Do You Know Who Owns Your Book Cover?

by | Jul 25, 2014

By Helen Sedwick

You understand the importance of an eye-catching book cover. You spend hours (and dollars) designing, tweaking, and testing. In the end, you, the self-publishing author, own your book cover, right?

Then how does this happen?


Or this?


Or this?

hands on head

Don’t assume someone is stealing here. These look-alikes were probably innocent and unfortunate errors. Someone did not do their homework.

If big-name publishers make these mistakes, then self-publishers are more at risk. How can the self-publishing writer avoid a look-alike cover? Here’s how.

Avoid non-exclusive, ready-made covers.

Thousands of ready-made book covers are available on the internet for little or no money. Ready-made covers are great time and money savers, but be forewarned–you get what you pay for.

CreateSpace, and others offer free, easy-to-use covers, complete with images and handful of font choices. Just type in your title, name and some info, and you could make a cover in less than an hour. Other sites, such as Cover Design Studio, offer ready-made covers for under $50. Their covers take a little more work to customize, but are still bargains.

However, your rights to free and inexpensive ready-made covers are non-exclusive. That means anyone and everyone may use the same cover. You could find dozens of books looking just like yours. If you are serious about marketing your book, avoid non-exclusive covers. They are useful only for books you hand out to friends and family.

If you are going to use a ready-made cover, stick with exclusive covers. Designers are getting into the business is selling ready-made, one-of-a-kind covers. Check out and Author Marketing Club. These exclusive covers are more expensive than non-exclusive covers, but are less expensive than custom covers.

Be sure the designer’s site states that they will sell the pre-made cover only once. Once you buy it, the cover is marked as SOLD or removed from the site. If in doubt, email the designer and ask for clarification.

Keep in mind that even exclusive, pre-made covers rely on stock images, which opens the next can of worms.

If you use stock images, do your homework

Stock image sites such as IStockPhoto, Dreamstime and ShutterStock sell licenses to millions of images at reasonable prices. Their “royalty-free” images may be used for an unlimited number of e-books and typically 249,999 printed covers and bookmarks. However, these licenses are non-exclusive, so anyone else may purchase the same image and use it.

Some sites offer exclusive licenses at significantly higher prices. One of my favorites is Illustration Source.

Professional book cover designers use stock images even for custom covers. That is reasonable so long as they disclose this information.

To minimize the risk of look-alike covers:

  • Before you settle on an image, upload the image onto Google Images and run a search. If you find fifteen pages of links to websites, blogs and even worse, book covers, consider using a less popular image.
  • Modify the image using editing software such as PhotoShop. For an idea of how images may be manipulated, take a look at this clip from Huffington Post.
  • Avoid stereotypical images. (I made this mistake by putting a howling coyote on the cover of Coyote Winds.)

coyote covers

Get exclusive rights from your designer

If you engage a designer, particularly to provide custom illustrations or photography, be sure the designer transfers to you the copyright or exclusive rights to the final design.

The websites of many designers are strangely silent about who owns the final cover. The author should own the final cover once the designer has been paid in full. (Typically, the designer retains ownership of all rejected designs.) While it would be foolish for a professional designer to reused custom work regardless of any legal document, ask the designer to transfer to you in writing ownership of, or an exclusive license to use, the final cover in all formats and technology. An email will work.

Keep in mind the designer can only transfer what he or she owns. If the designer used non-exclusive stock images, then you may have the right to use the images as incorporated into you cover, but not the images them.

Create your own cover

The safest route is to create your own cover using your own images and design work. Using one of The Book Designer’s templates will help you create a cover with the right measurements. With enough talent and patience, you could end up with a unique and compelling look.

Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of a professional-looking cover. Avoid the homemade look. Spend some time looking at The Books Designer’s E-book Cover Design Awards, and you’ll learn to spot weak title placement and the pasted-together look. You don’t want your cover to end up here — Lousy Book Covers.

To learn more about how to protect your rights, check out my book, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook and my blog.

Sedwick.HeadshotHelen Sedwick, is a Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. She is also an author and a California attorney with thirty years of experience representing businesses and entrepreneurs. Her latest book is Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing.

You can find more information about Helen here.

Photo: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Kevin

    This column has some really good advice with one specific exception: the author should NOT own the cover even when paid in full. An author gets the right to use it, but ownership is an entirely different matter. In fact the rule of thumb for designers is that a client has to pay at least double for ownership rights, and depending on the situation some designers just flat out refuse to even sell ownership. DO NOT expect a designer to just casually agree to include ownership rights in your deal with them.

    • Joel Friedlander


      That has not been my experience. I’ve been designing books for authors for over 30 years, and at the completion of every project I turn over complete ownership of the design and all the files used in producing the book to the client.

      It’s not casual, it’s written into my standard contract.

      I know that not every designer does this, but I see no reason not to, and I have many happy clients who have no concern about either “licensing” or file access.

      • Helen Sedwick

        Joel and Kevin, Whether the author gets ownership or an exclusive license, the ownership and rights should be made clear in both technical and everyday language. Since the designer usually has more sophistication about these matters, he or she should bring it up early in the process to reduce confusion.

  2. Bruce Arthurs

    I’ve been trying out Canva recently. Rather than using their stock images, you can upload your own image to use. That’s OK.

    The font selection is pretty limited. My initial impression is that being “easy to use” is a trade-off for being able to fine-tune or customize something to a fully professional or individual final image.

    I came up with a business card using Canva that I’m pretty happy with. Trying to produce a book cover, though, the best I could come up with was something that was not-quite-there. Canva might be best used to produce roughs or samples to show a full-feature designer what you have in mind.

  3. Maria

    Dear Helen
    Thank you very much for your article! I am the editor in chief of a student magazine and I hope you can help me with this question: for the coming issue we are writing a list of book recommendations for the students and of course, we would like to publish pictures of the book covers as well. Are we violating copyright by doing so?
    We do not sell our magazine, but we do make profit from advertisement.
    Thanks in advance.

  4. Divya

    I want to use a photo that I found on the internet for the cover of my book. It is a photo of the Buddha’s feet, probably taken in a museum or temple. There is no information about who it belongs to. Will I get into trouble if I use it? I would be happy to pay for using it, after the fact, but someone told me that I’ll have to pay serious penalties and attorney’s fees, etc. I would appreciate any thoughts or advice on this. Thanks.

    • Helen Sedwick

      Divya, I would try to find the copyright owner before you use it, particularly on a book cover. Do you know how to do an image search using Google Images? Go to this link:
      click on the camera icon, and upload the image. Your search results should list other uses of the image found online. Those may include the photographer’s site, a publication with the copyright information, or a stock image company such as IStockPhoto. If that doesn’t work, post another comment and let us know.

  5. Patrick Samphire

    I’m planning to offer premade covers fairly soon (I’m creating a portfolio of them right now), and I must admit I’m surprised to learn that not everyone offers them exclusively. I guess that’s the price of very cheap.

    The problem of stock photos showing up elsewhere tends to be mitigated if you’re compositing multiple images to make a cover. I don’t think that, so far, I’ve created a cover made up of fewer than four or five images. That way, even if the central image is in common with other covers, the overall cover should be unique.

  6. Chris

    I’m a professional designer and illustrator with 20 years experience. I wouldn’t charge less than $1,500 to create an exclusive cover. That’s the lowest my fee gets.

    Though I get inquiries often, so far no self-published author has been able to meet that fee, which doesn’t surprise me at all. But that’s what my skills are worth, and going lower would contribute to the erosion of my field, which has already taken a hit from sites like 99Designs and Fiverr.

    What would you get if you hired me? Analysis of your story, your market (customers), and your competitors. Sketches of three concepts, which you’d review and approve – or give feedback on. Selection from over 7,000 legally licensed fonts. A rough color version of the cover, then a final – with up to three rounds of feedback. Then I would optimize various sizes and file formats for your usage – no, just shrinking an image isn’t ideal; sometimes you need to re-crop, sharpen, or do other work.

    But most importantly, you’d get two things:

    • my taste, which is the most difficult element to quantify, yet the most important

    • an image that no one else has, or will ever have

    It’s unlikely that a self-published author will sell enough books to pay $1,500 or more even for a cover, even if they thought it was worth it. My skills were honed in a time of bigger sales, less work, but more time and budget for that work.

    I would encourage authors to develop design, photography, and illustration skills and then create your own images. If not, hire a professional and pay them fairly (according to them, not according to what you think is fair because it will be far too low). Just because we have a glut of self-published books, doesn’t mean we have to see the same image over and over, or to see poor quality work.

    • John Doyle

      Complaining about the effect that 99Designs and Fiverr have on your business is like Rolls-Royce bellyaching that Ford and GM are taking too much of the market share.

      It’s all about what the market will bear.

      $1500 (minimum!) is a fee that is way out of the ballpark for many of us indie authors who work day jobs and save our quarters every day to bring our books to life. An author can get an amazing cover (see, for example) for less than one-third that amount and devote the remainder of his or her hard-earned money with other professionals who help him or her develop, edit, print, and market his or her book.

      99Designs and Fiverr help new artists pay their bills and get their name out in the world. They may not have twenty years of experience, but many of them do wonderful work. For budget-minded people in the community you are addressing, they provide us with choices and quality for an affordable price.

      They do not erode your field. They provide competition in your field. And that is good for all of us authors.

      • Chris


        The way you restate my point about independent authors most likely not being able to afford the services of a professional designer who is charging full price makes me think you either missed my point or you don’t understand that I’m pointing out the same thing.

        Your point of view is clearly biased. Imagine working at a fair rate for years, and then having non-professionals, because of easy access to technology, begin doing that work for a tiny fraction of the price – and then your fee becomes so low you can no longer make a living doing your job. That is what erosion means.

        Competition from others who have to make their living doing your job is fair – because they have to charge a reasonable rate or they’ll soon be out of business. Competition from people doing it for fun is unfair – this is the only way someone can charge $100 or $5 for a design. There aren’t enough hours in the year for a professional designer to be able to work and make a living charging this rate.

        You make your main point in the last sentence – it’s good for all of you authors. Of course it is. You’re benefiting from a field that is rapidly disappearing. Most designers I know are out of work or have switched careers because of this erosion. Look around and you’ll see. What bills do you think someone can pay with $100 once a week? Or $5 once a day? Especially when you’re an independent contractor paying 45% or more in federal and state tax, and then paying your insurance out of the remainder.

        These sites are legal, but they’re not ethical. Understand that by using services that you’re paying too little for, no matter how much you personally benefit from it, you’re contributing to the elimination of a creative field. Research it more if you’re interested – google “design” and “no spec” or “contests”. The world will be much worse when instead of professionals who’ve spent years developing skills and experience, we only have kids working out of their parents’ houses, making cheap covers for beer money with a bootleg copy of Photoshop and photos they took with their iPhone or swiped offline.

      • Erika

        IF you use fiverr there is a huge over abundant chance of copyright

  7. Ernie Zelinski

    I will acknowledge you for a great and informative article. It has a lot of useful information, some of which I was not aware of, even though I am a relatively successful (mainly self-published) author with over 800,000 copies of my books sold worldwide.

    However, I do take issue with this cliché:

    “You get what you pay for.”

    That is so untrue in so many cases. I can give 50 examples where paying less gives you better quality or better service.

    “You get what you pay for” is a cliché used by many so-called professionals and companies to try to intimidate prospective customers into buying their higher priced products or services when, in fact, there are other competitors in the same field who provide as good or better products or services at a lower price.

    For example, I now have a great working cover for my inspirational novel “Look Ma, Life’s Easy”. I paid someone on Fiverr to design it for me. He used to be a professional book cover designer but he is now retired and does book cover design for fun. He would have done this cover design for $5 but I asked for so many changes that I insisted on paying him about $35 or $40.

    Another example: The complete cover design for my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” cost me $500. There were other cover designers who wanted $3,000 or more and would not have provided me as good of cover design. Incidentally, if you don’t think that the cover design for this book is that good, keep in mind that this self-published book has now sold over 200,000 copies and has earned me over $900,000 in pretax profits. Results don’t lie, in other words. Within the next year it will be my first $1 million book in pretax profits. I could have spent $10,000 on the cover design and the sales of the book would not have been any higher.

    I am sure that many of the readers can give their own examples where “You get what you pay for” does or did not hold true in their lives.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Helen Sedwick

      Thank you for pointing out the cliche. Oops.
      I love success stories like yours. You have a talent for coming up great book titles and covers which set the right tone. And you are right; that can be accomplished without spending a lot of money.

    • PD Singer

      You get what you pay for only applies after you do your due diligence. One of the Damonza premades uses an image that I’ve seen on approximately twenty other covers in one genre, all published within the last 5 years. That figure provokes groans in certain quarters.

      You know you’ve spent too much time on stock art sites when you can look at a cover and say, “Hmm, I know what that entire image looks like; that’s interesting cropping and they added….”

    • Kevin

      “You get what you pay for” is absolutely true, its just that you just don’t have the experience or knowledge to appreciate the difference in quality. Great designers sometimes make weaker work and amateurs sometimes hit a grand slam, but across the board better designers charge more and yes your book would be likely to have sold even better with the more expensive cover.

  8. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt


    A friend of a friend is allowing me to use a photo he snapped with his iPhone – being in the right place at the right time – which is perfect for the way I want to brand my books.

    I offered to buy the rights to the photo from him, but he insists he doesn’t want anything for it, and is happy to see it used as a book cover.

    What should I do to get that in writing? If the book does very well, I’d like to compensate him somehow, but I don’t want to have a problem come out of the blue. I’m sure he’d be happy to sign something (or I won’t use the photo), but don’t know the best way to word it. The photo is one of a bunch of similar ones (I’m going to end up using a composite of three of them). I will be enhancing and changing, cropping and combining the photos with image-manipulating software before I pick the final image.

    I have other photos friends have taken that I would like to use in the same way – any general comments?

    Thanks! Covers are important – and so are licenses.

    • Helen Sedwick

      Alicia, You have good friends.

      It’s important to put something in writing, otherwise all you have is a nonexclusive license. You can find sample licenses online (check some photography sites), or email through my website and I’ll send you samples.

      • Anuroop Sebastian

        Hi Helen,
        Thanks for your advice. I am in touch with a designer to do my book covers. He lives overseas. He is not willing to put anything in writing of transferring the license of the cover. He is only giving me a simple invoice stating the name of my book. If I paid for it, don’t I automatically have the license to print and distribute it for my book and e-book cover and associated promotional materials?
        Anuroop Sebastian

  9. Laura Duffy

    Thanks so much for posting this. This question has come up lately among my clients, and I’ve just begun to add wording to my contracts to address this concern.
    This happened many times when I was working at RH, and it was extremely frustrating to find out that another pub house was using the same image on a cover, after rounds and rounds of cover designs, causing us to start from scratch. We discussed this with the stock houses, and realized that “exclusivity” was an overwhelming expense even for the big guys. Many times they would give us a heads up if any other house was using an image, but it’s impossible to know that all the time.
    It’s one of the reasons that I try very hard to steer my clients away from images that become ‘trite’ after over-use, especially in the business category. Some of the ways I try to avoid this problem is to do an all type cover, create my own art, manipulate the heck out of something, combine images, or use my or my client’s personal images.
    Thanks again for starting this conversation, and for always plugging professional cover designers, we are very grateful!

    • Helen Sedwick

      Laura, It’s nice to hear the perspective of one who’s work with the big guys. Relying on stereotypes happens even to those who should know better. Have you ever see this article on how so many books about Africa feature the same tree?

      I worked with a professional designer for my cover and told her no law books, gavel, scales of justice, or briefcases. I know I made her job harder, but she came up with a great cover.

  10. D. D. Syrdal

    I’m actually working with an artist now who is painting a custom design for my book cover, but has asked to retain rights to the image for marketing (sell prints of it). Is this standard? I’ve seen it mentioned on several sites.

    • Helen Sedwick

      It’s standard for the artist to retain the right to include the illustration in his or her portfolio as a sample . As far as other uses, that we be a special deal between the two of you. You might want to limit it to certain formats (fine art prints, but not t-shirts, mugs or greeting cards for example) and ask that he or she include a reference that the original was created for you and your book (naming your book). You should clarify who owns the copyright. Is it being “assigned” to you, or are you getting an exclusive license, other than the uses you have approved?

      • D. D. Syrdal

        I haven’t received the contract yet, so I’m not sure what he has in mind. Thank you for the response, good things to keep in mind.

    • Patrick Samphire

      It’s more common than you might think, and it’s not unreasonable, I think. In fact, you’ll sometimes see the same cover used for different books in different countries. With original art, I would suggest that you agree a contract that gives you exclusive rights to use it as a book cover in whatever territories you’re going to be publishing (could be the whole world).

      Think of the artist as being much like a writer. A writer will (in traditional publishing) sell the rights to publish their book, but they won’t sell the actual copyright, and they might only sell for, say, North American publication.

      Even if you get full rights to the book cover, you should let the artist have the right to post the image on their website(s) to promote their work.

  11. Christine Finlayson

    Great nuts-and-bolts info here — thanks for a timely post, Helen! Those matching covers at the top are eerie–I hadn’t thought about the same stock images being used on multiple covers. It’s a good reason to keep taking photographs when I visit the outdoor locations that appear in my books. Perhaps someday one of these “custom” images will end up on a cover of mine.

  12. Jason Matthews

    Fantastic advice, Helen. It’s fun using Google Image search–hadn’t used it for too long. Just checked all my stock images and don’t see them on other book covers, or at least not that I’ve found. However, one of them is used quite a bit for other things, mostly spiritual-healing type ads, but I feel okay with that. In fact a small part of me wonders if that image being planted in more brains could potentially cause people to take a second look at my book cover, subconsciously thinking where have I seen this before?

  13. Andrew Claymore

    Good advice. I used stock images on my first title but I made sure it was something I could alter. I separated out several Roman Legionaries and placed them at varying distances in a misty environment. Not much chance of anyone else doing the same thing with the same image.
    By the time my second title came out, I had spent a lot of time lurking here at Joel’s blog as well as several Blender sites. I’ve been creating 3D scenes and rendering them into covers, a big advantage when you write scifi.

    There aren’t a lot of stock images of a Space-Marine ship-destroyer being recovered aboard a carrier.

    It’s great that folks like Joel and Helen are willing to put so much effort into helping others improve. I always learn something new when I drop by.

    Thanks Guys!

  14. Greg Strandberg

    Great idea for a post. I see this quite a bit and it’s something you’ll run into with premade covers. Even if the site you got the cover from isn’t using that same image again someone else probably is…somewhere.

  15. Michael W. Perry

    Oh, I don’t know. I’d far rather look through many hundreds of stock photos and find one that fits perfectly with a book’s message than to attempt to kludge together a cover from a few images I could get an exclusive on at some high price or to attempt to take one myself, with all the complications that can involve, particularly that of finding models.

    Here’s examples of my two latest. Both are from stock photo services that charged less than $15 for the rights.

    The first is of an actual little girl who developed leukemia probably within a few months of that picture. That’s her on the back cover during her chemo. Can you imagine the emotional difficulties of getting permission for that? Would you want to go from child to child trying to find one who would agree? I wouldn’t. Yet this little girl wanted her pictures taken. I used several of her getting chemo with chapters in the book. She’s very brave.

    The other, with a horseback rider, is a bit more generic and might appear on some other book but so what. It’s perfect for mine. That’s all that really matters. And inside I used three photos of riders–all of different people dressed different and on different (but dark) horses. I cheated a bit and called that artistic license. The difference was that or paying many hundreds of dollars to have photos of one model taken in various locales.

    You’re right that looking professional is important. All too many of these cover template services create covers that look generic and boilerplate because they are generic and boilerplate. Finding just the right image and coming up with ways to properly place cover text takes hours of sweating and experimenting.

    You may even need to create slightly different versions for print and digital, something template makers probably don’t include. The Lily’s Ride image linked above shows the digital version with bright white text to stand out. The print version uses about 20% grey instead. I simply wanted it more subdued, but I lucked out. The grey lends a silvery, stormy look to the actual printed copy. That fits perfectly with the theme.

    And notice the contrasting black v. white text on the back. Black worked fine against the light background at the top. It wouldn’t have worked with the contrasting light and dark background at the bottom and yet I desperately wanted to include that long quote from the climax of the book. Again, pure white worked for digital. There you have to be high-contrast. With print, I used shadowing to make the text pop-out. Shadowing is dreadful with low-resolution digital. It just looks blurred, as I have discovered. But with 300 dpi printing subtle shadowing can be marvelous.

    Look at some of my older images on that same website and you’ll see that learning to do covers has been a long and painful process for me. I’ve spent the last 15 years learning bit by bit.

    Finally, I do agree that exclusivity can matter in some cases. Were I an editor at a major publisher planning the release of what’s likely to be a bestseller, I’d make darn certain no other cover used a particular image. But for a small publisher, finding the right stock photo can matter more than trying too hard to be unique. And, as the examples in the articles illustrates, how a photo is cropped and used can make even the same photo seem different. That may be enough.

    • Helen Sedwick

      Michael, Thank you for sharing all this information. You are so right that each book has its own story and designing its cover involves many decisions. Trying to be unique is not as important as finding the right image.
      BTW, the photos of the girl with the face paint and then when she’s in chemo tell a powerful story. Well done.

  16. Danielle Lenee Davis

    Informative article! Thanks, Helen. That’s something to think about.



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