The Six Faces of Biography – with Flowchart!

What do you put on the cover of your biography?

An obvious answer is a photograph of your subject. But what if the subject isn’t instantly recognizable? Do you stick with the large photograph and hope that people will pick it up? Or do you opt for a different design? Here are six frequently used designs for biographies:

1) The portrait photograph

Popular for celebrity biographies, the portrait photo works brilliantly when your subject is a recognizable face, such as Maggie Smith or Betty White. There’s no real need to get creative with either the image or the title because people will simply recognize it and be interested (or not). You have the choice of a simple portrait or a photograph of the subject at work, but the majority of these images focus on a head shot rather than full body.

  A Fine Romance  by  Candice Bergen

A Fine Romance by Candice Bergen

  If You Ask Me  by  Betty White

If You Ask Me by Betty White

  Maggie Smith: A Biography  by  Michael Coveney

Maggie Smith: A Biography by Michael Coveney

2) A painted/drawn portrait

Historical subjects, like King Richard II, have portraits in museums that you can license for use. They’re great. Even if your reader doesn’t recognize the name or portrait, chances are they’ll recognize roughly the time period and they are able to quickly assess if they might be interested. Period paintings often tell a story in themselves which will interest readers.

  Franz Liszt  by  Oliver Hilmes

Franz Liszt by Oliver Hilmes

  Richard II: A Brittle Glory  by  Laura Ashe

Richard II: A Brittle Glory by Laura Ashe

  Isabella of Castile  by  O.O. Howard

Isabella of Castile by O.O. Howard

3) Candid photos

Candid photos are popular in personal memoirs or biographies of victims of tragedies. Candid photos are intimate glimpse into the lives of your subject, drawing in your reader.

  The Sound of Gravel  by  Ruth Wariner

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

  A Mother's Reckoning  by  Sue Klebold

A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold

  Manning  by  Archie and Peyton Manning with John Underwood

Manning by Archie and Peyton Manning with John Underwood

4) A symbolic image

Sometimes the person, while noteworthy, isn’t the most memorable image of your story. Inventors, military personnel, sometimes writers themselves are all often associated with an image and even if we have a photograph or portrait of them, the general public will more quickly identify the subject without the portrait.

  I Did It  by  Fred Goldman and Kim Goldman

I Did It by Fred Goldman and Kim Goldman

  The Wright Brothers  by  David McCullough

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

  The Thomas The Tank Engine Man  by  Brian Sibley

The Thomas The Tank Engine Man by Brian Sibley

5) Simply titles

Biographies that display just the title on a simple background frequently focus on philosophies bred from personal experiences and tragedies. While they would most likely be able to provide a photograph, candid or formal, by not including these they focus on the journey.

  Between the World and Me  by  Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  When Breath Becomes Air  by  Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

  Accidental Saints  by  Nadia Bolz-Weber

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

6) Graphics

A graphic image uses the design without portraits or images of things which made their inventors famous. These are often found on memoirs and anthologies where there isn't a single defining point.

  It All Changed in an Instant  edited by  Smith Magazine

It All Changed in an Instant edited by Smith Magazine

  Love Warrior  by  Glennon Doyle Melton

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton

  Coming Clean  by  Kimberly Rae Miller

Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

These categories are not hard-and-fast rules and some authors and publishers certainly opt to mix it up and use a less usual style for their type of biography. Still unsure of which type of cover to use? Follow our handy flow chart!