Sourcing book images

For many writers, words are enough to paint a thousand, vivid pictures. Not many books benefit from you filling them full of plain text, however. Non-fiction and reference books can easily feel dry and dense without images. Add a few well-designed diagrams, charts or photos, and their pages can come to life. Younger children’s books too are as much about the gorgeous, absorbing illustrations as they are about the words. The two work in harmony and enhance the other.

The human brain processes images far faster and easier than it does text. If your book needs to grab attention fast, or if your text is particularly complex, images can be the difference between an engaged reader and one who loses interest quickly.

Given that images are so powerful, it’s all the more important to use them well. You’ll need to choose them carefully and consider things like quality, originality, suitability, licensing and copyright. A book with predictable, fuzzy and pixelated images, will only pull down the quality of the material rather than enhance it. And if you’ve been particularly careless or unlucky, you may even end up with a legal notice for using images without permission. Sadly, freely-available images rarely mean they’re free to use as you wish.

There’s no one right way to use images—it’ll all depend on the character and purpose of your book. There are some strict do’s and don’ts, however, and they are worth learning now. Think about what your book needs images for and what you hope they will achieve. Once you’ve got that firmly in your mind, read on. Our tips will help you find the best images while keeping you out of hot water.

Taking your own photos

If you’re skilled with a camera and your book includes things that are easy for you to photograph—maybe members of your family, your hometown, local scenery, etc.—you might want to take your own photos. You will need to own a decent camera to ensure your images have sufficient resolution, however. Although quick snaps on a smartphone might be fine for Facebook, they’re unlikely to be suitable for a printed book. That said, some phones do take great quality pictures if you apply the right settings. Just make sure you check.

Remember that you’ll need to make sure that you’re allowed to take the photos you want first. The rules on photographing particular buildings, people or places often depend on how you will use the picture. If the photo is for editorial use, for example, to illustrate a particular point, then you’re probably allowed. However, if you use the photo for commercial purposes, which means using it to promote a related product or service, then you’ll almost always need permission.

Using images from the internet

We’re always surprised how many authors aren’t aware of the restrictions of using photos found online. Most people know they can’t just scan an image from another book and use it in their own. But did you know that the same rules apply online?

Put bluntly, you simply cannot save any image from the internet and put it in your book. It doesn’t matter if the image has no watermark, comes with no warning, or whether you plan to give the original author credit: it’s illegal. And if you think a little copy-paste can’t hurt anyone, it is worth checking out some of the scary stories online where people report otherwise!

Often people think that if an image is on Google, then it must be ok. But finding pictures on Google Images is not an indication they are freely available either. All Google has done is automatically index these images from websites. Copyright rules still protect them. You could use the ‘advanced image search’ settings to find images registered as ‘free to use or share,’ but you won’t find a great selection of imagery this way. Other people will already have used these images over and over. That’s why Google found them so easily.

If that doesn’t put you off, the other big issue with internet images is their quality or resolution. When people use images on websites and blogs, they size and adjust them to be suitable. This typically means a resolution of around 72dpi. That’s nowhere near the resolution of 300dpi that you’ll need for good print quality. Enlarged and used in a book, low-resolution images like this will look pixelated (blurry) and horribly unprofessional.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons service helps people share and find imagery with free, easy-to-use copyright licenses. By going to, you can search a whole range of websites including Flickr, Google Images and Wiki Commons. It will only show you those images that you are free to modify and include in your manuscript. Phew.

It’s safer than Google but still not ideal. Again, the images you will find here are hugely overused and probably won’t be good enough quality to use as print material. You’ll also need to be careful to attribute the images to their original author. If you decide to use them, it’s also important to verify the validity and the terms of the CC license yourself by following the link. The Creative Commons site itself doesn’t check, and there are different rules for different images. If in doubt, it’s best to contact the image owner themselves and ask.

Stock image libraries

Stock image sites are a great way for photographers to sell their images and show off their talent. Think of them as a photography marketplace. People visiting the site can buy the images shown and use them in books and on covers, as well as in newspapers, blogs, and advertising, both in print or online. There are now dozens of top quality stock image libraries featuring skilled photographers. Getty Images, Thinkstock, iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia, Fotosearch, and BigStock are good ones to get you started.

Stock images are uniquely useful as there are so many of them. There are now millions of images to choose from with just a few clicks. Search a stock image site, and you’ll be able to find an image on virtually any theme you can think of. Type ‘poodle’ into, and you’ll get over ten thousand results!

The other big advantage is that stock images are generally available at excellent quality. When you purchase an image, you’ll be able to download it at a print quality of 300dpi and often much higher. This means when you print the images onto pages, they’ll look beautifully smooth and clear. No jagged lines and pixelation.

The well-designed stock image libraries make it easy to search for the right image. You’ll be able to select specific attributes you’re looking for, such as isolated shapes on a clear background. This allows you to be much more creative with your image use, wrapping text around shapes on the page, rather than simply using uniform, rectangular images.

Finally, stock image libraries help to make the licensing terms for the images you use nice and clear, so you don’t get into trouble. The rules for many stock sites state, for example, that you can print up to 500,000 copies of your book containing the image under a standard license, but that you can’t take the image out and use it on its own in other materials. Knowing the boundaries and restrictions like this will really help you to feel more confident, and avoid unexpected sinkholes later.

If you use a book designer to find your images, the benefits get better. Many book design firms will have accounts with specific stock image sites so they can purchase images at much lower rates than you could. Although you’ll have to pay your designer too, chances are you’ll be able to afford to use much better images than you could if you were sourcing them yourself. To help your designer find your images, you can use any old picture in your manuscript to illustrate the kind of thing you have in mind. Don’t worry about usage rights here—they’re just acting as a placeholder. It will simply help your book designer find the perfect image to replace them with later.

Of course, there are inevitably some drawbacks to using stock images too, and these are worth bearing in mind. Stock images are non-exclusive. This means other people can buy them whenever they want to. As a result, some authors worry that the images they use won’t be ‘there’s’ and may crop up in similar publications.

If you’re using stock images to design a cover, we would definitely recommend that you or your designer manipulate the image in some way to make it truly original. This will mean you don’t have to worry about it cropping up on the book next to yours on the shelf. For book interiors, if the book revolves heavily around its images (like in an art book, children’s book, photobook) then again, it’s probably important to make sure you have something that feels original. For other books where you’re using images sporadically, however, you probably just need to take a chance. There isn’t really an affordable alternative. And, in any case, there are so many images to choose from, you’d be unlucky to come across someone else using it elsewhere.

Charts, diagrams, and infographics

If you’d like your book to contain charts and diagrams, then you’ll need to make sure these work together nicely as a consistent set. The styling should match, as well as the colors, the line weights, the axes, and the overall look and feel.

You should also make sure that the graphics you use are line drawings or vector graphics. Unlike a photo, these aren’t made up of lots of little pixels that can look fuzzy in print. They’re made up of smooth lines and paths that will look crisp and sharp, no matter what size you print them at. This is especially important if your graphics include lots of small text on axes and labels. Needless to say, it is definitely worth paying a professional to create these. It will make a huge difference to how polished your final book looks.

Depending on your book and its contents, you might want to go a step further and display some information visually using infographics.  Infographics are a great opportunity to inject some extra creativity and turn a boring graph into something much more compellingpho. How about statistics on fast food presented as a pizza pie charts?

Custom images

Of course, another solution is to have custom illustrations, artwork or photographs produced by a professional specifically for your book. It will mean you can end up with whatever image you like, in whatever style you prefer. It will also be completely original and give the book a particularly strong identity.

A children’s book is ALL about beautiful, matching illustrations and so in this case, the expense is unavoidable and completely worth it. Cutting corners with a children’s book is likely to undermine its entire success. However for many non-fiction or business texts, aside from the odd custom-designed symbol or line drawings, creating brand new artwork for the interior can get very, very expensive.

Likewise, hiring a professional photographer is very unusual for self-publishing. Although you will get top quality, original images, they’ll cost you far more than any other option. With the wealth of manipulatable images online through stock image sites, there’s rarely a need to hire someone to produce something from scratch now, especially with a good designer to help you.

Last words

And that brings us nicely onto our final point. The very best way to ensure perfect, cost-effective images for your book is to work closely with a designer. They’ll help you choose your images well, make sure they’re properly licensed, and tweak them to work together as a set. They’ll also help make sure they have enough color depth and are the right resolution for printing. Although it’s an extra expense to factor in, you will probably find they save you money overall. More importantly, you’ll be grateful for the difference in quality for the rest of your book’s life.

Whatever you decide to use, just pause and give it some thought first. And absolutely no stealing from Google, however tempting! We promise it isn’t worth it.