24 Practical Tips for Using Photos in your Print on Demand Books

by | Feb 25, 2011

by Michael N. Marcus

I’m happy to have a post today by Michael N. Marcus. Michael writes BookMakingBlog and is a regular commenter on this blog. In books, articles and websites, Michael has specialized in making technology easy to understand for over 40 years, and he often mixes technology with humor. He says, “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” His books include many graphic elements, and I asked Michael to provide some tips on using photographs in self-published, print-on-demand books. Here’s his article.

  1. Even the most compelling stories can be boring to look at if there’s only black type on white paper. Just like paintings on the wall of a room or a cave, photos, graphs, charts and illustrations will liven up a book. They also help to explain things. Technology has made it much simpler and less expensive to include photos in books. At one time, photographs were printed on special paper in the center sections of books. Today, photos can be printed on any page.
  2. Since photos and other artwork can be used for both explanation and decoration, there is no rule about how many to include or how frequently they should be used. Even in a book of fiction or poems where no illustration is necessary for explanation or edification, it’s nice to break up the type. Readers like to look at pictures, and even a few illustrations can liven up an all-text book. I like to interrupt the gray about every six to ten pages, or to use an appropriate photo or drawing on the first page of each chapter.
  3. Photo reproduction in a POD book is unpredictable Some photos look fine with no adjustments. Others, even after lots of tweaking, will look mediocre at best. Settle for “good enough,” and delete the really bad ones. Although it’s best to eliminate or replace sub-par photos if you can, the less-than-optimum (i.e., crappy but necessary) photographs will look less crappy if you keep them as small as possible.
  4. When you reduce a photograph to a small size, it’s a good idea to sharpen it a bit — but not too much. Look at it closely. Be sure to save an unmodified original.
  5. Photo quality in a laser-printed POD book will not be as good as in a book that’s offset printed on better paper. There can also be variations from print run to print run. Every few months, buy a copy of your book, and complain to your printer if it looks bad. Make sure the printer realizes that you are checking and have high standards.
  6. Lulu usually provides better photo quality than Lightning Source, but its books cost more than books from Lightning or CreateSpace.
  7. By changing the number, size and location of photos and other graphic elements, you can increase or decrease your book’s page count.

  8. You can pay thousands — or nothing — for photographs. Clip art photos, illustrations and cartoons are ubiquitous; but be aware that most clip art on CD-ROMs or websites is not supposed to be used for commercial purposes — like books. There’s no need to risk an embarrassing and expensive lawsuit when high-quality art is available for very low prices. I’ve been very pleased with www.Fotolia.com and www.iStockphoto.com. Most of the photos are produced by highly skilled professionals, and prices range from less than a buck to $100 or more — depending on resolution, size, and the photographer’s decision. Most of the photos I’ve bought are in the $2-$10 range. The most I paid was $45 (for a cover photo). WARNING: To use these services, you first buy a bunch of “credits.” You pay less per credit when you buy lots of credits at one time, but credits may expire before you have a chance to use them. Keep a record and pay attention.
  9. Free photos are available at various government websites ranging from NASA to the National Institute of Health. www.usa.gov/Topics/Graphics.shtml has links to many free photo sources. Most — but not all — of the photos are “public domain” and may be used without payment. Some are not supposed to be used for commercial purposes, so read the notes carefully. In some cases, you are supposed to indicate the source of the photo.
  10. WARNING: Paid-for or free stock photos are not yours exclusively. There is nothing to stop someone else from using the same photo. Before you purchase a photo that you think is perfect for your book’s cover, check to make sure that someone else did not already use the photo for another book cover in the same field.
  11. Many self-publishers use Microsoft Word to format book pages. By default, Word puts 0.13 inches of space to the left and right of a picture you’ve inserted. You can often improve the look of a page by changing the space so words flow differently. Click on the picture, then Picture Tools, Text Wrapping, More Layout Options, and then adjust the Distance from text. You can go as small as .01 inches, but that is probably too tight in most cases. If a photograph or illustration includes its own white borders, you can run text closer than if it has no border and you have to create your own separation. Also, a built-in white border allows you to slide a photo a little bit “too far” into a margin, without losing any of the actual image.
  12. Beginning designers and cheapskates often place text very close to photos and use undersize margins to squeeze more words on a page, so fewer pages will be needed and a book can be printed for less money. Just as the appearance of a picture on a wall is improved by having a matte within its frame, your pages needs adequate white space, too. “Tight” photos and small margins make a book look lousy, and hard to read.
  13. You are not limited to straight walls of type adjacent to your graphics. In Word, if you click on Picture Tools and then click on Picture Shape, you can select from many options for wrapping your text around an image. Many shapes will cut into your image, but some work nicely, such as the oval. You have more flexibility if you use Edit Wrap Points, in Text Wrapping, in Picture Tools. It’s great for photos that don’t have straight edges.
  14. Although you can position a graphic image anywhere on a page, use your power wisely. Don’t be overly cute or too creative. If you want people to read what you have written, it’s best to keep a picture all the way to the left or right or above the relevant text. If you put a picture in the middle of text, it will be difficult to read across the picture.
  15. If your pages are black-and-white, the photos and illustrations that were produced in color should be converted to black-and-white (also called monochrome or grayscale) before saving in a file and then inserting in your book pages. Use the TIF format, not the more common JPG, which is used for the web. You can safely reduce the size of an image, but if you try to enlarge it more than a tiny bit, you will lose quality. If you are taking photos or hiring a photographer, the camera should be set for TIF (or RAW and later converted to TIF). If you are buying stock art, select a version with 300 DPI (dots per inch) resolution. If you are downloading art from a website, it will most likely be a JPG with lower resolution. I have used many JPGs with no problems in several books. If you can select from several suitable JPG images, pick the biggest one, if all else is equal. JPGs should be converted to TIF images. JPG images lose a bit of sharpness each time they are saved after making changes in them. TIFs are “lossless.”
  16. If you need to scan a photograph or illustration, scan at a resolution of 300 DPI and produce a TIF image. Some scanners will work at 72 DPI unless you change the setting, so pay attention. (The setting may be on the scanner or on your computer screen in the scanner software.) The 72 DPI setting is not good enough for a book. Resolution above 300 DPI is not an improvement. It may slow down your computer and will probably create an oversized file. Make sure your scanned file is a TIF, not a JPG.
  17. If you start a paragraph to the right of a photograph, illustration or chart and the first line is approximately even with the top of the graphic, it looks lousy if you indent the first word, even if that is the style for your book. Eliminate the “missing tooth” effect by eliminating the indent.
  18. If your book is set flush-left/ragged-right and you have text to the left of a photograph, illustration or chart, it will look lousy because of the jagged gaps along a straight vertical border. Your book will look much better if you temporarily change your style. Modify the text to be justified, or perhaps even ragged- left/flush-right.
  19. It’s important not to have a person or a vehicle looking or traveling “off the page.” It’s natural for the reader to follow the eyes of the person (or the headlights of the car), so don’t direct a reader’s eyes away from the book.
  20. If you are using stock photos or clip art, you can easily reverse (flip) the photo to keep the readers’ eyes focused inside the book. Be careful of the effects on flips if you change pages from recto to verso, or vice-verso. (Sorry — I’ve wanted to use that line for many years.)
  21. If you use a photo of a well-known person where the flipping would be noticeable (such as moving a pimple, wart, pierced eyelid, missing tooth, tattoo or nose ring from the left to the right), you can rearrange a page so the eyes lead into some text instead of off the page.
  22. If you flip a photo, watch out for a text reversal in such things as name tags, keyboards, initial jewelry, clocks, wrist-watches or signs or license plates in the background. Watch for reversed flags or logos, too. Make sure wedding rings are on the correct hand (usually the left in the U. S.) .Some products, even if made by hundreds of different manufacturers, have standard formats. Don’t reverse a telephone and end up with the handset on the right side instead of on the left. On old televisions, knobs were almost always on the right. Be careful if you flip a photo of a car or a truck. Remember which side the steering wheel is supposed to be on. NOTE: sometimes a flag is supposed to be “backwards.” When the American flag is on the right side of an airplane (including Air Force One) or on the right sleeve of a uniform, the stars go on the right. This mimics the way the flag would fly from a mast on a moving ship or when carried into battle.
  23. Don’t trust your monitor. While fixing up a scan of an old photograph for use in a book, I used a graphics program to simply paint some black over various white spots and streaks in the otherwise solid black background. Later on, I printed a couple of pages on a color laser print­er simply to compare a few different type faces and sizes. I was horrified to see that the photo that had looked perfect on my LCD monitor had dark black blotches against a grayer background. It was a scary and valuable lesson, and I’m glad I learned it before the book went to press. Apparently, most LCD monitors just don’t have the ability to display the full range of colors that can be printed — or even the colors that can be displayed by a clunky old CRT monitor. I redid my retouching.
  24. Don’t be afraid to try different software “tools,” especially if you already own them. For example, there’s a good chance that you may have different graphics programs accumulated over the years. I’ve generally used Microsoft’s ancient but versatile Image Composer for sharpening photos. While writing a book, I found that the Auto Sharpen tool in Photoshop Elements is much better. Some tools are easier to use than others. I like to use Microsoft Digital Image Pro 10 to remove spots from old photos. I assume I could do it with Photoshop, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do it. Like most men, I seldom RTFM, or ask gas station attendants for travel directions.

Michael N. Marcus‘s first book was published by Doubleday in 1976. His second book was published by a small, long-gone company in 1996. In 2008 he formed Silver Sands Books with the plan to publish one book — mostly for friends and relatives. He liked publishing so much, he has published over a dozen books since then. Because he was disappointed with existing books about self-publishing, and by the bad books produced by “vanity presses,” he published Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t Be a Victim of a Vanity Press in 2009. That book incorporated what he learned while producing three previous books, and has been on two Amazon.com bestseller lists. An update will be out soon.

Realizing that many writers do not want to operate their own publishing companies, Michael recently published Get the Most Out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a Better Deal. Make a Better Book.

Photo by Mike Baird.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Adam Anton

    Hi, thanks for the tips. I found a cool app that turns your photos into cartoons. Clip2Comic. In their fine print it seeems they won’t let you use for your created work for commercial purposes. Seeing that apps like these are really easy to use and accessible with your photos this is really a shame. Any advice or know any similar apps or programs to turn photos into “sketches?”

  2. Joann Sondy

    Base don my experience with POD and other high-end digital processes, the paper type for photo books if very important. If possible, choose a premium paper for color images. Regarding B&W images, it depends on the printer and the designer should review the production with the printer. Some may want the image profile set to B&W which requires refinement in Photoshop to maintain integrity. As a designer who has worked on numerous image+text projects, it is wise to stay away from the word processing applications since image handling is reduced considerably versus InDesign or Quark.

  3. Jolene


    Thanks so for the great information, but just wanted to let you know that Istock Photo is not a great option for print-on-demand. Take a look at their licensing information (scroll down near the bottom of the page to the “License Restrictions” part.)

    According tho this, you are prohibited from using their photos for print-on-demand, which is a bummer, because I’d found the perfect photo for my book cover on their site!


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Jolene,

      I believe the products they are referring to as “online print-on-demand” are the kind Cafe Press and others sell where you personalize products which are then made and shipped to you, like T shirts, coffee mugs and similar.

      They explicitly grant authority for book covers here where they explain the rights you gain through their Standard License:

      Books and book covers, CD & DVD covers: Yes, up to 499,999 impressions

      But their licensing language could be more clear. Thanks for raising an important point.

      • Jolene

        Thanks so much for clarifying, Joel! I appreciate it.

  4. Beth

    I read somewhere that when including black and white photos and printing through Lightning Source, it’s best to go with color printing (and the heft additional fee) because the b&w photos come out better. Have you found this to be true?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Beth, this would only be rational if the book contained art photography, not just photos as illustrations. And if that was the case, Lightning Source would not be a good match for this kind of book production, since offset printing is much better for any kind of art reproduction. It would also price the book out of the market. Thanks for raising an interesting point.

      • Beth

        Thanks for the input, Joel!

        I’m working with a client who plans to self-publish a nonfiction book through Lightning Source. Just to clarify, if she wants to include some black & white stock-type photos to break up the text, the quality of the photos should come out fine, then? Maybe not as great as they would with offset printing, but they should still be okay?

        • Michael N. Marcus

          Mostly OK, sometimes surprisingly good, occasionally not so good. Large solid black areas can be blotchy. There are variations from book to book.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Beth, I’ve published numerous books with photos and illustrations at Lightning Source and, for the kind of use your client is thinking of, you should not have any problems. However, this is totally dependent on how the photographs are prepared for printing. This is a somewhat technical process that’s best left in the hands of someone who knows how to do it. I’ve been very satisfied with the reproduction there, but I also have many years of experience printing black and white photos, so make sure your designer (or whoever is doing the files) has done this before or talks to Lightning Source to find out their requirements. If you have more questions, just leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help out. Also see this article:
          Preparing Black and White Photos for your Book

          • Beth

            Many thanks Joel & Michael. This helps a great deal.

  5. Shelley Hitz

    Thanks for some great tips! Another place I’ve found free pictures is stock.xchng: https://sxc.hu. Again, you need to look closely at the restrictions that apply for each photo and they recommend contacting the photographer if you’re going to use it in a print book.


  6. Milton Simpson

    It was refreshing to actually get some useful information from Mr. Marcus’ post.

  7. Michael N. Marcus

    Thanks. It’s nice to be appreciated.

  8. Blaine Moore

    Great tips, I can definitely make use of most of them.

  9. Mari Miniatt

    Great advice. With one addition. Make sure the pictures are flattened. Some of the formats will ask you to to flatten before you save, some don’t. Otherwise the white areas of the photo or artwork might come up transparent. Not a big deal, you would think printing on white paper. But it can cause issues with the printer.
    I agree about .jpg. I have used .png with no issue. Is .tiff better or about the same?

    • Michael N. Marcus

      Good point about flattening. Thanks.

      I’ve never pinged. As I recall from a Nikon class on digital photo workflow, png and tif are both lossless, but png is better for the web and tif is better for print.

      If you’re pleased with your printed png images, there’s probably no reason to change, but it might be worth a few bucks to do some images as tifs and compare them with pngs of the same images from the same printer.



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