Monday, April 21, 2014

Publishing question: showing your face

I'm a female writer in my thirties. My agent has just contacted me with a fantastic offer for my first two novels. I should be ecstatic, but there's an aspect of the book business these days that I perhaps willfully didn't think about until now, and I'm afraid it could foul the deal. 

The proposed contract calls for a heavy schedule of interviews, book signings, and so on. I've only communicated with my agent by email and phone, and I keep a very low profile online, so neither she nor the publisher know that several years ago I was severely disfigured in an accident. I only feel comfortable revealing my face to a few close friends, family members, and doctors, and never leave my house without either a wide-brimmed hat and opaque black veil (which I prefer), or dark glasses, a surgical mask, and a wig (as I no longer have hair).

I'm perfectly willing to be photographed, do signings, etc. with my face covered. I'm equally willing to let a model/actress/intern of the publisher's choice stand in for me. How likely is it that the publisher won't accept either of these solutions? If I disclose this before signing the contract, might they withdraw their offer and go with a more photogenic writer? If I disclose it after signing, can they sue me or attempt to force me to reveal my face? Thank you for any guidance you can provide.

First let me say that the publisher and your agent love your writing and thus they are going to love your face.

However. I can appreciate that you are reluctant to have a public presence right now. It will take another couple years to understand that people who are cruel to you based solely on your appearance are idiots and fuck em.

The trick here is to talk to your agent NOW. Share your concerns.  You will be instantly reassured because much publicity and marketing is done electronically these days, and you can choose whatever photo you wish to represent yourself.

In fact, there's a well-known agent who fancies herself a bit of a shark:

and uses that avatar for everything.

Perhaps you can be equally fierce

I myself have begged fashionistas to re-embrace theburka; perhaps you will join my quest?

All levity aside: a publisher has no desire to cancel a contract for failure to show your face. Publishers are money-grubbing whores [as we all are] and cancelling a contract Does Not Make Money.  Novels rarely require actual in-person promotion.  Debut novels require the least. You'll be much more effective promoting yourself right now from behind your computer screen. 

Don't be afraid. You're going to do just fine.


MNye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
french sojourn said...

I never thought that through as well. I am horribly shy but hide behind constant attempts at humor.
I'm always the one in the family photo with one eye half closed, the other is neon blue for some strange reason.

Know that the most important thing a reader will judge you on is your voice, sounds like you've gotten that demon chained. Well done and be strong.
I bet I'm not the only one sending you strength and rooting for you.

Cheers Hank

Colin Smith said...

Janet is far more qualified to give you reassurance than I am. I just want to offer my support and encouragement to you. Talk to your agent, and don't contract to do anything you feel uncomfortable doing. If an agent or publisher won't take you on merely because you prefer not to show your face, remember this: you can always self-publish. If your novel is good enough to get the attention of an agent, you can easily pay an editor to help you whip it into shape, and then take it directly to the marketplace. Hopefully, a reluctant agent and/or editor will also recognize this fact of modern publishing, and think twice before letting you (and your potential income) go, no matter what. :)

I wish you every success! :)

JLR said...

I would like to add my words of encouragement and assurance to the rest. I agree that it's the writing and the story that are important and although seeing an author is nice, it's not a dealbreaker by any means. I read some of S. L. Viehl as well as her blog. Although she has not suffered from disfigurement she has had several medical issues and does not like to do much with public appearances. She jokes that her only publicity photo is over 20 years old with way too much make up. You may be able to reach out to her (or read her blog, Paperback Writer) for some advice.

I wish you well!

Susan Bonifant said...

This inquiry, and the response to it was the most touching exchange I've read in a while. Janet Reid, you're the real deal.

Anonymous said...


stacy said...

As a reader, I really only care about your words, your story and your humanity. And there are lots of people out there just like me.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I second Susan's sentiments as that was my reaction to this whole post, too. If this question can be brought to the supposed shark, then surely the agent in question will be equally understanding, compassionate, and creative in how to continue to work with the publisher regarding the publicity.

LynnRodz said...

First of all, congratulations on getting a fantastic offer for your first two novels! Good for you. Second, I'm sure everything Janet said about publishers, agents, and idiots are correct. Third, if publishers depended on photogenic writers, more than half the great books written would never have found their way into print!

As everyone has said here, don't worry about public appearances or book signings. Do what you feel comfortable doing. For instance, you can do radio Interviews as opposed to television. We're all rooting for you and let us know how things turn out so we can buy your books when they come out!

All the best to you!

Elissa M said...

Ditto everything above. Talk to your agent. Television and other visual media have over-emphasized the importance of one's looks. Most people are more accepting than "social" media would have us believe.

"people who are cruel to you based solely on your appearance are idiots and fuck em."

This line should be posted on the doors of every middle school in the country.

Anonymous said...

And then there is the side of humanity - like the ones here who commented - who care about your work and you.

I want to tell you first of all, congratulations on your publishing deal (!!!) and wish you all the best as you plunge into the excitement that must feel a bit surreal at the moment. Ditto, ditto, ditto what everyone said! I can't say it any better, so I'll just say this, I think you'll find more compassionate people out there than you can imagine.

Calorie Bombshell said...

Readers will be focusing on your words, not your face. We all have physical aspects that aren't quite "perfect." Celebrate your amazing accomplishment. This is the time to be joyful!

Anita Joy said...

Congratulations!! on your two-book deal.

I've got two points to add that I don't think anyone else has mentioned. The first is that I wouldn't have a clue what most of the authors I read look like. To be honest, I don't actually care. I love their written word and that's what keeps me buying their books. Nothing else.

Secondly, I'm in Australia. When I'm published I won't be able to attend book signings etc in America (my target audience - cozy mysteries aren't well read here). Nor are the thousands of international authors who are published in America.

Good luck!

nightsmusic said...

You obviously have a passion for writing and it has shown through resulting in a fantastic offer. Enjoy that. Let your agent know and then accept that sometimes, it's the mystery of the persona just as much as the words on the page that can draw readers to your work.

I have a very dear friend who, after 50+ novels, is finally starting to make the rare public appearance. There is only one picture of her to be found anywhere on the internet and yet, she's a top selling author with a great following.

Stop worrying about what you cannot change and focus on what you've already changed, your ability to write, and keep growing in that.

I wish you all the best.

Amy Schaefer said...

I hope that your publisher will work with you on doing signings with your face covered, as you prefer. I imagine you'll have to find a standard one-liner to explain being covered up to your audience, but I'm sure you can craft a clear statement that won't invite further questions of the none-of-your-beeswax variety.

And, like the rest of the commenters, I don't care in the smallest way what writers look like. I want their words - end of story. So go on out there and be awesome!

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...


DLM said...

I hope like goodness this does not sound crass, but as far as appearances go, there is an opportunity to spin a certain mystique. This occurs to me because Janet mentions the whoring side of the business of success - and, well, people love a sense of mystery. (Depending on genre, it could even feed into the marketing.) Think about the many authors through time we have seen as elusive demigods because they were or are reclusive.


Entirely apart from the crass suggestion/thought/completely appalling piece of wrongheadedness above, everyone is correct - and thank goodness, this is not a modeling gig. I know a vast array of authors I find excruciatingly beautiful, but not because they're into Glamour Shots - and most of my favorites, like several have said, I couldn't point out in a photo lineup. I'm sure there are ways around backflap head shots, and as Janet says - the best way to make money is to find the best way to sell the book - not the author's portraits.

Congratulations and all the best in your career!

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Your body may have been damaged in the accident, but obviously your heart, soul, and brain are perfectly intact.

I get the place you are in right now.

Not quite 5 years ago my (now ex) husband was horrifically injured in an accident. It left him paralyzed. I had to assume the public face of our company and carry it on, all the while fending off those who wanted to know when he would be back in the public eye and back to work. I had to communicate with the fans of his art - bridging the gap between their enthusiasm and his need for privacy.

You and he have something in common. You are both a body of work and talent and not a sideshow. You can choose to reveal or not to reveal yourself as you see fit. It is all about your work.

You do need to talk to your agent, as in yesterday. I'm pretty confident when I say that the only kind of surprises agents like are between the covers of books and under the lid of cupcake boxes.

Like me with my ex, your agent is your public face in this contract and needs all the information. You have zero to apologize for, but this is a time to be upfront with her.

All the best to you and congrats on the deal. Make sure we all find out the title so we can check it out.

Take care - Terri

Eliza said...

She could always do what Lemony Snicket does for his author pictures....

Anonymous said...

Writer, congrats on the book deal!

And don't worry about the promotion. Really, the only authors who seem to be marched in front of the camera often are the preternaturally good-looking. And (not to diminish your problems) that's precious few of us.

In my experience, when a publisher talks "promotion" we tend to assume that means personal appearances. They tend to assume it means IndieNext mailings, website banner ads, and bidding for endcap display at Barnes & Noble.

NLB said...

Janet said it all. Very few authors do live book signings, so that might be the only aspect to get removed from the contract. Find a fabulous avatar (NOT a shark...that's taken) and prepare to wow people with your WORDS. Good luck!
Nancy Lee Badger

Anonymous said...

I just want to add my voice to the chorus of support. Congratulations on your book deal -- enjoy!

And, Janet, thank you for the lovely response to this question. I'm with Elissa - every middle school should have T-shirts made. Oh, the things I'd wish I'd known when I was 14...

Stoich91 said...

Maybe I should be offering encouragement right now but Janet you were so hilarious I literally am crying with laughter...may or may not have to do with finals delusional week disorder ha! What a perfect way to sum up a very interesting problem - I love the idea of publishers as money grabbing whores...sounds so much like the entertainment business...human nature doesn't change much from arena to arena, I suppose!

To the author - Go, fight, win!!!

Lynn Viehl said...

As one of the commenters has already mentioned, I haven't made public appearances since 2003 when my arthritis began affecting my motor skills and mobility as well as the appearance of my hands. Regular surgeries to repair the damage also altered my appearance in unattractive ways. For a couple of years I gained a lot of weight because I was confined to a wheelchair while recovering from back and knee surgery.

I didn't make my health issues public for quite a few years (I thought I was entitled to some privacy, silly me), and I did get some grief from a couple of online entities who called me snobby because I hold booksignings. I didn't mind that because they had no idea I couldn't even hold a pen in my hands in those days.

Despite the online ugliness, my publishers -- and I've worked for half a dozen major houses -- never pressured me to make any public appearances. They asked, I declined without explanation, and that was that. I made the NYT bestseller list without ever showing my face once in public. So you don't have to step into the limelight to be a success.

The surgeries and weekly physical therapy have helped me quite a bit, but it still took a long time for me to work up the courage (plus a series of some very painful shots) to step out into the public eye. I finally did it this year I went to make a surprise visit to a dear-to-me online writer friend at a small conference booksigning. After that I spent three days signing books at a big non-publishing conference.

Some, maybe even most, people want authors to be pretty people, not recovering cripples. So sometimes these people stare at you, make unkind remarks and/or otherwise behave like ignorant twits. There was one gentleman at the first con I visited this year who actually stood in front of me and stared at me for a full five minutes without saying a word to me. So you have to be ready for that. A few people will want to take pictures of you, flattering and otherwise, and they may post them on the internet. Even fewer people may take pictures of you without your knowledge and post them. So if you decide to go into the public eye, be prepared for all that.

If you choose to protect your privacy you will have some obstacles that other, unhindered authors don't have to deal with. I chose to build an online presence in lieu of being in the public eye, and that's worked very well for me. Consider your options, but above all, don't do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or unhappy.

Lynn Viehl said...

To correct a typo in my comment -- online folks thought I was snobby because I didn't hold booksignings, not because I did! Apologies.

Anonymous said...

Dear OP,

Facial disfigurement is not anything you should ever feel ashamed of. If the world were just, you would appear on your covers and in public however you WANT TO.

Your letter to Janet filled me with rage on your behalf. You have no obligation to anyone to justify, explain, or compensate for your own face. If you feel more comfortable being represented by a face that isn't yours, that's your right. If you feel more comfortable appearing as you are, that's your right.

Given your letter and your talent, you seem like a person I would love to get to know. I'm lucky: I haven't been in any horrible accidents. I have no idea what you're going through.

If you'd like another friend, please get in touch: I'm "notveryalice" on twitter and gmail.