Mirror, Mirror – duplicate cover images

July 5, 2011 Articles and Opinions

It has been commented on recently that many covers are very similar. With the rise in e-books, self-publishers, small press, vanity presses and reverse vanity, the number of these covers also appears to be rising. (*Many of the images on this entry are served by Amazon. Adblocker users may find them hidden.)

It isn’t just small press that is affected. A particularly high profile example just happened to Stephenie Meyer, whose cover for the Host is very similar to an earlier book: De Beproeving by Tess Franke (spotted by IcanhazCheeseburger).

This isn’t a new thing. In high turnover markets like pulp it’s been going on since the fifties. (The Rap Sheet documents various examples). It isn’t just that it is happening more now, due to more commercial stock image catalogues, but that with the rise of online book catalogues it is becoming more obvious and easier to find.

The driver, as always, is cost. Reusing original artwork in the 50’s to 70’s allowed the cost of an entire painting to be saved. Today, stock images are substantially cheaper than original artwork. Unfortunately the hidden cost of stock images is that they are not exclusive, and may be reused. With good typography and layout, this should not be a problem. A good designer can combine stock elements into something unique, even if individual elements can be recognised.

The other issue is time – amending painted or original artwork if revisions are needed takes longer than amending something on the computer. For a high-volume high-turnover house or an author mill this is an unwanted overhead.

This is a hot topic at the moment, among both indie and mainstream authors. There is a discussion on Kindleboards. A thread on AbsoluteWrite recently had an index of a lot of stock covers being reused, many 9 times or so. (Here, for members only). Classic art isn’t immune: Caustic Cover Critic’s blog entry shows 5 paintings, used for 24 book covers. Authors in larger publishing houses often have little or no say over their cover art, while indies may not have the funds for original artwork.
(Thanks to the History of Kindle blog for the example on the left).

If it’s so common, and has so many advantages for the publishers, why is it a problem? Partly because a book like this won’t stand out. It may be the best cover in the world, but if you are one of twelve books using it how do you draw readers? Also, where the same cover is used for books in widely different genres (literary and sci-fi, or Christian fiction and romance) how well can it really reflect the book’s content? The question has to be: could you pick this book out of a lineup? In greyscale. And thumbnailed.

Covers don’t have to be outright bad to deter readers. When a single stock image is used whole, it may not just be recogniseable, but can also put readers off because of the lack of effort it signifies. Today, with programs like Photoshop and Gimp available, almost anyone can take a piece of artwork and throw text on it to produce a decent result. As a result, a lot of indies use this technique. Covers easily recognisable as a stock image with a few words can actually deter readers. After all, the effort put into the cover – a book’s first impression – can be taken to reflect the effort put into a book. Rightly or wrongly, some readers have become used to a poor quality cover indicating poor editing, spelling errors and even poor writing.

Where a company outputs a lot of books, their default covers can also become recognisable. For example, Lulu.com’s basic templates can be spotted by bookstore owners easily, and can immediately make them wary. The cover tells them they are getting something the author self-published and, without a gatekeeper, quality varies so widely.

So, since duplicate covers have always been an issue, and with the rise of stock libraries is likely to remain one, how can an author be certain their book’s cover is unique – or at least stands out? If stock image use is unavoidable, hire a designer or someone who knows how to combine the elements in a unique fashion. The use of stock images does not mean the covers have to be identical. An old but good example is Gail Carriger’s Blameless, where Orbit released the video of how the cover was made:

Stock images in themselves aren’t bad. There are even examples where books may want to be very similar or use the same image e.g. series. Like every tool, it is how it is used. As long as the cover fits the book, is there really an issue? Many designers come from the same background or schools of design and therefore naturally gravitate towards the same images and looks.

Just to close with some hard numbers: With over half a million books published this year alone, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a few of them look similar. Googlebooks calculates the number of books ever written at about 130 Million. The rise of ebooks brings more and more of those back into circulation, and many get new covers from stock photos.

There are three main stock image libraries: the largest is iStockPhoto with over six million files. That isn’t even one per book.

Given this, it isn’t the fact that duplication happens that bothers me. What does is when there isn’t any attempt to tweak the cover to fit the book; when the cover clearly does not fit the work, but is added because it is quick. I might believe a cover can fit two romances, but it is stretching it to believe someone thought it would appeal equally to romance, sci-fi, Christian fic, historical non-fiction and true crime fans.

Have your say below: