We have all, no doubt, heard the common saying about judging a book by its cover but rarely do we read how an author’s appearance can create a perception among readers and potential readers alike.

pmterrellIt has been nearly twenty years since the publisher of my first suspense sent me on a photo shoot. The resulting pictures were to be in black and white only and absolutely no smiling. Because my genre was suspense, the publisher wanted to recreate the mood on my face: dark, mysterious, enigmatic. My website design was also dictated, the background in black and the suspenseful mood carried throughout. One of the marketers assigned to me even suggested in the strongest terms that I should never show my face at all, as she thought that it would cost me sales.

The problem with never showing my face came to light quickly, as I was expected—and contractually obligated—to appear at book signings and events. And what happened was enlightening.

It turned out that when I appeared in person, my books flew off the shelves and one reader after another suggested that I ditch the original photograph, as it caused me to appear unapproachable and closed. In reality, I am a warm person, quick to smile, quick to laugh, and that came across in person where the persona my publisher sought to create around me produced a barrier.

But something else was happening over the past twenty years and particularly, since 2010. It happened not only in the publishing industry but throughout all industries, as the Internet and social media turned everything that we knew before in the areas of sales, marketing and promotion on its head.


If you think back to the days before the Internet, those who had something to sell were constantly advertising to us. Television shows could not be recorded and commercials could not be fast-forwarded through. Radio programs were required to have a certain number of sponsor breaks and commercials each hour. Our mailboxes were filled with catalogs and flyers, magazines had more advertisements than they do today, and newspapers were something everybody subscribed to and they were filled with local businesses vying to get our attention.

The advertisers were pushing their way into our homes.

The Internet and especially social media changed all of that. Now a consumer goes in search of what they want. They fast-forward through commercials, they are blind to online banners and ads (necessitating the pop-ups), printed newspapers and magazines are dwindling in their readerships. Even our mailboxes have only the occasional piece of “junk mail”. In the world of email, spam is stopped at the gates and it’s quite possible that users may see only 1% of what their filters are allowing in.

Today, for an author to make a sale, the consumer has to reach out to us.

Today, it is all about relationships. Sure, the 1/10 of 1% of authors can afford to build a wall around themselves. They are wealthy and their publishers promote their work heavily—usually through subscribed emails, informational blogs and television interviews. Press releases have taken the place of advertising and social media firms pretend to be the author to engage fans.

PressFor the 99% of authors who are not in the upper echelons, engagement is the way to reach new fans and sustain a loyal following. When a reader feels like they are invested in an author, they spread the word about their books, forward information about new releases, and make suggestions at their local libraries and schools.

So how do you make them feel as if they are invested?

It all goes back to relationships. A Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a Pinterest board and/or a blog, for example, engages the reader. The successful author tells them the inside story of the book, shares scenes that might have been cut from the final version, engages them in contests and encourages them to place themselves in the characters’ shoes. The tweet that blatantly asks for buyers, the post in which an author sounds off at a real or imagined threat or the attempts to put space between the author and the reader are all sure-fire ways to fail.

In today’s social atmosphere, readers want to feel as if the author is their friend—even if they will never meet them in person. If they have an impression that the author is a good person, a kind person, a nice human being, they are more likely to purchase their books—even if the genre is not the type they generally read. This has happened to me time and again, as readers will tell me that they had never read suspense—or even a work of fiction—until they read my books. Why did they decide to read them? Because they decided they liked me as a human being.

Which brings me back to the picture. After several years of a website with a black background and a black-and-white picture of myself, my website now reflects who I am as a person—and so does my picture.

So how do you decide what is right for you?

If you have a track record like I do (I’ve been published since 1984) you know what works and what doesn’t. If you are new in this business or your books are not selling as well as you’d like, find some New York Times (or the equivalent) bestselling authors whose books are similar to your own—in other words, authors whose readership could also be yours.

What do their photographs tell you about themselves? What are they posting on social media? What are they writing about on their blogs? How do they come across in television interviews and if you have an occasion to meet them in person?

What is the theme of their website? Dark, light, colors and fonts are all part of the package that entices someone to buy or move on.

If you have experienced feedback about your website or your author persona, please feel free to share it below!

p.m.terrell is the internationally acclaimed, award-winning author of more than 20 books in several genres. Her first book was published in 1984 and she became a full-time writer in 2002. She has mentored authors for more than 15 years and is the co-founder of The Book ‘Em Foundation and the founder of the Book ‘Em North Carolina Writers Conference and Book Fair. For more information, visit www.pmterrell.com.