Using Photos in Self Published Books: What You Need to Know
A question came up in a writer forum about using photographs when self publishing books. What do you need to know to keep you out of trouble?
Let’s get this out of the way right away. You need to own the rights or be given written permission to use any photos in your books. Your self published book is a commercial venture, meaning it makes money. Any time money is involved, you can bet squabbles over who owns what and who gets paid are involved, too.
I’ll talk about the most general terms and concepts in the following discussion. But if you ever have a question about permitted uses and permissions for photographs or illustrations in your self published books, you need to consult an attorney who specializes in media liability and intellectual property.
In general, the person who snaps the shutter—or these days, the person to clicks the button—to take the photo owns the rights. If that’s not you, you need to get written permission from the photographer to include it in your book. Keep that documentation in the event there’s a claim for copyright infringement.
"What about publishing old photographs or antique postcards? Does someone still own the rights to these images?"
What a great question on this issue! And the answer is, as with everything in the copyright arena, "it depends."
For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright law for the United States protects copyrighted material for the life of the creator, plus 70 years. But that changes for jointly created works which are protected until the last surviving author dies, plus 70 years. Works for hire, anonymous, and pseudonymous works have another set of rules. And works created before January 1, 1978 have another set of rules. It's a mess that requires a lot of legal research to determine ownership. If the image is super important to your work, check out the Duration of Copyright circular from the U.S. Copyright Office AND get legal advice.
And that's for the United States. If the work was created in another country, there may be other rules and copyright protections to observe.
After the protection period, the photo or image may be in the public domain, emphasis on the word "may." It's not automatic. The rights could have been transferred or sold to someone else which muddles the situation even more.
So the short answer is yes, the rights to these old images are probably owned by someone, and should probably be treated as any other copyrighted material. So be very careful with "public domain" image sites. Many of them have no oversight of what users upload and the provenance of these images is suspect. Consult an attorney who specializes in intellectual property to verify if and how you can use "old" images.
Releases for Subjects in Photos
The other rights you need to clear are releases for the subjects of the photos. These are generally called model releases (for people) or property releases (for objects, real estate, people’s pets, landmarks, etc.). Releases need to clearly state how, where, and when the photo will be used.
The issue here for people is rights of publicity, sometimes referred to as rights to privacy. The person in the photo has the right to control and profit from the commercial use of his/her image and likeness. Again, publishing and selling your self published book is a commercial venture. Even if the subject person is your family member or friend, you need to get this release.
In terms of property releases, these would be used for any non-person thing that you don’t own. That would include other people’s homes or real estate and possessions. Did you know this even applies to photos you take in places such as the national parks in the United States. Don’t believe me? Check out the rules on the government’s National Park Service website. If you’re using it for a commercial venture, it needs a permit from the owner, even if it’s a governmental agency.
In general, if you don't own the subject of the photo, it needs a release to be pictured in your book. Get legal advice on how to prepare and obtain these releases.
Your Headshot and PR Photos... and Why Weddings are a Problem
Most professional photographers understand that when someone comes to them to take headshots or PR photos, the client intends to use them everywhere and that royalties won't be paid for every time they're used. But you do need to have that clearly stated, in writing, that the photographer agrees to this use and keep that documentation on file.
Here’s where authors may be tempted to take risks with this. They feel that their wedding, graduation, or other special event photos are their “best” photos. So they go ahead and scan those photos, or use the digital proof files, for their websites, book covers, and even in books. They figure, “It’s a photo of me. I can use it.” Nope.
Wedding, portrait, or event photographers can sue you for copyright infringement and payment of royalties for anything other than personal, non-commercial use. (Remember, he who clicks the shutter owns the photo.) That would be an extended use of their work. Interestingly, those pro photographers also often have clauses in their contracts that allow them to use photos they take of you or your event for promotional purposes. Yeah, it’s messy business.
Make sure everyone is clear on these agreements in writing.
I’ve discussed the risks of using free stock photo sites before. But when it comes to books, it gets even more important to use legitimate stock photography and illustration providers that have clear licensing terms and conditions. I’ve used iStockPhoto.com for years, simply because of their clear definition on permitted uses for their content.
Make sure you read, understand, and obey all stock photo provider's terms and conditions. If you don’t, contact the site and/or your attorney to clarify.
The use of images posted online is such a tangled and messy issue. So I’ll summarize it like this. If a photo or image is posted anywhere online, it’s not yours and you need to get specific written permission from the rights holder to include it in your book. End of discussion.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to inform authors about this. In the business arena, authors can be tempted to swipe a graph or chart from some site and slap it in their book manuscript. I tell them not to do it unless they can provide written proof that they are the rights holder, or the rights holder has given them permission to use it in this way.
If a photo or image is posted anywhere online, it’s not yours and you need to get specific written permission from the rights holder to include it in your book.— Heidi Thorne
High Resolution Photos
When people want to include personal photos in their books, they’ll often scan some old photos with their desktop scanners. Often these are poor resolution and come out blurry or even blotchy when printed.
To print properly, especially for self publishing and print on demand platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they need to be 300dpi (dots per inch) or pixels per inch. The KDP support documentation has some great information on how to determine if your photos are acceptable.
Do You Even Need Photos in Your Self Published Book?
Here’s the biggest argument I have with many self published authors when I look at their manuscripts. They want to use the most trite images imaginable which add absolutely nothing to the manuscript.
Of Old Computers and Handshakes
One of the most common examples I’ve seen is where an author is talking about some tech subject and uses a photo of a person typing on a computer. Oh, please! Readers have known what a person at a computer looks like since the 1980s. And if, to represent technology, you show a stock image of a person using a PC monitor that looks like a boxy old TV screen, it would be foolish to include it in your book that's published in the 21st century. Delete it!
Here’s another example. I wrote for a tech-y blog for a while in the early 2010s. The company wanted its writers to use a specific stock photography site. Unfortunately, the catalog of images was so old that it was laughable. At that time, smartphones had already become the standard. Yet the only available pictures of mobile phones included heavy handheld devices with a tiny square screen or flip phones. Ugh.
And it's not just tech. Another overused stock photo image, especially for business use, is people shaking hands. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, this imagery became culturally inappropriate almost immediately.
Unless you intend to make a historical reference by using it, nothing will make your book seem dated and obsolete than the use of old imagery.
Aside from making your book seem irrelevant, most older children and adults do not need pictures to read a book. They can easily conjure up pictures in their minds from reading the text. In fact, seeing a book come alive in mental pictures is one of the things readers love about reading.
But there are times where it might make sense. For example, if you’ve written a cookbook and you want to show how the dish will look at various stages of a recipe’s preparation, it’s valuable. Your use of pictures will truly depend on the nature of the content.
Take a Tip from the Big Guys
I’m also of the opinion that putting decorative or low value pictures in text-based books makes the author appear amateurish.
Want proof? Pick up some of the most popular novels or nonfiction books from the big trade publishers. Then count the number of stock or other photos in the pages. I'm guessing it will be close to zero.
What About Photos in eBooks?
Another writer question that came up was about using photographs in eBooks. There’s nothing that prohibits them from being used in a eBook, except for the legal, quality, and relevance issues previously discussed that also apply to print books.
But there are some special issues to consider.
The first is that photos in eBooks generally need to be formatted as a separate paragraph. No wrapped text around photos! This is because eBooks use responsive design, meaning that the they are constantly being reformatted to fit the device on which they are viewed. If you have wrapped text around your photo, the result might look great on one device and horrible on the other. Even if a photo appears as a separate paragraph, it could take up to an entire page in the eBook, which makes reading choppy. This is a poor user experience, even if your book’s text content is stellar.
The other issue deals with money, your money. At the 70 percent royalty level on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a file size fee will be deducted from the royalty due to you. Photos are often megabyte heavy. So the more photos you have, the bigger the eBook file, the higher the file size fee, the lower your royalty. Note that at the 35 percent royalty level for Kindle eBooks priced under $2.99 as of this writing, and for certain global marketplaces, the file size is not assessed.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Heidi Thorne