The Dangers of Stock Photos on Book Covers

By Saul Bottcher of, last updated 24 September 2013

Summary: Stock photos are cheap, but the risks outweight any savings. Take a look at our Gallery of Clones for a quick visual explanation, or read on.

How Stock Photos Work

If you're not familiar with stock photography and how it works, here's a quick rundown.

Most of us are familiar with custom photography, such as wedding photos or family portraits. When you order custom photography, you ask the photographer to capture a specific image; this image is unique to you and is intended for your own exclusive use.

Stock photography is essentially the opposite of custom photography. The photographer starts by taking a series of generic photos, designed to appeal to many possible users. The photographer uploads the photos to a stock photography website, which acts as a sort of 'agent' for the photographer, attempting to license the photos to as many users as possible. Clients browse the catalog of photos, pick the photo that comes closest to what they need, and pay for the right to use it. Many clients can license the same photo and use it simultaneously.

Danger #1: Clone Covers

Let's start with the deal-breaker: the stock photo you choose could legally appear on another book cover. Stock photos can be licensed to thousands of clients at the same time, and there is nothing whatsoever to stop another book cover from using the same image as yours.

And we aren't talking about a theory here: this happens all the time. Want proof? Take a look at our Gallery of Clones to see some examples that will turn you off of the idea of stock photos pretty quickly.

Probably not appearing on the cover of a space exploration novel.

The more you think about it, the worse it gets: another book that uses your image is likely to be in a similar category to your book. Take a look at our vampire friend on the right there. If you write vampire fiction and you license that image for your cover, who else do you think is going to license it? Not the person writing a legal thriller, a space opera, or a cozy mystery.

If your cover image ends up on another book, it can harm your sales and your reputation in three serious ways:

  • It can make your book look generic, instead of the unique creative effort that it is. Having the same cover image as another book tells people you couldn't be bothered to create a unique cover, which implies a lack of pride in your work. It might also suggest that you're a "book mill", turning out cheap books to make a quick buck.
  • It can confuse potential readers. Imagine someone is looking for your book, but finds another one with the same cover image. Is this the same book Jane was reading last week? I don't remember the author's name or title, but this definitely looks like the same cover. She said it was a good book, maybe I'll pick it up. Great! Your cover just made a sale for somebody else! Not an appealing scenario, is it?
  • It can make you look like a plagiarist or con artist. Think about how strict our standards against plagiarism are: a single stolen paragraph in a 70,000-word novel can ignite a controversy. When people see two covers with the same photo, the mere possibility that one book might be a rip-off of the other is a gut-punch to your credibility.

And it's not just book covers that might use the same image as you. What if your image ends up being used in a national ad campaign? What if it's licensed by a political or lobby group with a bad reputation among your readers? What if it's on a movie poster? All of these are possibilities with stock photos.

As I said above, the risk of duplication should be a deal-breaker. However, if you're still considering using a stock photo on your cover, keep reading.

Danger #2: Restrictive, Risky Licenses

When you "buy" a stock photo, keep in mind you're actually licensing it, and are bound by the terms of the license. There's nothing wrong with licensing as a concept, but stock photo licenses are not author-friendly.

Here are two examples based on the license agreement of iStockphoto, a popular stock photo service. (Other services have similar licenses.)

No Merchandise

At some point, you'll probably want to sell merchandise (t-shirts, posters, etc.) with your book cover image. Take a look at this clause:

“... the following are ‘Prohibited Uses’ and you may not: ... [other prohibitions here] ... use the Content in any posters (printed on paper, canvas or any other media) or other items for resale, license or other distribution for profit; ...”

If you want to produce merchandise, you need to purchase an “extended license”, which typically costs an additional two hundred dollars. You'd be better off paying for an all-original cover in the first place!

Revokable License

Just because you've licensed the photo doesn't mean that license can't be revoked. Read this:

“[stock photo service] reserves the right to elect at a later date to revoke or amend the license granted by this Agreement and replace the Content with an alternative for any reason.”

So the license can be revoked at any time, for any reason. Then what happens?

“Upon notice ... You agree ... to take all reasonable steps to discontinue use of the replaced Content ... in products that already exist.”

Let's imagine a scenario: you've just invested a year of hard work into your debut novel, and after releasing it last week you're seeing strong sales and some great feedback and reviews.

Oops! The stock photo service just called, and you're going to have to get a new book cover... immediately. Oh, and cancel that order for posters, and shut down your print-on-demand edition while you're at it.

Maybe this scenario seems far-fetched to you. Personally, the idea that my house might burn down seems far-fetched to me, but I still buy fire insurance, because unlikely things happen. So be smart: buy “cover insurance” by refusing to use stock photos.

Danger #3: Bland, Generic Photos

Keep in mind that the stock photo industry is driven to produce generic photos. Why? Because the primary goal of the photographer and the stock photo website is to license the photo as many times as possible, and because one of the major uses of stock photos is in advertising.

Hopefully, the wizard in your fantasy epic is less clichéd than this guy.

Here are some ways that stock photographers tailor their photos for these needs:

  • Make the subject as broad as possible. That means eliminating any elements that might reduce the potential pool of users. For example, you'll find plenty of stock photos showing a generic happy couple, but far fewer photos showing marriage rituals from specific cultures.
  • Avoid people who stand out, unless they're the subject. You can find thousands of photos of generic, clean-cut people completing a business deal. But try to find a photo of a mohawked, leather-clad punk completing a business deal, and you'll be lucky if there's a single one. In an advertising brochure, he'd be a distraction.
  • Use stereotypes and clichés. In advertising, it's important for the message to come across clearly and quickly. Stereotypes and clichés are a shortcut to getting ideas across. Sure, the nuances of real life might be lost, but the ad wasn't going to be about nuances in the first place.
  • Photograph professional models. Too bad if your book characters don't look like professional models.

The end result is often bland, meek, and conventional. Many stock photos also have a certain cheesy, tongue-in-cheek quality that says, on a subliminal level, "this is not serious". That's not a feeling you want associated with a book that you put months into writing.

The False Advantages of Stock Photos

Now, you're probably thinking there must be some advantages to outweigh these risks, otherwise stock photos wouldn't exist. And you're right.

The problem is, none of the advantages of stock photos apply in the context of book covers. Specifically:

  • Price. You can get a stock photo for as little as $20. OK, and you could also save money by not editing your book, not having a website, and not giving royalties to Amazon. But in business, your goal isn't to avoid spending money—your goal is to spend money in ways that give good return on investment.
  • Price (again). You can get a stock photo for as little as $20. But if you want to sell merchandise, it'll actually cost you $220. (At that point, why not pay a little more and get an all-original cover design?)
  • Selection. Stock photo websites offer catalogs with thousands of photos. However, all of them carry the risks discussed above. What good is a restaurant that serves 300 dishes that all taste bland and might be poisonous?
  • Quick access. You can license and download a stock photo in a matter of minutes. However, if you manage your book production process correctly, your cover design will happen in parallel with final edits, and won't have any impact on your publication date at all.
  • Preview before buying. Being able to preview images can be reassuring to people who aren't used to working with creative professionals. The topic of trust and reassurance merits its own article, but the short version is, no serious creative professional will allow you to walk away feeling dissatisfied with their work. Previewing before buying is an emotional crutch; it won't impact your end result.

In Summary

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.

At, all of our cover designs are 100% free of stock photos.