Using Stock Photos for Book Covers

In certain cases, using stock photos for book covers can be problematic. Though it's far less costly than hiring a freelance artist to design an original cover, there are obvious downsides, so let's get them out of the way. First, anyone can license the same stock photo for their own purposes, so your selection may appear on another book, or in an ad campaign for a totally different industry. Furthermore, the image can be used to advertise a product that you'd rather not be associated with. 

With all that being said, stock photos are definitely the most cost-effective way to illustrate your book. Below, we've outlined a few common-sense tips when selecting a cover for your masterwork.  

Understand the License Agreement

Before committing to a particular stock photo, make sure to read the fine print for your license. Some stock photo services reserve the right to revoke your license at any point, just in case they need to remove the content from their archive, or run into a dispute with the photographer. If that happens, you'll be forced to stop selling any books with the stock cover, and replace them with an alternative image. 

At Shutterstock, we've broken down licensing into two groups: Standard Image and Enhanced Image. Standard Image allows you to print up to 500,000 copies of a book, while Enhanced Image allows you to print as many copies as you like. As long as you follow our basic guidelines for appropriate behavior when using stock photos for book covers, these licenses will not be revoked. 

Consider the Target Audience

Next, you should select a stock photo that isn't too cliché, while still appealing to your target market. For example, if you're writing a dystopian sci-fi novel, it's better to select a photo that conveys a futuristic world, instead of picking a generic image of robots. The blander your photo, the more likely it will be used for a dozen other book covers. 

Customize the Photo

Huge publishers like Penguin even use stock photos for book covers, but to differentiate their product, they will tweak the image with new graphics, compelling text, and other visual effects. Likewise, if you find a stock photo that suits your narrative and target audience, you should customize it. 

For example, if you're releasing a novel about zombies, you can select a crowd photo, change the subjects' skin color to green and brown, and draw a few pools of blood in the foreground. Choose a creepy font for your title, add a lens flare or subtle blur effect, and you'll have a personalized book cover that stands out!


Need images for your project? Shutterstock’s impressive collection of more than 70 million images can help! See what our library has to offer.


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