Tuesday, August 27, 2013

So you want a distinct image for your book cover?

I started to write this post last week, and then one of the greats of crime writing died, so my latest look at the world of book covers needed to be moved onto the back burner for obvious reasons.

So now I’m back to “the lighter side of book cover design”.

Way back when, especially in the North American market, book covers had commissioned illustrations as their cover images. This came with a plus and minus. The plus was that your book would have a unique cover. The minus was that your book would have a unique cover. In the second case this meant if you didn’t like what your publisher’s illustrator came up with, you were pretty much stuck with it because time and a pretty good chunk of change had been spent to produce it.

The UK led the way with using photos on the covers of their books, but North American and European markets quickly followed suit because photos could be produced more cheaply. An even cheaper alternative was using stock photo libraries rather than commissioning a photographer to shoot a cover to order. These still could be a bit on the pricey side (up to $500, depending on who shot the photo and where you bought it), but things were looking down, as far as expenditures went. Then cut-rate stock photo libraries like iStock.com and fotolia.com came into existence, and the stock photo market tanked. Publishers could now get a cover image, often for well under $100.

That’s why you pretty well only see photos on book covers these days – especially on crime fiction books.

Recently I got a link to an interesting gallery about book cover cliches. I’m going to present some images pulled from it, then close with a link to the full article. My selections show something that can happen when using stock images, and believe me, it will give us poor, downtrodden authors a few more gray hairs. So here’s my rogue’s gallery of book covers:

Notice any similarities? What’s happened here is that the same image has been chosen for the covers of three crime novels. When a stock photo is bought (whether part of a DVD series, or as a one-off from a site like iStock, a publisher has no control or knowledge of whether it will be chosen for the cover of a book by another publisher. My favourite is the third one, and it’s my guess that they knew about other uses of the image on other books, so they flipped it over in hopes that it would look different enough. The worst part is, this isn’t the only use of this image. When you look at the whole gallery from the link below, you’ll see there are least three others in existence. In the fifth use, the designer changed the fedora (or it might be a homburg) for a top hat which certainly makes it far more distinctive than its littermates. Still, if this were the cover of one of my books and I found out the image had been used on at least 5 other books, I would not be a happy camper.

What can you do, other than search Amazon for each new book as it’s announced? Maybe your publisher will listen to you, maybe they’ll just say it doesn’t matter, or fall back on that old tried and true put-off: “It’s a marketing decision.”

Either way, tough luck.

Here’s a link to the full article. It’s quite clever and someone has obviously done their homework: www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/19-book-cover-cliches.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Wow! Who would have thought? I'm going to look for this

Hannah Dennison said...

Oh good grief!!!! This is astonishing. Thanks for this Rick. I am dumbfounded.

Rick Blechta said...

Hope it's never any of your books. It would be interesting to hear a publisher's take on this phenomenon.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I've been very happy with my book covers designed by PPP. The allow a lot of input from the author.

Rick Blechta said...

But Charlotte, that begs the point as to whether they might not inadvertently use a stock image that also winds up on someone else's book cover, which is what this post is about. PPP does have some very lovely covers, but it's obvious that use of stock photos (rapidly on the increase because of low cost) is leading to some rather epic problems – if you care about having a "distinct" cover as opposed to a "distinctive" one.

Going forward, I tell you I'll be looking into any image (after knowing its source) that my publishers want to use.