I’ve heard a few things lately about book covers and stock photos that have been bothering me. First, let’s go into a primer of how stock photos work with regard to book covers.
How Stock Photography Works from the Photographer’s Perspective
When a photographer takes photo sessions of a model (or a landscape), they add keywords to each photo they wish to sell. A given photographer may have relationships with as many as 15 or 20 different stock photo agencies, but not all photos may be uploaded to all agencies. Each agency has different audiences and different plans.
Some stock photo sites list how many times a photo’s been sold, but that’s only how many times it’s been sold on that one site. A cover artist (or an indie author doing their own cover) may pick a photo that has relatively few sales on one site and believe they’re picking something that’s not overly popular. But that same photo may be significantly more popular on other sites.
Also, the same photo may be used for completely unrelated purposes. Like buying a new car and suddenly seeing that car all around you, buying cover art has the same perils. A photo I bought for a book cover has also been used in a Korean cosmetics ad. Not all those image uses will be to a given stock photo purchaser’s taste, so unless one wants an exclusive cover shoot for many, many times the cost of a stock photo, one’s just going to have to put up with the fact that this photo may be used in very different contexts, also with the photographer’s permission.
As a final point, within traditional publishing, covers get re-used all the time. Even covers designed to illustrate a particular book get reused, just with different text.
If You Are an Author
Unless you paid for a photo shoot and exclusive rights to all photos taken in that photo shoot, do not contact another author whose cover uses the same photo (or a photo from the same shoot) accusing them of copying/stealing your cover.
If you did pay for that photo shoot, you might want to contact your photographer first in case there was some kind of miscommunication…before engaging with another author.
If You Are a Reader
Do Not criticize an author, either publicly or privately, for using the same cover photo as another author. If the author you’re trying to support said that they had an exclusive shoot, then contact the author who you think was hurt. Let the author make that call.