Diary of a Married Call Girl. "The beauty of a fall launch date is being able to eat very little in August," she quips. "A springtime launch is more challenging—you have all that winter fat to get rid of."
Even with her skeptical view toward the "pretty author" concept, Lippman visited a well-known professional for her photo. "My publishers sent me to Marion Ettlinger, because in the ongoing battle between vanity and laziness in my life, laziness wins," she says. "I simply would not do the things that would ensure a photogenic outcome, so they sent me to Marion, who can work around such limitations."
These pressures aren't limited to women writers, though. When it was time to get a picture taken for the jacket of my book, The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane! I had plenty of worries. The photo had to be in black-and-white, because my skin's too pasty. It had to be at just the right angle, because my chin disappears if you look from my bad side, and my cheeks look enormous. And of course I needed a haircut. It wasn't until I saw the proof sheets that I finally relaxed.
For most writers, says literary agent Ginger Clark, looks won't be an issue, but "the bigger the deal, the more often it matters." She explains, "If your agent is positioning you as the next big literary fiction genius—and therefore making it clear she's expecting people to bid high—she's probably doing so with the added bonus of you being attractive." But long before attractiveness enters the equation, agents and editors will be more focused on basic presentability. "A well-spoken, articulate, intelligent and witty author is always a bonus," Clark says.
Along those lines, I think novelist Sonia Singh, author of Bollywood Confidential, has the right idea. She stopped fussing about whether she was attractive enough to make it as a writer once she realized it was an issue only for superstar writers like J.K. Rowling, who went "from timid redhead to blond bombshell" over the course of the Harry Potter series. "As long as I'm on the right side of clean and presentable," Singh says, "back fat in evidence or not, the publisher is happy." And if your publisher's happy, you can stop driving yourself crazy staring in the mirror and get back to staring at that empty computer screen.