There are obvious problems with using stock photography for book covers, everyone knows this. It can be so hard to find a photo looks really good, has a composition that works well for a cover, and happens to match the details of your story.
And then, if you find that magical photo, you see it a month later on someone else’s book (and sometimes on a traditionally published book!). Because the better the photo is, the more likely it is to be used again. And it doesn’t matter if your book came out first, it’s still confusing for readers. If yours is the second (or third) cover they see with that photo, you look unoriginal. Even worse, they may recognize the image and assume that they have already read your book.
So, if using stock is less than ideal (and it really is, I could go on) than what are some other options for finding a great image to use for your book cover?
1. Use illustrations – Depending on your genre, custom art can be a great option. Great art stand out from the crowd of photo covers and can easily be made to match the details of your story. But don’t assume that just because a designer has art in their portfolio, that they drew it themselves. A lot of cover designers use stock illustration, which comes with all the same pitfalls as stock photography. And remember, by illustration I just mean art that is made for you, not a specific style. There are fantasy painters, photo manipulators, collage artists…you get the idea.
2. Set up a photoshoot – Find a good local photographer and some willing victims (I mean, models) and set up your own custom photoshoot. This is an especially good option for historical or fantasy covers if you have access to costumes and props, or know someone who can make them for you. Have your photographer take a few different shots so that your designer can have more options to work with. And the extra photos make great graphics for advertising later!
3. Find models or photographers online – If you find a stock photographer or model online that you really love, figure out how to contact them and ask if they will do a custom shoot for you. Deviantart can be a bit of a jungle but there is some good talent on there, especially if you are looking for great costumes. Find a cosplayer or a steampunk lover, or someone else that loves the genre you are working in and see if they are interested. This could take some digging, but there’s no reason why you can’t set up a photoshoot online the same as you can in person.
4. Use a typography based cover – Good typography is an art form all on it’s own, and there are a lot of genres where it can sell books very effectively. And typography will always be original (as long as your title is!).
5. Use hand lettering – If you like word based covers and want to get something even more custom, you could hire a hand letterer to create your cover. I see a lot of gorgeous hand lettered trad pub covers and I’d love to see more of them in the indie world.
So what do you think? Is there an option in there that you can use to make your next cover stand out from the crowd? I just want to add a warning:
Don’t assume that original is more important than good. It’s not. Your original photo that you took with your point and shoot camera (or, heaven forbid, your phone) is not better than using a solid stock photo. Ever. Hire a professional, every time, you won’t regret it.
(PS I believe so strongly in original book covers that you’ll never find stock used in my work. Check out my portfolio to see what can be done with custom illustration, photography, and hand lettering.)