This will seem like a no brainer to most people. The title pretty much says it all, however I have seen so many really bad covers, or dumb legal mistakes that I just have to rant a bit. Most of the mistakes are made by regular people who simply haven’t been schooled in cover art etiquette, but when I see a so-called professional make these mistakes I see red. These people should know better and are basically stealing large amounts of money for shoddy work.
In the interest of protecting good artists and authors, both in the publishing and the indie world, here are some things you need to keep in mind.
1. How important are covers? Very. Think about your own practices searching for a new book to read. You go on Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or your favorite bookstore or library site and scroll through hundreds of books. Sometimes you narrow the field for genre or author, but in general you spend less than 5 seconds on each cover. When a cover stands out you look at the title. If it seems interesting you start looking at synopsis, and then ratings. Always the cover is the first impression any potential reader has of your book. Unfortunately for many brilliant writers I know, a book is judged by the cover, and a bad cover will get you nowhere.
2. Good cover art costs money. If you are going through a publisher they will likely have an artist on staff to make you a good professional cover. If you are working with a publisher and they charge you for cover art, they may very well be a scam. Don’t stick around. If you are an indie author, you get what you pay for. Professional covers range from $100 to $500.
3. A professional will always be able to tell you where the images they used on your cover came from. To use them we have to download them. Stock photography is very expensive, which is one reason cover art is so expensive. If there is a problem with the file, we want our money back, so we always know where it came from.
4. It is illegal to use someone else’s art without permission, even if you just blow up one small part of it.
5. Google images, Yahoo! images, Deviantart, Flicker, are all copyrighted art unless otherwise stated. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, follow the link the search engine provides with the image and find out if it’s useable or not. Most of the time if you really love an image you can just ask the artist or photographer and they’ll tell you their terms. Some are nice about it, and some will charge an arm and a leg.
6. If an image doesn’t say copyrighted on it, it is still copyrighted. The moment it is put out into the world it is copyrighted. The artist or photographer has to expressly state the image is free to use or modify. Creative Commons or Royalty Free are the buzz words you want to look for. Stock photography buys the license from the artist or photographer and you basically rent it for use, but only have to pay once for each image.
7. Video game images are absolutely copyrighted. This means, even if you own a copy of the game, and take a screen shot, the images used in that screen shot are still copyrighted and you cannot use them. Unless of course you were one of the artists who worked on the images for the development of the video game or can provide a letter stating the owner of the franchise is allowing you to use the image.
8. You might be thinking, “But it’s just a really small background image, no one will see it.” Wrong. Twice in my professional life I’ve had to replace covers done by “professional” artists that used copyrighted images. In both cases it was an intern that caught it and sent us into deeper investigation. You don’t want to see the files I have these artists. It would make a grown up cry.
9. “But the artist is the one that gets in trouble, right?” Wrong again. A lawyer will go after who they perceive to have the most money. That goes, publisher (which is why publishers are such sticklers for using their own artists), author, and then artist. If you are an indie author there is no publisher to buffer and protect you. You signed a contract for this cover art when you bought it. Some judges will agree that makes you responsible for putting it out, not the artist.
10. PROTECT YOURSELF! Pick apart the images sent to you by the artist. Look for possible copyrighted images. Ask where they got the images. If they name a stock photography site, go look for the image in their files. Look over the contract for wording that absolves the artist of fault for using copyrighted images. If you get screwed on a cover and have to put out more money to a new artist to fix it, demand your money back and don’t be afraid to consult a lawyer if they refuse. Many lawyers will not advise action unless the copyright owner tried to sue you, but it always helps to know your options.
I have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to these mistakes. First time an outside artist gets caught making them I will never accept their work ever again, which can hurt a lot more in the long run than most of them realize. This business is built on reputation, integrity, and word of mouth. We are a traditional press. JEA has its own in house artists, people trained and/or managed by me. However, we allow authors to use an outside artist at their own expense if they choose. If I have to tell them I can’t accept a cover by So and So, that artist’s reputation has been ruined. Presses talk. Author’s talk.
This is not a PSA for traditional publishing or my own freelance cover work. I know some amazing indie authors and some phenomenal, honest cover artists who charge fair rates for their work. Ask me and I will sing their praises. I am in awe of Paramita Bhattacharjee. I am forever inspired by the horrific visions of Peter Fussey. Good artists are out there; don’t settle for some random dude who plays around with drawing programs. Your work is your child. It deserves to shine. Don’t let a bad or illegal cover kill it. Don’t let individuals who have no business charging for their work sell you a product that could land you in litigation, even if it is a beautiful cover made by your best friend. It’s not worth it.
Susan is a writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends. She walks the path of a Siedr and strives to grow day by day.