An Open Letter To Stock Photo Photographers

So yesterday on the phenomenal review of Red over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (see, I’m so excited I had to slip that in and share it with you again, in case you missed it), someone made a comment about my cover being “just like” the cover of Under Her Skin.  This had been pointed out to me sometime after I released the cover for Red.  In fact, it is not “just like” it, but it does employ the same girl as the heroine because, as Sarah Wendell pointed out, “there’s a definite lack in stock photography sources for troubled looking young women with imperfect hair, and shirtless men WITHOUT chest stubble. The same images, because they are so good, get used repeatedly!”

And it’s so true.  If you don’t want your book cover to look like erotica, it’s really hard to find non-sexy looking, non-partially bared images of men and women that aren’t completely dorky and cheesy looking.  I think that this is because photographers don’t realize what big potential business stock photography is in the book world.

Well let me tell you, photographers, everybody from self-published authors to big houses in New York are using stock photography in designing their book covers.  And if you’re smart, you’ll start catering to us.  Because we are legion and we need images for book covers.

Here’s what we need:

  • Images of heroines who do NOT look perfect
  • Images of heroines who are not trying to look sexy
  • Images of heroines who look worried or scared (because in most books, they’re facing some kind of stressful problem) and sometimes tough (actually, give us pretty much the whole range of emotions outside trying to be sexy or happy)
  • Images of heroes who aren’t showing their underwear and might actually even be fully dressed
  • Images of heroes who aren’t trying to look all studly and masculine
  • Images of heroes who look fierce and protective
  • Images of BOTH on white or black backgrounds that enable nice easy Photoshop merging with other stuff
  • Clear tags of the characteristics of the models so that we have a prayer of digging them out on stock photo sites

Authors, feel free to add to the list in comments.  If you know a photographer, pass this on and ask them to pass it on to their colleagues.  Maybe we can start a trend.

40 thoughts on “An Open Letter To Stock Photo Photographers

  1. I had a horrible time looking for a sexy Asian man not dressed as a ninja or in a suit holding a cell phone. Or a heroine with a sword who didn’t look like she was an escaped pleasure slave.

    1. People tend to be a standard on most romance covers, which is what I write. Urban fantasy as well. And they don’t have to look sexy…that’s the point I’m making. It’s hard to find models who AREN’T trying to look sexy, so I’m asking for images of people who aren’t. We need more variety in the available base stock photos to work with so that we do NOT inadvertently create similar covers just because we settled on the same models.

    2. Marsh, did you read Kait’s post at all? Perhaps your speed reading skills aren’t what you think they are.

  2. And may I add:

    -Images of people of color who aren’t doing nothing but being half-naked and colorful (or wearing business attire);
    -Images of people from other cultures that aren’t stereotypical; it would be nice to find some American Indian men without feathers;
    -Images of people in historical dress that aren’t just medieval, Celtic, or Victorian English (recently tried to find some good images of people in ancient Egyptian attire: impossible); there are other eras of history, and other parts of the world.

  3. Anya and I have been using Jimmy Thomas’s website ( for the last couple of covers. Of course, I tend to lean toward the more traditional “romantic” covers. Jimmy has everything from romantic to erotica, so there are ton of pics to choose from. But it’s not for everyone, especially YA, so there needs to be a site that caters to book cover needs. Anya and I have had so many laughs over some of the stock photos of guys who apparently THINK they’re good-looking. She and I are constantly on the lookout for nice-looking guys who we can take pictures of. LOL. That’s why I can’t stop thinking about that hot waiter that I met in Disney. Although, the pics we took of him there looked like a grinning little boy, he really looked older and sexier with other expressions. My friend and I were having to fans ourselves. LOL. I would have paid him for a photo session. I wish I’d had a business card with me….

    Okay, so I went into rambling mode there. 🙂 Seriously, you’re right about the stock photos. It’s a real pain trying to find something to work with. And you see the same photos on all the sites. Maybe one of our cover artists should start their own site with strict rules about submissions. 😉

    Oh, and I’m with you…I prefer men without the hairy chests. But to each his own.

  4. I guess it’s because I don’t write period novels or strictly romance. I write either fantasy realism or mysteries. I don’t want my cover to look like the same ole, same ole, I want different. Whatever works for you, that’s what you go with.

  5. Yes!!! We totally need more stock photos! The thing I hate the most about this is getting attached to an image only to find out that it’s already in use! Or using an imagine and then someone comes along and uses it for their cover! If we had more variety, this wouldn’t happen as often! 😉

  6. You’ve hit on something big here. “Heroines who aren’t trying to look sexy.” I’m tired of all the historical romance novel covers that have the coquettish heroine in the big dress with the sly little smile looking over her shoulder while being held in the arms of man with an unlaced white shirt, black skinny pants and black boots. Gee, long sentence rant there but can you tell it’s been bugging me for a while? Historical fiction and historical mysteries have great covers. I’d also like to see more paranormals without the black leather….I like it, but seriously… I do love your cover BTW. Very striking.

    Congrats on the great review too! I’m going over to read it now.

  7. My suggestion would be to get us more photos from the same photoshoot/same model. How awesome is it when we can find the right subject for a cover and there are also other images we could license that would work well for book trailers, future covers in the series, or other website images.

    @Marsh- The desire to put a person on the cover speaks to customer expectation. A fantasy novel might have a temple, landscape, or magical object, just as a thriller might be very graphic with a title that takes center stage and an image of a door, weapon, or shadowy silhouette. If my customer is shopping for a YA romance and sees a smoking gun on white background, why should she think this would be similar to other books she likes in the genre with more often depict a young woman? That hardly means setting out to create something that’s same ole-same ole. There’s plenty of room for variation while also maintaining elements that keep the cover recognizable within the genre. But if an author goes out of her way to show a lack of understanding about what covers in her genre look like, why should a reader believe she knows much about what books in the genre are like beneath the cover? Certainly there are exceptions and something a bit different can also bring more readers. It’s hard to know what works ahead of time. I think you’re right, whatever works for you is what you go with. It’s nice if what you write gives you more leeway in the design process.

    1. Kate: I used a graphic designer to create my fantasy novel. She was inexpensive and I made suggestions. She came up with exactly what I wanted. My thoughts were of the Vampire series,( Stephanie Meyer) covers, plain and to the point. I didn’t realize that offering my opinion was going to get your friends in an uproar. Sorry, I will keep my opinions to myself. And yes, I liked your cover a lot, but not enough to want a duplicate.

  8. I am a part-time stock photographer (mostly nature & landscape). I can understand your frustration. Many microstock agencies primarily want shots of people looking happy, smiling, successful, sexy, romantic, etc. – both sexes, all ages, all races, any setting – because that’s what their customers mostly buy for their projects.

    Stock photographers are always looking for a niche they can fill with pictures that are different from what is already in the collections. I want and need to make money and I can’t do that shooting the same pics as everyone else. What your post says to me is here is a niche not being filled – and some of the other comments have expanded and added to it.

    So, having identified the market, before I even begin thinking about shooting photos, there are several questions I need to answer.

    How big is the market? What kind of sales can I expect? My pay, like yours, is royalty based. My royalties need to more than cover the expense of the photo shoot which can be several hundred or even thousands of dollars. The models, makeup artists and other talent need to be paid up front even if the pictures never sell.

    Book covers are one thing but where else might the same pictures be used? Can I justify the shoot by covering multiple markets with slightly different shots?

    Here’s a big consideration even before I shoot – keywords – you called them ‘tags’. What keywords will you be using to find my pictures? I keep those keywords in mind when I’m planning and shooting so the picture will match the keywords.

    Who can I get to model? Most models can portray happy or sexy – that’s all they ever get asked for. But they can’t do sad, crying, conflicted, etc. There’s more to it than finding a good-looking ‘hunk’.

    As you can see, there’s almost as much work involved in planning a successful photo shoot as there is in planning your novel. Having come this far, I’m interested in hearing more about what you think regarding some of the questions I raised.

    1. Les, this is Kait’s blog, and I don’t want to hijack it, but I have a question. Is it necessary to work with professional models that charge hundreds for the shoot? I was wondering if it would be better to have fresh new faces, people that don’t necessarily do this for a living, but can still pull it off. Would they be more “natural”? What’s your opinion? You’re the professional.

      1. Kait opened the topic so I don’t think any related comments would be construed as hijacking the blog unless we veered totally off-topic. Kait?

        To answer your question: no, it’s not necessary to work with pro models. I’ve used both amateurs and pros. There are two schools of thought on this, though.

        1. Pros usually cost a bit more – not nearly so much as you might think. The girl on the cover of Cosmo may have been paid big bucks and flown halfway around the world for the shoot but not the one in the corn flakes ad on page 52. Pros show up on time, in the right place, ready to work. Pros will accommodate my schedule. If the photographer can clearly explain what he wants, they can usually produce it with a lot less wasted time and effort. They know what model releases are and expect to sign them as part of the job.

        2. Amateurs usually cost less and sometimes work free but many of us pay them in order to avoid various problems. They may not show up if they think a shopping trip with their best friend sounds more fun (which it probably is). They often get bored and leave when they find out it’s not all glitz and glamor like in the movies – sort of like my golden retriever on our daily hike when he sees a squirrel. When faced with a model release they (or their parents if they are underage) refuse to sign because they don’t understand them or the legal implications. No model release means you can’t use the pictures.

    2. Lots of great points raised Les! Well as for how big the market is—I don’t have any hard and fast numbers for you but Amazon sold more ebooks than paper books this year, and Smashwords (an ebook distributor) publishes over 70,000 ebooks and counting. Ebooks (well books in general but in particular ebooks that are central to the self publishing movement) are huge business and will only get bigger. And they all need covers. Whether they put one together themselves or have the good sense to hire a graphic designer, stock photography is usually the base of those covers.

      As for keywords, I know I keep looking based on the sort of emotion I’m looking for “angry”, “scared”, etc. I don’t usually get very far with that, but I know that’s what I’m generally looking for. When I’m trying to find an image, I am absolutely starting with the mood I’m going for. Also physical characteristics of the model—hair, eye color, race, etc. I’m not sure that keywords are so much the problem as photographers aren’t using them but rather that many are using them for images that don’t seem to actually apply (this is probably more an issue of the search engines on the stock photo sites).

      I hadn’t thought so much as setting up special shoots just for this kind of thing as adding additional expressions and poses and such to already planned shoots. I absolutely see the difficulty in finding someone who can step outside the usual box of happy or studly to get them to display real emotion without looking cheesy or fake. Which then makes me want to go out and find actors…

      1. Did you mean Smashwords published 70,000 DIFFERENT books? – IE. 70,000 different TITLES?

        I agree, ‘keyword spam’ (adding keywords that are not relevant to a photo) is a huge problem for stock buyers. Most of us try to avoid it.

        Trying to guess what keywords you might try to use is an issue for me. That’s why I mentioned it as a consideration at the planning stage.

        Searching is a bit of a ‘black art’. It takes awhile to learn how to do it effectively. For example, if you search for ‘scared’, you would miss any pictures that were keyworded ‘fear’ instead. Most search engines don’t look for synonyms or related words. If you’re looking for a caucasian, it may be helpful to know many photographers forget to add ethnicities so you might specify ‘not oriental, not african american, not indian’ etc. instead. Same goes for hair and eye color. Most of the stock agencies will have some kind of help available to learn how to use their search effectively and it will save you time if you read it. Also, different agencies usually have different ways of specifying search strings.

        Some pro models are also actors but I deliberately avoided using the word so as not to confuse people. The vast majority of models are not trained actors.

        1. Yep. 70,000 different titles as of September (which was the most recent data I could located. I wasn’t kidding. Self publishing is big business. And that doesn’t even touch on the traditional publishers that use stock photography in their cover choices as well.

  9. Kait! I just realised something… Your reply didn’t show up in my Gmail (even though I subscribed to replies) and I happened to see it just now. This means that over the past TWO YEARS you might have replied to me on other stuff and I might have missed them. That’s awful! I thought Subscription covered *every* reply/follow-up to a post??

  10. That’s what I mean – that’s what I do (subscribe to the blog, and if I comment on a post, subscribe to replies on a post) – but your reply today didn’t come through 🙁

  11. This is actually something I’ve been worrying about. I actually found someone who can DRAW so well it looks real, so he is going to create my characters for me, and I will own them.

    I wouldn’t fret over the cover. I know someone mentioned it… I saw that review, but who would not buy a book because they recognize the model? Seems pretty myoptic to me. Brush it off and don’t worry about it. I liked the cover.

  12. Yes, This! It’s especially frustrating to write multicultural characters and not find any images that will work. I have heroines who are Asian and Eurasian and a hero who is European/Filipino/African-Caribbean. I gave up on ever finding any picture that would work for him and just used an image of the heroine.

    1. This. I really, really, REALLY want diversity, because in my upcoming Caribbean Vampires series, only ONE of the main characters is completely white. I’m having a hell of a time trying to find appropriate people for the covers and may have to create new digitally altered faces in order to represent my visions for the covers accurately.

  13. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I think it all really comes down to more variety, and not pigeon-holing everything into the “happy” model for the random company who needs a smiling costumers shots, and the “sexy” model for a narrow section of romance/erotica publications. Variety is definitely KEY.

  14. As a photographer, I have to ask.

    Why go to stock photography sites instead of approach photographers themselves? If you approach photographer you are more likely to get what you need as an image. Is it a cost thing? I am very curious.

    1. It’s absolutely about cost. I wind up spending around $200-$300 total for cover design. Usually less than $50 of that is stock photography. My husband IS a photographer and an hour of his time costs quite a bit more than that (not that he’d charge me, that’s not the point–we live in a very small town without accessible models).

      1. Kait, why not just explain to your hubby what you need and have him include it in one of his shoots? As you mentioned in another comment, simply adding on to an existing shoot is fairly easy and should only take a few minutes. There are several advantages to this for you: cost; timliness; you get to specify exactly what you need; you get pictures of a model no other author is using; and you would probably have exclusive use of those pictures.

        While that would seem to me to be a better solution for you, it doesn’t help the other 69,999 authors.

        A custom shoot is probably not very cost effective for most independent authors.

        1. Because he does weddings and family portraits, none of whom are appropriate for book covers. I live in small town Mississippi, so finding models (pro or otherwise) who have the right look is damn near impossible.

  15. Great post, Kait! I completely agree. I just bought my first stock photographs for my first official cover and I’ve seen a lot of the models in books out there. Also run it across the cover model showing up on other books of friends. It would be great if there were more to choose from. Then we wouldn’t be duplicating each others covers.

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