Bad Hair, Ripped T-Shirts and Jammies, Oh My! Author Photo Blunders…By Angela Hoy

Bad Hair, Ripped T-Shirts and Jammies, Oh My! Author Photo Blunders…By Angela Hoy

At the risk of offending some authors, and after yet another uncomfortable and embarrassing email discussion with an author this week, I must bring this up.

Many authors choose to put their photo inside or on the cover of their book. This is usually a good idea because readers want to get to know the authors of the books they read. Sometimes, however, a photo can kill a book. How? Well, again, this is a bit uncomfortable but somebody needs to say it. So, here goes…

Once, the author of a weight loss book submitted a book that had his before and after photos on the cover. Big deal, you say. Well, I had to be the one to tell the author that his after photo made him look bigger than his before photo. You can imagine the squirming involved, on my part, when writing that email. I was terrified of hurting his feelings but it it had to be said. Somebody had definitely given him some bad advice about those photos!

Recently, I saw a cover for a humorous book. The author wasn’t smiling in the photo on the back. In fact, he was grimacing, almost frowning. He also appeared to be wearing pajamas though he later claimed it was indeed a shirt. That email, too, was incredibly difficult for me to write. But, hey, somebody had to be honest with them.

Why would authors choose to feature these photos of themselves on their covers? Well, I can’t be sure, but I would assume they showed these pictures to friends or family members and, not wanting to hurt their feelings, these friends and family members responded with, “Oh! You look GREAT!”

If you are using a photo of yourself for the inside or cover of your book, and/or to promote yourself in any other way, it must be a great photo – not only with regards to your expression, pose and attire, but also with regards to quality. I’ve seen PR photos that are so dark you can barely see the authors, and photos that are so out-of-focus that I’ve had to blink a few times to see if it was my eyes or the photo itself. I’ve had to reject photos that featured a teensy, tiny, almost indistinguishable picture of the author…with 95% of the picture being unrelated background.

There are other considerations that apply as well. Many authors believe they can use their Glamour Shots or Olan Mills photos wherever they want. This is not the case. Whenever I need a PR photo or sketch ( of some sort, I always pay the photographer or artist extra, and have them sign a contract giving me all rights to my image. That way, there is never any question about who has the right to use that image for profit.

Here’s what Glamour Shots says:

“Glamour Shots® portraits are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without special written permission by Glamour Shots Licensing, Inc. Copying, reproducing and scanning of Glamour Shots® copyrighted portraits is not permitted and falls under copyright infringement laws. If you wish to purchase additional portraits, please contact the studio in which they were taken. We’d be happy to help you with your reorder.”

At Olan Mills, they may give copyright to the customer in the event that their firm “cannot fulfill a specific need” (like if the photo is two years old or if they can’t print it at a specific size). There is no mention of anyone being able to us an Olan Mills photo for profit. I called Olan Mills but got the run-around by their voicemail system, which eventually hung up on me (very rude and unprofessional). Just because you buy a portrait from Olan Mills doesn’t mean you own it. It’s clear from their website that they own the copyright.

What about JC Penny Portrait Studio?

“All images created by JCPenney Portraits are the property of Lifetouch Inc. and its subsidiaries (collectively “Lifetouch”)…”

Basically, with almost any creative product, be it book or photo, the person who creates it owns the copyright. Just because you are in the photo does not mean you own the rights to use it. And, just because you paid to have it created also does not mean you own the copyright to it.

So, what’s an author to do? I would not recommend asking your friend or family member to take your picture, unless that person is a professional photographer. I’m lucky. My brother, Justin, is indeed a professional photographer. Too bad he lives 1800 miles away…in The Woodlands, Texas. Even if he did take my photo, I would still need to get a work-for-hire contract from him (and pay him extra) for all rights to the photo. Do I think my brother would sue me if I didn’t? No, but nobody ever thinks a family member will sue them…but family members sue each other all the time. My brother is also a pastor…but pastors also sue people. Always get an agreement in writing, whether they’re family (or clergy!) or not!

There are countless independent photographers and photography studios who aren’t bound by corporate hierarchy and who will be happy to negotiate rights with you. Search for the word photographer under your city and state. When I paid an artist to sketch me (from a photo), she only charged me an extra $10 for all rights! There are countless freelance artists online, with nice websites showcasing their work. Many even feature price lists.

Another option is to search out artists who offer custom sketches and/or portraits on (which is one of my favorite sites, by the way!) and Here are some examples:

Custom Graphite and Pastel Portraits – $75
“Send me your favorite photograph and have it made into a beautiful portrait that you will cherish for a lifetime.”

Detailed Custom Charcoal Portrait – $110
This listing is for an 8″x10″ charcoal portrait of one person. Your portrait will be hand drawn by me on heavyweight acid free cotton rag paper…”

Custom Portraits from your photos – $199
“Hand painted watercolor portraits from your own favorite photos!”

Custom Hand-Drawn Pencil Drawings 8X10 from your photo – $45.00 (SHE’S REALLY GOOD, TOO!)
“The size of this piece will be (paper size) 9X12…”

Regardless who you hire, don’t forget to let them know during the ordering process (not after the fact) that you want to buy all rights to the photo/artwork. You can either include a work-for-hire rights clause in the artist’s or photographer’s existing contract, of you can offer them your own contract. You can read an example of this clause, as well as a sample work-for-hire contact, HERE.

Finally, for photographs, you should avoid shots that are overly hokey (unless hokey is the impression you want to give) and you should also avoid shots that make you appear unfriendly, angry, disinterested, or mean (unless that’s the look you’re going for). Your hair and clothing are very important. I’m not saying you need to wear a suit (in fact, you should not in most cases) but I am saying that ratty t-shirts, sweatpants and pajamas do not belong in PR photos unless, of course, your book is about college students, gyms, or sleepovers. You understand what I’m getting at. Full-body shots on a book cover make it very difficult to see the author’s face (it’s far too small) so I recommend only headshots on covers.

In closing, I thought I’d share some good and, well, not-so-good PR photos I found online with you.


MJ Rose – Great contrast and nicely focused

Again, great contrast, perfectly focused:

Nice, but if you put a full-body shot on the back of a book, the author will be too small

Very nice. She looks like she could be anybody’s friend


Not enough contrast, and very out-of-focus:

Way too dark, not focused, and it looks like it was taken on the fly in an office hallway

Boring background, um…wrinkled shirt, and he looks upset about something


Angela Hoy is the co-owner of and is the free marketing emag for writers that features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, is one of the top-rated POD publishers in the industry.