Topper Jones

The Search for Clues in Picking the Perfect Author Photo

Sherlock Holmes Collage

I could use your help. I’m on a quest for the perfect author photo for my mystery series. There’s got to be some clues, right? This is a mystery after all—or at least, mystery-adjacent. With so many photos of interest to investigate, I could really use an assist. Working together, we might just be able to find the right mug shot for a fledging whodunit writer.

All those responding to the request for feedback will be entered into a drawing for one of five signed copies of All that Glisters when it releases later this year. Details at the end of this post.

But first, let’s get into the case brief. As Sgt. Joe Friday says in the Dragnet series, “Just the facts, ma’am.”


Fact One:   Readers judge a book by the author’s cover photo.


Fact Two:   The best author photos send the right signal.


Fact Three: Photographers do magic with light.


Judgmental Readers


We can’t help it. We judge. It’s a survival strategy. It’s in our DNA.


Through our superior ability to assess threats and size up opportunities, we have—so far—avoided the fate of dinosaurs. We can read someone’s social standing from posture, wardrobe, and facial gestures. We’re good with visual cues.


When a potential reader picks up our book while browsing or peruses the product link to an online bookstore, the cover image and the title will pique curiosity. The blurb will give them an idea of what the story’s about. But it’s the author photo that gives insight into the question at the back of every book shopper’s mind:


Who wrote this?


What’s their story?


And do they have the “cred” to pull it off?


Yep. That’s what we’re up against. Snap judgments based on nothing more than a snapshot.


Which brings us to Fact Two. Author photos are literally an “expression”—an expression fraught with meaning. They can’t help but send a signal. And if it’s the “perfect” author photo, a “perfect” signal. What might that be?


Messaging Done Right


Perfect signaling helps those you’re trying to reach, discover you. Effective author photos signal what kind of books you write. Specifically the genre, tone, and style. It gives potential readers a peek into your creative psyche and the “mind candy” to expect from your prose. In the parlance of marketing, it’s how your brand speaks. It’s how you communicate your brand promise (Technical term: value proposition). 


So, what’s my brand?


Good question. Especially, because when I contacted my photographer to see if she had any openings, she asked: “What image are you trying to convey? When you know that, text me.”


I put on my thinking cap, scratch out a few notes, revise, and then revise some more before firing off the following message:


 —I need my author photo to inform potential readers about the genre, tone, and style of my writing while creating intrigue. Here are the details.


Genre: Mystery with a dash of romance and plenty of action.


Book Series Tone: Amateur sleuthing by a relentless everyman/everywoman duo bent on getting justice even if it means coloring outside the lines. The characters watch their language, and the criminals are educated, but sometimes the morally repugnant do nasty things. Hope abounds, with no place for noir-style dread. Order will be restored. That’s a promise.


Writing Style: Conversational tone with a sense of humor. This is a breezy read.


My photographer texts back—When can we meet?


Photographic Magic


Like many of you, I’ve taken a photography class or two. I learned to use a light meter and to set f-stops. But capturing the magic? That requires an artist. A real pro. Fortunately, my photographer had room for me in her shooting schedule. We set up a pre-shoot meeting to review the goal of the photo session.


In the meetup, we talk about what to wear. Do I need a haircut? Should my wife join us as an extra pair of eyes? My photographer even has some ideas for location shots. But before all that, before the day of the shoot, she wants some reference samples. Photos I feel capture the genre, tone, and style of what I’m going for in an author selfie.


So, I do a little homework. I scour social media, author websites, and Amazon author photos of mystery writers that influenced me. To that list, I added the Mystery Writers of America Edgar® Award winners from the last couple of years—the new blood in crime writing. Then I send my photographer a bunch of author shots.


She texts back—Which are your favs? And why?  You sent me over sixty images. Can you narrow it down?


I send back a short list in alpha order with the “whys.” (In case you want to take a look yourself, I’ve included the web links.)


My Favs


Michael Connelly (The Harry Bosch series; The Lincoln Lawyers series; The Renée Ballard series).

Why: approachable, open-mouth smile, casual but dressy, photo studio white background.


Robert Crais (The Elvis Cole & Joe Pike series).

Why: mysterious lighting, serious, believable as a crime writer.


Umberto Eco (Literary mysteries: The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum).

Why: classic, spy-like, blurred background.


Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl; Sharp Objects; Dark Places).

Why: blurred background, sunny, close-mouth smile.


Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves).

Why: artsy, off-centered, photo studio black background.


Will Leitch (How Lucky).

Why: side glance, business casual, natural setting, color, just enough of a smirk to not be a smirk.


Ira Levin (A Kiss Before Dying).

Why: classic, street pose, smile, looks like a spy breaking cover.


Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache series).

Why: professional, background reminiscent of her book settings, closed-mouth smile, waist-to-head shot.


There was one author photo I really liked but didn’t send her: Robert Parker, author of the Spenser series. I just didn’t feel like I could pull off the tough guy look, no matter how much I bulked up.


The Day of the Shoot


My wife likes the surf-do look so, on the day of the shoot I blow out my hair—bushy, bushy once-blond hairdo. I pull out the ironing board and touch up the wash ’n wear shirts. Gather up the wardrobe. 


You have your wetsuit?—my photographer texts.


My series protagonist likes to catch a few waves when he’s not solving crimes. California surf fashion seems like the perfect accessory for the photo shoot. And what’s more hard-core than a full-body wetsuit? 


Yup.—I respond.


We start indoors. White backdrops in the studio. Then, black backdrops. All-natural lighting, sun shining at just the right angle. Business casual wardrobe first, transitioning to surf couture. And then the wetsuit.


With the sun hanging low in the sky, we migrate outside to mysterious passageways, back alleys, and then local cityscapes above the skyline. More wardrobe changes. Click, click, click of the camera shutter.


And the Winner Is?


That’s where you come in. 


I’ve narrowed down to a handful, the hundreds of shots my photographer took. What I need now is your feedback. After reviewing the candidate shots (keeping in mind the author photo purpose: to inform potential readers about the genre, tone, and style of my writing while creating intrigue), send me a list of your top three, rank ordered. If the spirit so moves, share with me your reasoning. Why you picked one over the other? You can reach me with your ranked listing at:


Based on your feedback, I’ll select the perfect author photo for my website, social media, and Amazon Author page.


All those responding to the request for feedback will be entered into a drawing for a signed copy of All that Glisters when it releases later this year. I’ll be giving away a total of five books. The drawing closes on July 24th so get me your top three picks.


Send your first, second, and third picks (and your reasoning) to:

Option 1 - author portrait Option 2 - author portrait
Option 3 - author portrait Option 4 - author portrait
Option 5 - author portrait Option 6 - author portrait
Option 7 - author portrait Option 8 - author portrait

One More Thing...

Have a friend who may be interested in the Perfect Photo Drawing?  Just forward the newsletter or have them contact me at:


Further Exploration

For a no-nonsense overview of getting the perfect author photo, take a look at:

The Scribe Guide to Author Photos & Photos by Tucker Max

Web address:


For a humorous take on author photos, check out:

Decoding the Author Photo by Blythe Roberson (Sep 20, 2021)

Web address:

Join Me

Thanks for reading my blog. You can get more ideas for navigating today’s fast-paced publishing world in my popular email newsletter. Each week, I share insights into the writing craft, tips for further exploration, and the latest news on Hanlon & de la Guerra mystery series. Click the link below now and join us.

Try the free newsletter




Subscribe to my newsletter!

* indicates required