The Trouble with Stock

Unless a book cover has customized artwork, there’s a good chance that the author (or their cover artist) got that fantastic image from a stock photo site such as or istock photo. Sure, those places have great images, sometimes at very low prices, but there can be a drawback to using stock images:

You can find yourself with the same cover as someone else.

Take for example Sunny Days,  Moonlit Nights vs Safe With Me. They’re by different authors, are filed in different genres, and are about different things, yet they have the same couple on the front. Is that really a huge problem? No, not technically. They’ve both “mixed it up” differently, so the covers don’t look exactly alike, but what if they hadn’t? Some authors simply put a title on a preexisting photo and go. If that were the case, they would be exactly alike.

Funnily enough, it’s not just book covers. The other day I was cruising through my Popular Mechanics magazine and noticed a familiar looking girl in an advertisement in the back. I double checked and, sure enough, there she was pouting back at me from a cover I’d done for the Wasp’s Nest Pinata. Though we’d gone with a different pose there was no mistaking her.

Why could this matter? People are visual creatures. If they read – or see – a book or product that offends them, annoys them, aggravates them, or that they just plain don’t like, and then they see a second book with a similar cover, those feelings are going to transfer unfairly.  There could also be a question of genre confusions or of readers mixing up similar looking covers – and consequently books and authors.

How can you avoid this? One way is to try to use “one of a kind” photos, such as photos you’ve taken yourself, or photos by friends, relatives, etc. In some cases, a cover artist might even be willing to take the photo for you, depending on what it is. (I’ve done this, myself).

If that’s impossible, either because  of resources or subject matter, you can turn to lesser “looked to” places like Flickr, or Creative Commons. org, or even WikiMedia. The advantage to these is that the photos are also free. (It’s nice to contact the photographer and offer to pay them something, of course).

If that’s impossible then, before you buy and download that perfect stock image, take a look at how many other downloads it’s had. This information is usually on the photo page. The higher the number of downloads, the more likely someone has used it. A bonus to this is that the fewer downloads an image has had, the cheaper it is on many sites. (dreamstime, for instance, prices by “levels” of popularity).

But, what if you go to all that trouble and someone still pops up with a similar cover? Relax, it’s not the end of the world. Unless their book is one that really clashes with yours and gets a lot of attention, it’s doubtful anyone will notice. Though, if it’s making big, negative headlines, or people start to comment to you that they’re getting the books confused, you might want to rethink your cover. Otherwise, just let it go. You were there first, and chances are people will look at their book and think of yours.

(Special thanks to Barbara G. Tarn for her eagle eye in spotting two similar covers for this article!)

11 thoughts on “The Trouble with Stock

  1. Mari June 29, 2011 / 8:54 am

    This happens no matter if the author is self published or traditionally published. Unpacking books at work, I have seen the same photo used over and over and over again. The Host by Stephanie Meyer is a great example, that photo has been used on many covers.
    Other great examples with links to others:

    In my uneducated opinion, I think it happens more with traditionally published works.

  2. Rose Gordon June 29, 2011 / 12:29 pm

    Just my 2cents, but I think this is where you’re safer using an image that doesn’t include a face.

    In the four months since I’ve published, I’ve known four people personally (myself included) who found either their exact same cover/picture on another book, or at least the same model with a different but similar pose.

    Ironically, myself and one of my Indie friends who found our images on other books, both found them on books that were published by a small press. So it’s not just Indies shopping these stock pictures.

    Thanks for the tip on where else to go to look for pictures.

    • Joleene Naylor July 2, 2011 / 4:08 am

      Yep! Everyone is buying from the same places now; as I said I found one that is available on Dreamstime in an advertisement! I think avoiding faces is often good, anyway because then the readers can sort of slot in what they think the characters look like (And you notice I don;t take any of my own advice! ha!)

  3. Lauralynn Elliott June 29, 2011 / 12:40 pm

    Since my books are romances, my readers are more drawn to books with couples on the cover. I would LOVE to be able to take photos myself, but honestly, I don’t know anyone hot enough to be on a cover of a book. LOL. My cover artist, Anya Kelleye, and I discussed this. We even joked about stopping people on the street and asking them if they would pose for us. :0)

    • Joleene Naylor July 2, 2011 / 4:09 am

      ha ha! Yeah, I don;t know any pretty people either. I have joked that I should advertise:

      Wanted: one hot guy who will take off his shirt and pose for photos to be used for strictly artistic purposes. I promise.

      Heh-heh 😉

  4. spencer911c June 29, 2011 / 1:57 pm

    Hey, Joleene,

    Good comments. I’m still having cover problems. When I first put my books up I had too much going on at once and the covers aren’t so hot. I’ve been experimenting and changing them one at a time. I’m now scouting locations and taking my own pictures. Hopefully in time I’ll get more professional.

    Another problem with stock pictures is that so many of them have the same *value*–that is color intensity, composition, etc. I know you can fool around with that kind of thing, but often you end up with a brown mish-mash. A lot of self-published books look as if they all came off the same assembly line. I’m trying to avoid that.

    What’s really is too bad is that one can’t simply change a cover on Kindle without going through the whole rigmarole of republishing. We have to wait a day or two before we know how the darn thing looks.

    Best, Spencer Schankel

    • Joleene Naylor July 2, 2011 / 4:10 am

      Oh wow, really? I had no idea it was such a pain to switch covers on Amazon. I know Smashwords updates it right away, but I’d never tried it anywhere else. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Theresa M Moore June 29, 2011 / 6:30 pm

    I design all my own covers, and if I use any stock photos at all I alter them significantly so they can never be the same as someone else’s.

    • Joleene Naylor July 2, 2011 / 4:10 am

      That’s a good way to do it, Theresa! 😀

  6. Ruth Ann Nordin June 30, 2011 / 5:07 pm

    Browsing through Smashwords, I see a lot of these. I was about to use one such picture until I saw it’d been used twice. I’ve also seen people imitate the Twilight cover by having an apple in someone’s hands, so sometimes it’s intentionally done. But most of the time, I think it’s by accident. 🙂

    • Joleene Naylor July 2, 2011 / 4:12 am

      The twilight covers were good in so much as they had the right colors and ratios of those colors to make them eye catching, but past that they didn’t do much for me. The apple one was the best – the last one with the chess piece was just bizarre!

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