Perfect pictures: Sourcing photographs for your book

Photographs inside a work of non fiction add interest and clarity to what you’ve written, while a powerful image on the cover can boost sales considerably. However, if you are thinking about self publishing your book, think long and hard about the pictures you source. It is very easy to come unstuck. When it comes to copyright and licensing, the use of photographs can be a bit of a minefield.

It may feel like the easiest solution is to use something from your own collection. After all, the thinking may go, you are pretty skilled with a camera and your own pictures are certainly unique and personal to you. However, achieving the right resolution for use on a book cover, or indeed for any pictures used inside, requires a decent camera. A quick snap on a smart phone is fine for Facebook, but isn’t really suitable for a printed book.

More importantly though, you have to make sure you have been allowed to take (and use) a photo if the image is going to be used for commercial purposes. There are rules about photographing particular buildings, people or places and on what can be done with the picture afterwards. The Eiffel Tower, for example, is copyright protected, therefore a moody picture of it at night is not an option for a thriller set in Paris. Your friends have rights too. Every human subject in a picture needs to sign a ‘model release’ permitting commercial use of their image.

There are, perhaps hardly surprisingly, also restrictions on the use of images found on the internet. To put it bluntly, you can’t just lift something from Google and put it on your book cover. There are strong copyright rules around this and people who publish pictures online are quite rightly not afraid to enforce their rights. To clarify: anyone who takes a photo and posts it on the internet has the right to be acknowledged as the creator of that image and can legally decide how and where it is used. Just because an image doesn’t have a watermark, or has no obvious warning, doesn’t mean it is safe to use.

There are some images online that are free to use and flagged to be so. A quick scroll through the ‘advanced image search’ function on Google Images will reveal many such photos that are in the public domain and registered as ‘free to use and share’. Be aware though, since  these pictures are free to all, there is a high possibility that many other people will have already made use of these images too. Finding out you have used an identical image to that on another book cover would surely be many times worse than turning up to a party in the same outfit as a mate. All that hard work to create a unique, compelling book will be wasted.

Another option is to use stock photos, which is where a photographer takes a series of generic photos which are designed to appeal to numerous users. There are plenty of stock photography websites, such as Getty Images and Shutterstock, which act like an ‘agent’ for photographers and will sell authors a license to use a particular picture. While a stock image does guarantee a decent, professionally taken photo, it doesn’t mean authors won’t fall into the same trap as above. Many clients can license the same photo. If you are pubishing a book about, say, vampires, it is not unlikely that other writers in the blood-sucking genre will come across the same image. Before you know it, there’ll be a clutch of identical vampire clones on the shelves which is not a great outcome for any writer. If you do use a stock image, the best advice is to chose carefully and work closely with your cover designer who will be able to manipulate the image slightly so it is truly unique.

It is also worth knowing that if an element of your story has been covered in the media in some way, and the article accompanied by a photo, the newspaper in question may license the image to you. Most newspapers have commercial departments that are set up to do just this. The price will vary, depending on where the picture will appear in the book and the number of books in the print run, but it can be a useful way of acquiring a professionally taken photo.

Overall, if the budget is available, the best advice to any author is to work with a professional photographer who will take original pictures, or at least to help lead them through the potential minefield of sourcing photos they can legally use.

As a rule of thumb when using photos, if you find yourself in a position where you are not sure whether it is OK to use them, it probably isn’t. Don’t take risks that will end up marring what could be the fantastic experience of finally seeing your book in print.