Skip to content

IP: Cover Art Licenses

As you all know, Indie authors wear a lot of hats. I have a few extra, because I’m an author and an artist. So this post is going to be me switching hats, and talking about cover art, from both sides of the page.

It all started because I was stupid. Yeah, yeah, I know, that’s expected of me. Really, though, it was more that I was inexperienced and so tickled with the thought of someone wanting my cover art that I didn’t take the time to lay out a contract with a friend. So. First lesson: good contracts make good relationships. I know this – I knew this before I started doing covers, so the only way I can explain not doing it with this particular transaction was stupidity. Now, I did at least specify in the invoices later what was being paid for, which saved my bacon.

Fast forward several years. The entity I had been selling cover art licenses to folded up shop. What happens to my covers? Well, the rights revert to the artist at that point. Which is something that the authors in the audience need to pay attention to: if you have a book with a publisher, and for some reason that book is no longer with the publisher, you do not ‘own’ that cover. The publisher does. The contract is between the artist and the person who paid them. Even if the publisher says ‘sure, go ahead and use that cover I got for you, on the house…’ do not. Contact the artist, confirm, and preferably re-license the cover art so you can use it in good conscience and without the specter of an artist coming after your work with a copyright take down. You don’t want to hassle with that, and as an artist, neither do I.

Small points, tangential to the conversation about IP: crediting the artist and listing the book on Amazon. A cover artist will usually ask (I do, when I use a formal contract) to be credited in the frontsmatter of the book. They do not need to be listed on Amazon or other sales outlets as ‘Illustrator’ unless they have actually done interior illustrations for your book. If they ask for that, take a step back and contemplate why, and if you want to work with that, because it’s not correct. I’m listed as Illustrator on a few books, and I didn’t ask for it, and have actually asked to be removed from that role.

As an artist, I expect to send the cover art with text layout – in other words, a whole cover design – to whomever paid me for it. I usually do not license the art itself, although you can certainly negotiate for that. James Young sells art at conventions that he licensed from his cover artist and it makes a nice sum for him, but he paid his artist up front for the privilege of doing so. In the case of an artist who doesn’t do shows to sell prints, this could be a win-win situation. In any and all cases, the artist’s name should be connected to the art. Not only to credit them for their work, but to enable others to find them and buy work from them. Word of mouth is king in the world of marketing and sales, and if you disconnect the artist’s name from their work, you cut that vital flow of information, and thereby monies, off from the artist. I have known of authors who bragged that they never told anyone who their cover artist was, because they wanted the artist to stay cheap and available when they needed another cover. Frankly, this is despicable and I hope our readers can see why starving their artist is a horrible idea.

As an author, if I license – and you will note I’m using the term license here rather than purchase – a cover artwork and design, I will usually look for an open license where there are no restrictions on how many times I can sell covers. In other words, if I am putting this cover on an ebook, I don’t want to have to go back and buy another license when I’m going to pass the magic number of, say, 10,000 copies sold. I want to slap it on there and forget about it, so to speak. However, I’m not going to expect to be able to use that same cover art with new text on it for, say, a foreign edition, or a omnibus, or whatever, unless I go back to the artist and pay a little extra for modifications to the file. I don’t own the art. Yes, some artists will sell you the whole package. But don’t expect it, and be explicit with your expectations, as they should be explicit with what you are getting for your money and any limitations on their intellectual property.

Because in the end, that’s what it is. The book cover art is the creation of the artist, and in my humble opinion, it’s just as important as what’s in the book. No author wants to be pirated, so don’t pirate art, either. If you treat an artist’s work like it’s worth less, what does that say about your writing? They are both art! And they are both created in the mind, hence the intellectual part. Treat your cover art and artists with respect. A good cover can make or break a book.

(Header image: “Reactors” by Cedar Sanderson)

14 Comments
  1. c4c – had a fragmented thought for a comment, and that went poof. Sorry. ^^;;;;

    September 28, 2019
  2. One reason the first four Colplatschki books and the early Cat books are not available in print is because I only bought the e-book art license, not print. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Now, I get both, to have for future use, should the need or desire arise. (That, and I was NOT up to dealing with the Smashwords “meatgrinder” at the time…)

    September 28, 2019
  3. Zsuzsa #

    What if you make your own cover by combining stock images from Pixabay or something like that? Is there any general policy about crediting the creators of the stock images?

    September 28, 2019
    • I don’t unless the stock image is a. Required to credit (some are) or b. A major component of the art. I do put my own name in frontmatter of my books if I did the cover. So someone looking for the artist could find me!

      September 28, 2019
  4. Reziac #

    Every time this topic comes up, I go away with the renewed impression that the least risk and hassle would be some combo of public domain images and original art bought rights-and-all.

    September 28, 2019
    • I think if you work with an artist and everyone is aboveboard with expectations, and there is a simple contract like the one I have been using (only not with this instance because friends, which was silly of me) then there is no reason for it to be a hassle. And a good cover artist can really make your book stand out from the crowd.

      September 28, 2019
    • Mary #

      The artist will need a lot more money to justify selling you all rights.

      September 28, 2019
    • Jamie #

      It’s not a hassle, you just have to make a small effort to educate yourself on what the potential rights issues are. You’ve probably already done this from the writing end, when you learned about “First North American Serial Rights” vs. World Rights when dealing with short stories, published in magazines or anthologies, etc. If not, you may find a good starting place with “The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know,” by lawyer Stephen Fishman. It’s sold on Amazon. If you look in the also-boughts, you’ll see there’s an entire series of books focusing on rights issues; at least one of which is geared toward indies.

      You should learn this stuff, just so that you don’t inadvertently present yourself as unscrupulous, e.g., the “all rights” issue that Mary refers to. I’m sure the indies who thought they should give an illustrator byline to their cover artist thought they were doing a nice thing. But since they didn’t go through the “hassle” of learning the basics of their trade, they ended up misleading their readers, who naturally expected interior artwork, and inadvertently damaging the reputation of their cover artists.

      I consider posts like this one and others here at Mad Genius to be a type of “good deed” because they save writers from themselves and others.

      September 28, 2019
  5. Jamie #

    A cover artist will usually ask … to be credited in the frontsmatter of the book. They do not need to be listed on Amazon or other sales outlets as ‘Illustrator’ unless they have actually done interior illustrations for your book.

    Thank you for saying this! I was frustrated in a conversation at the Passive Voice where a number of indies were surprisingly clueless on this point. It’s not rocket science, people: LOOK at your books on your bookshelves!. The front matter isn’t hidden. It’s not secret information. Authors have seen books their whole lives; there’s no excuse for getting this wrong.

    Just as bad, some indies actually thought they were supposed to give their editor a byline. Nope. Thank an editor on the acknowledgements page, like every other professional. While creating that page, feel free to thank any experts you consulted in your research, or the friend who did your tech support and “saved that last chapter from oblivion.”

    The only editors who get bylines are textbook editors or anthology editors, because they’re creators of those particular books. Giving copy editors / development editors / beta readers a byline is insane, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch had a whole post about how that practice will damage a writer’s sales. Not to mention the editor’s reputation, so if the goal was to drum up business for the editor, that’s an epic fail, as they say.

    Bottom line, creators get bylines. If the person didn’t create anything, they get no byline on the copyright page or on Amazon. So, the cover designer is credited on the copyright page, in addition to the cover artist. If the designer and the artist are one and the same, then they just get their name in both credits. The typesetter or book designer gets a credit on the copyright page if you used them. And your mapmaker for your fantasy land, as that’s a type of illustration.

    With respect to graphics, you definitely credit the ones you use if they’re “substantive illustrations,” especially if someone created them for you — that’s not the real term, but I’m drawing a blank on what it might be — think of the heraldic crests for the Great Houses in the “Game of Thrones” books. Virginia Norey’s byline appears for the crests, on the copyright page. Jackie Aher is credited for the clan symbol art used as drop caps in the chapter openings of Lian Hearn’s “Tales of the Otori” series; you can see them via the “look inside” feature on Amazon.

    But if the graphic used is just a fleuron that comes in a font, say for your scene breaks or running headers, etc., you can skip the credit.

    Oh, on the question of stock art, which seems to be all tradpub uses these days, here’s an example of how they’re credited, from a review copy of “Falling Under” by Gwen Hayes:

    Cover design by Oceana Gottlieb

    Cover photo of girl by Dana France

    Cover photo of roses (copyright symbol appears here) Loskutnikov / Shutterstock Images

    As you see on Amazon, the cover art is basically the girl in the foreground and the roses in the background. Loskutnikov is the photographer’s name, and the credit is given in the style that Shutterstock specifies in their licensing agreements. Gottlieb just manipulated both photos, so she’s credited as a designer and not as an artist. I noticed for this book, NAL put these credits in small print on the back cover. The back-cover placement seems to be a trend, but in your explicit instructions, specify the location of the credits. You might even spell out that the artist’s / designer’s name(s) will be in small print if it does go on the back cover, not splashy, attention-getting sizes.

    September 28, 2019
    • Jamie #

      Ah, the link for KKR’s post is invisible. But if you mouse over the “will damage a writer’s sales” text you’ll see it’s clickable.

      September 28, 2019
  6. OldNFO #

    I’ve investigated getting specific cover art for the western series I’m starting, and most of my conversations with various artists are pointing to $800-1000 for both ebook and print rights. Interestingly, they’ve not been interested in doing the cover text, preferring to leave that to me.

    September 29, 2019
    • A cover artist is not the same as a cover designer, although some people can do both. And it’s wise of them not to try if they aren’t experienced at it.

      Those prices seem on the high side, but I am guessing you are getting original artwork for that, exclusive to your books.

      September 29, 2019
  7. Draven #

    and as an artist, make sure you understand the rights you’re selling

    and as a writer. make sure you understand that you may not be getting exclusive rights to the *objects on the cover* if it is 3d rendered… esp if they are purchased from an object library

    (in other news, anyone need cyberpunk city scenes? I’ve got to pay for the objects i just bought….)

    September 30, 2019
  8. Very good info. Thank you.

    October 3, 2019

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: