Is your book cover designer lazy and unethical? (Stock photography and cover clones/cliches AGAIN)

Is your book cover designer lazy and unethical? (Stock photography and cover clones/cliches AGAIN)

I wrote recently about how and why book cover designs should be clichés, most of the time, because you always want to fit into a genre and appeal to the style conventions that are being used: you want people to recognize what your book is about. No, they won’t say, “Gee that looks interesting, but I have no idea what it’s about, I think I’ll read the summary.”

But tonight a friend shared this article from IndieBookLauncher about “The Dangers of Stock Photos on Book Covers.” They make some great points:

  • If you use stock photography, you may see the same images on other book covers in your genre
  • The licenses to use the photos for items for sale are usually more expensive

But they conclude:

Stock photos are cheap, but not appropriate for use on book covers. If you use a stock photo, you’ll end up with a less original and impactful cover, you’ll be legally and financially vulnerable, and you’ll run the risk of your image appearing on a competing book.

Even worse, on their Gallery of Clones page they say “authors are victims of unethical or lazy designers who failed to warn the author about the risks of using stock photos.”

Saul and Nassau seem like great guys and I’m sure we would get along, but since A) I’m entitled to defend myself from the accusation of being a lazy and unethical designer and B) their book cover advice will lead authors in the wrong direction, and result in less book sales, I thought it appropriate to respond.

IndieBookLauncher is singling itself out in the book cover world for designing 100% custom book cover art, using no stock photography. It’s a smart business move, and putting up stern warnings about the “Dangers of Stock Photography” on book covers is excellent marketing.

But here’s the other thing: I’ve done a plethora of testing and photos sell more books than custom illustration in almost every situation.

Being unique and different and having an original, one-of-a-kind book cover doesn’t mean shit if nobody is buying your book.

Illustration is almost always too busy and not impactful enough. If you’ve read my views on book cover design, you’ll know that fiction covers need to make an immediate emotional connection. This is very difficult to do without photos.

Non-fiction covers need to be simple, clean and usually represent the main idea of the book with a clever juxtaposition of two distinct images in a novel combination. Simple, but striking and extraordinary.

Yes it sucks if somebody else used the exact same model or photo for their book cover; and it does happen A LOT, especially with so many people publishing. It can of course be minimized; if I’m making a vampire book cover, I won’t search for stock images of vampires (because there are only 20 or so great ones, and they are going to get used).

Instead I’ll look for a model and use Photoshop to turn them into a vampire. I’ll almost always change the setting or background, add other pieces, and do a lot of editing. I build worlds, not just covers.

As an example of what I’m talking about, here are a few things I made recently.

(These are just samples, the finals haven’t been approved by the authors yet).





I’m not saying my covers are the best in the world – but they are very functional. I use a lot of contrast and bold colors to attract attention, and I make it pretty clear what the book is going to be about and what genre it fits into.

It’s true I use mostly stock photography – and that some elements of these covers (especially the Roman guy, there just aren’t many good stock photos of Roman-era soldiers for some reason) are bound to be used again by many other books in the same genre.

And that’s unfortunate. But what’s the alternative? How are you going to portray a Roman-soldier-based novel without photography? What are you going to draw or use to convey the historical time-period? Not only would it be difficult, I’d be willing to bet good money that my stock-photo Roman Soldier will outsell anything else you can come up with.

Because here’s the thing – it doesn’t really matter what’s on the book cover. It has to be good enough, and it has to do its job of telling readers what to expect so that they buy and read the book. After that, it’s all up to you. Choosing to avoid stock photography because everybody uses it is like choosing not to buy an Apple product for the same reason, and going with some thing else that (maybe) isn’t nearly as awesome and doesn’t do all the things you want it to do.

dreams1Here’s another cover I made recently. In this case, I chose to use a stock photo – mostly unedited, with nothing added but the text. Am I “lazy and unethical”? I could have cobbled something similar together with bits and pieces, but this artwork is strong and the cover will work pretty well. It doesn’t need to be more complex.

More work and effort on my part does not guarantee extra sales. You don’t want a book cover designer who works hard, you want one that will give you the cover art that will sell the most copies – even if it was easy for them to make.

Once this cover is up on Amazon, although it’s possible that another author or designer will use the same photo, it’s unlikely: most (good) designers and (smart) authors will check at least the first 50 or so best-selling books in their genre to make sure they don’t use the same images.

Of course out of the tens of thousands of books being published, it’s very possible that others will use the same image. But if their sales rank is somewhere over 1 million, nobody else is ever going to see their covers. Sure you could dig around and post them side by side (like IndieBookLauncher‘s do for dramatic effect on their site), but most of the time readers will never see them side by side and probably won’t notice the similarities while browsing.

And even if they do – some stock photography covers look well done and professional, others using the same image look home-made and sloppy. We tend to assume the “real one” is the nicer looking one. So the danger isn’t in using stock photography, the danger is getting an amateur to make your book cover and fuck up an otherwise beautiful image.

As for the thing about stock photography licensing: if you’re hiring a cover designer it’s their responsibility to choose the right option for your book. It’s usually safest to buy the upgraded license for selling products, although book covers are sort of in a gray area:

You aren’t selling the book cover, you are selling the book, the inside, the writing – the book cover is just decoration. Most stock photography sites legal jargon can be interpreted Plus it depends whether you are selling an ebook or print book, and whether you plan to do other things with it. You probably shouldn’t print and sell posters where the “product” is really just the image. But unless you are a major best-seller and making lots of money, your book won’t get seen enough for anyone to care; for someone to sue they would have to A) assume and B) prove which license you bought on which stock photography site.

I’m not recommending negligence, and you should be aware, but in almost every case a self-publishing author who sells a few hundred copies is never going to get in trouble for accidentally picking the wrong license for their stock photography (and even if they did, the penalty would be to pay the difference). So it’s not a world-shattering issue of climatic legal repercussions. For more on copyright laws and book cover design, read this article.

In conclusion

  1. Photos and photomanipulation almost always sell better than illustration
  2. It’s better to combine lots of photos together to build a scene
  3. BUT using an amazing photo that’s just perfect might be OK, as long as you check the best-selling books in your genre first
  4. It’s not about the art you use or how unique your cover is: does it sell the book? Does it look professionally made?

If you want to learn more about using book cover design to sell more books – I just put up a book about it for pre-sale on Amazon (although I’ll also give it to my email list for free.) Click here to get it on Amazon.



 Would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Posted

    I would like to add – having just gone through the process – that if you get a photo from a friend who says, ‘I will be delighted for you to use my picture,’ ALSO get IN WRITING the right to use that photo for whatever purposes you two agree to.

    Again, it doesn’t matter if a) the two of you are still alive, and 2) the book doesn’t sell a boatload of copies.

    But suppose the following scenario were to come to pass:
    You make very nice cover using the image, use it on the books site.
    The book sells very well.
    There is a movie option.
    Your friend dies.
    Your friend’s heir sees Daddy’s photo – on the movie posters!
    Your friend’s son decides he has a good chance to get in on the action. He springs.
    And you have nothing in writing.

    Or it sells well – with Daddy’s photo on the cover of the new edition from the publisher.

    It could get sticky.

    Thanks to Helen Sedwick (, a lawyer who kind of nagged me into getting a proper release from my friend. I tossed in a payment (he didn’t want money) if the book sells 10,000 copies – and we are both excited. And now I feel good about using his photo – it’s really gorgeous, and will be one element only (I have a lot of work to do yet, or may hand it to a pro) – instead of worried. We each have a signed copy of the agreement, and it covers who owns the copyright (he does), who can use it for commercial purposes (not limited – I do), and that he can use it for non-commercial purposes as he pleases (his website, bragging rights, etc.)

    I think indies need to think about and do likewise – people to people. Leave a trail of happy collaborators in your wake.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Yes… it’s good to be safe, and it is helpful to let people into the process, but it would have been less effort to use stock photography. That said, writing a clause for payment after 10,000 books is a great way to be able to use professional photography that you otherwise couldn’t afford. Keep in mind, the picture is only half the battle, if the text and fonts aren’t laid out well, the picture won’t matter.

  • Case Posted

    In some niches, science fiction in particular, I see many many illustrations done. Starships fighting, robots, etc. The stock images that are available are quite cheesy, is there a good way to make an impact without hiring a custom illustrator?

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Not really – but there is a ton of good space art on – find some and offer a little money ($100 or so) to use it. You can get stock photography space art but you’ll find the same thing on other covers.

  • Jennifer Wenzel Posted

    This is a fantastic post, and I appreciate your working to help enlighten writers and self-publishers about the scare tactics being used. Stock photography was created to help sell–its purpose lies entirely in advertising, marketing, and sales. And the level of quality of stock imagery out there is so much greater, in many cases, than anything I could whip up myself. It’s a joy and a privilege to use such stunning images as the one you used in “Dreams Must Die,” and a talented visual artist like yourself can bring out the best in those images. Very, very nice work!

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