Stock images: what do I need to watch out for?

Stock images: what do I need to watch out for?

Stock images: what are they?

Photos or other images that have been uploaded to a stock image website/service. These images are then available for other people to purchase and to use.

Often, book cover designers use stock photos and manipulate them (change bits, combine them with other images) to create their book cover designs.

Sounds okay. Is there a problem?

It is okay. In fact, it’s a widely used technique that helps book cover designers create all sorts of fantastic images.

Have a look at a traditionally-published book and you will probably find a credit on the back for one or more stock photo companies. Companies such as Getty Images or Shutterstock. This technique is used across both the traditional and indie publishing worlds.

In fact, it’s often cheaper and easier to use stock photos than to hire a photographer, find a model, and create your own custom photo shoot.

So, before we go any further, let’s be clear: using stock photos is not a bad thing to do.

But that’s not to say there aren’t pitfalls to be wary of.

I’ve seen that cover before somewhere…

Stock photos do not belong to cover designers. When a designer wants to use a stock photo, they purchase a licence to use that photo.

Other designers can also purchase a licence for the exact same photo.

This poses two potential problems:

  1. The photo used on your book cover could also be used for many other purposes, such as appearing in an advert
  2. The photo used on your book cover could also be used on other people’s book covers

This second one can be a big issue, particularly if you’re trying to stand out from the crowd.

The Gallery of Clones gathers together some examples that nicely illustrate this problem, and you can read about one author’s experiences with this very problem right here.

Why is this a problem?

The biggest issue is the confusion it can cause.

Your cover is working hard to make sure that potential readers don’t slide right by. Its one job is to grab people’s attention and to clearly communicate something about your book.

You don’t want your readers picking up another author’s book by mistake, thinking it is yours. Conversely, you don’t want people to not read your book, because they’ve already read one with that cover and haven’t realised it’s a different book. These things are not going to help sell your book.

Download limits

When a designer licences a stock photo, they agree to certain rules about how they use that photo.

One of the most common rules is a restriction on the number of times the cover they create using that photo can be produced (ie printed or downloaded). Popular limits are 250,000 and 500,000. (See, for example, Shutterstock’s 500,000 restriction.)

It is possible to purchase an extended licence which allows for unlimited downloads, but these cost more money so a designer will, quite rightly, not buy this to begin with.

You may be thinking that 250,000 sounds like an awful lot of books to sell before this becomes an issue, and that is a fair point. But bear in mind that you will have to keep track of this over the lifetime of your book and you will be responsible for contacting your designer if you approach that limit, so that they can purchase an unlimited licence for you. You will, of course, need to pay your designer to cover that licence.


The owner of the stock photo can also place other restrictions on the use of their photos.

For example, some stock photo companies do not allow their photos to be used to create merchandise. If this restriction applies then you won’t be able to produce posters or other merchandise to sell featuring your book cover artwork. (See, for example, iStock’s merchandise restriction – it’s section 3h.)

As before, extended licences could come to your rescue here, but they do have an extra cost.

It is also possible that the stock photo owner might restrict the way in which the photo is used. For example, they could specify that a photo featuring a person cannot be used in certain circumstances. Adobe Stock images, for example, cannot be used in a way that could “be perceived as offensive by a model featured in the image. No steamy romance novels, political content, etc.”

Your definition of “steamy” and Adobe’s could vary wildly. You don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a “please take down your cover” request from Adobe if your book ends up a little hotter than they are happy with.

Revoked licences

Some stock photo companies can revoke licences they have granted. If this happens, you would no longer be allowed to use that photo as part of your cover design.

Now, it’s worth highlighting that many companies commit to not revoking licences, which should give you some peace of mind. But others do still hold this power and could invoke it in the right circumstances. (See, for example, Alamy’s ability to revoke a licence requiring all users to immediately stop using that image.)

Is this only a problem with photos?

No. Cover designers are also able to purchase other artwork from stock image companies.

This could include illustrations as well as 3D models that they manipulate. Again, this is not a problem in itself and is a well-recognised technique.

But, as before, you need to be aware that the same imagery could be used by many different designers on lots of different covers, and that they may be subject to licencing restrictions.

So… can I use stock photos on a book cover?

Yes. Absolutely.

But when you’re buying a book cover, make sure you have all the information you need to know exactly what you can and cannot do with that book cover design.

How can I protect myself?

Talk to your cover designer.

When they purchased the licences to use the images that make up your cover design then they will have agreed to the terms set out by the stock photo companies. So ask them! Get them to tell you what you are (and what you aren’t) allowed to do with your new book cover.

If necessary, ask them to purchase an extended licence and pay them the extra fee so that you can legally do the things you want to do (sell merchandise etc).

Reputable designers

This assumes, of course, that your designer has obtained all of the proper licences to use the images. All good cover designers will do this.

But if you’re dealing with a designer who hasn’t obtained the licences, then you’re opening yourself up to a completely different set of problems. If your designer tells you they found the photos on Google Images then walk away. Walk away now.

Make sure you use a reputable designer, who has all of the necessary licences and understands how they work.

Do you use stock imagery?


All of my covers are created using my own illustrations (and, occasionally, elements from my own photo library). I do not use any stock images.

My covers have no stock images and, consequently, no download limits. Once you’ve purchased a cover from me, you can sell as many books as you like without needing to worry about coming back to me to extend your licence.

And, because no other designers have access to my photo library or illustrations, there are no clone covers to be wary of.

Can I supply photographs to use on a cover?

Of course.

Sometimes it can be the right decision for the cover design to feature one or more photographs. This is particularly true when it comes to memoirs or autobiographical books. If you have a photo that you would like to feature on your cover then I am happy to incorporate it into your design.

custom photo book cover true life story autobiography inspiring journey


However, you must have the right to use that photo (for example, it is a photo you took yourself or you have written permission from the photographer to use the photo in this way). You must also have the correct permissions from anyone who is featured in the photo for their likeness to be used.

Are there any restrictions?

There are. Like the covers discussed above, you are not allowed to create merchandise from your book cover.

As standard, you are free to make bookmarks, posters, or any other promotional items, as long as they are not for sale. Give them away by all means. That’s not a problem.

If you would like to use your book cover design on merchandise you plan to sell then please let me know. I will confirm what additional fee is payable (it will depend on what you want to sell) and you can decide if that is something you would like to purchase.

Don’t worry, I don’t charge a lot more for this, but there will be an additional fee you will need to pay before you can sell merchandise based on one of my cover designs.

If you have any questions about the imagery I use or what you can and cannot do with one of my covers, please leave a comment or get in touch via

Affordable paperback, hardback, and ebook covers created for your book

"Perfect. Absolutely perfect."
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Tommy Clark
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