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We know you can't tell a book by its cover, but what does the author's photograph tell us? Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA explores the relationship between an author and an author's image.

MARTHA WOODROOF: The way novelist Inman Majors sees it, his author photo will be married to his novel for life so it might as well bring something to the relationship. As his latest book, "The Millionaires," is about banking and politics, Majors didn't want to appear on his cover looking, as he puts it, like some slacker. So last July he enticed old buddy New York photographer Ted Sabarese to visit in him in Waynesboro, Virginia.

Sabarese was working on a series of photographs of derelict filling stations, and for two days they trolled the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills. Whenever they found one, Majors says, Sabarese would first shoot photos for his series.

Mr. INMAN MAJORS (Author): And then I'd come out in my suit, in front of those gas stations burning hot, and he'd take, you know, five or 10 shots of me. We had folks stopping on the side of the road: Who's the strange guy getting his picture taken in the suit in front of this weedy and abandoned gas station?

WOODROOF: In the resulting, photograph Majors indeed looks like someone who would know something about banking and politics.

Photographer Marion Ettlinger has been shooting distinctive black-and-white author portraits for over 30 years, always working in natural light and using a 40-year-old Pentax camera. Ettlinger says that in her experience, writers and their photographers kind of meet in the middle and work off each other. Ettlinger remembers photographing David Foster Wallace in 2001, seven years before the author committed suicide.

Ms. MARION ETTLINGER (Photographer): This is very fresh and painful for everybody, but when I photographed David Foster Wallace, he opened his closet to see what he was going to put on. And I spied this like large tweedy garment. And I think of it as his grandfather's overcoat. It had some kind of personal history. He went okay. And then he kind of put it on. It looked really wonderful on him.

WOODROOF: Something to do with storytelling leaves fiction readers demanding dust jacket face time with a book's author. Not so much for non-fiction readers, says Nicholas Latimer, Knopf's director of publicity for 25 years. Nonetheless, the use of novelist photos steadily increased as the text-driven magazines of the first half of the 20th century gave way to the picture-driven ones of the second half.

Latimer says the escalating cloud of the author image was clearly demonstrated to him by something a People magazine editor said during a luncheon for the Publishers Publicity Association.

Mr. NICHOLAS LATIMER (Knopf): They have actually gone on record, saying in a group of publicists: if you have an attractive looking author, there's a better chance that your book will get reviewed. That is just shocking to think that you have to have an attractive author first, and then if they've written something interesting they might review it.

WOODROOF: Jessa Crispin, whose literary blog BookSlut posts its share of author photos, agrees that too much can be made of an author's image.

Ms. JESSA CRISPIN (BookSlut): You know, I have met too many writers who look absolutely nothing like their author photo. So you meet them at a party, you're like, who are you? Like, did you hire somebody for your author photos?

WOODROOF: Revealing or not, however, the author photograph is now an essential part of marketing an author's book.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

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