Thursday, 27 January 2011

Do appearances matter?

By Peter Stuart Smith

Rather than a book cover, I thought this week I'd come out of the closet properly, as it were, so you can see what I look like. And, obviously, just prove to all the doubters that I don't always go around wearing ragged jeans and a shirt (though I confess this is my usual attire, to the constant despair of my wife) and I do own both a DJ and a bow tie. Just the one of each, in fact.

I do sometimes wonder how important the physical appearance of an author really is. I remember when my first book – 'Overkill' – enjoyed a brief flurry of attention as a couple publishers tried to buy it. One publisher, who shall remain nameless, made an offer for it as part of a two book deal, but was quickly outbid by Macmillan, who finally published this book and the sequels. My agent went back to the first publisher to ask if they'd be prepared to make a higher offer, and was given a blunt refusal. Not, strangely, because they didn't like the book, but because I was not, as that particular editor put it, a '35-year-old hunk'.

Now I can see that a publisher might be put off a bit if the writer of a particular manuscript proves to be a spectacularly sad and unattractive example of humanity, but the reality, surely, is that probably 99% of the people who read a book have not the slightest idea of what the author looks like. And I don't suppose any of them actually care. People buy books, I think, to lose themselves in another world. A world of romance, or danger, or even another world altogether, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Whether the author is bald, has a cleft palate, or weapons grade body odour is of absolutely no importance to them. All that matters is the writing.

About the only time when appearances might be important is when an author attends a book signing or embarks on a speaking tour or something of that sort, and even then what he or she says has to be far more important than what he or she looks like.

Some time ago, my agent came up with the radical idea of body doubles for authors. He was only half serious about it, but he said that if the appearance of a writer was deemed to be so important for a publisher, the author could stay behind in his lonely garret, scribbling away at his latest masterpiece while a beautiful/handsome (delete as appropriate) twenty-something hired for the occasion could ponce about at launch parties and other events, drinking champagne and getting drunk at the publisher's expense.

And then I suppose you can do the things from the other side, as it were, and do a Jordan. Just become notorious for something or other – preferably something legal and not necessarily involving mammary development – and then become an 'author' by the simple expedient of hiring a ghostwriter and having your name slapped on the front cover of every book the poor sap writes for you.

Which reminds me of a slightly amusing story that was related at a Society of Authors' event I attended a few years ago. Apparently one of Jordan's people was ringing round the literary agencies in London seeking representation for her. One of the people he called was a particularly literary literary agent, who was clearly not completely in touch with the celebrity culture. When Jordan's rep posed the question 'Would you be prepared to represent Jordan?' there was a longish pause, and then the agent replied 'I don't believe I can represent an entire country.' I understand the telephone conversation finished quite soon after that.


  1. Appearance, age, gender, shouldn't make any difference. A book should stand or fall on its own merits. As for this bizarre cult of celebrity - don't get me started! In her defence, at least Katie Price is upfront (sorry!) about adding her name to books written by someone else. There are a number of authors who are less honest about who really writes 'their' books.

  2. I've heard of celebrities hiring a ghostwriter to rewrite/repair a poorly written book. In such cases(I assume), the story is already there. All that is missing is the craft of writing. A celebrity (I had to google Ms. Price)lending their name to a finished product astounds me. I suppose it shouldn't because they lend their names/brands to fragrances and clothing lines. I doubt anyone designs menswear between movies.

    Another thought - What if a beautiful 20 year-old woman creates a masterpiece? Should she use a pseudonym and hire a distinguished looking author type for the photo shoot?

  3. I was introduced to a stranger by a friend of mine one day in the market with the words: 'Mick's an author'. The stranger's reply was: 'Blimey, a real live one!' Sums it up really.