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Using Photos in Self-Published Books: What You Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Understand the legal and technical issues for using photos in self published books

Understand the legal and technical issues for using photos in self published books

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.

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Read More From Toughnickel

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.

Stock Photography

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 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.

Online Images

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.

Mental Pictures

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


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 14, 2020:

Denise, it is such a changing landscape! Used to be simple back in the days before the internet. And, yes, custom illustrations can add a lot of unique value to a book. Thanks so much for chiming in and have a great day!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 13, 2020:

This is such good information. Things have changed and keep changing concerning intellectual property. It's sometimes better to use no photos at all... that's where my illustrations come in handy... haha.



Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 20, 2020:

Donna, that's a great question! A couple of issues. First, if the photographer is still alive, they have rights. And the rights extend after their death. If created after 1/1/1978, it's 70 years. Here's the whole FAQ from the US copyright office: It gets even messier if it was created outside the US and other countries copyright laws apply. This requires a lot of research as you might expect.

Beyond that protection period, it might (emphasis on "might") go into the public domain. But, again, it will require research since sometimes estates then own rights, or the rights have been sold, or... it's just a minefield!

I might have to put a note about this in the article. Thanks for bringing it up! Hope all is good with you. Happy Weekend!

Donna Herron from USA on June 20, 2020:

Great article, Heidi, as always. Just curious - what about publishing old photographs or antique postcards? Does someone still own the rights to these images?

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 19, 2020:

Adrienne, the copyright issue is HUGE! I see so many authors wanting to swipe stuff from the web. I tell them don't even think about it!

In books that cover your topics, photos would be a help in many cases. And as long as the rights issues are handled properly, it's fine.

For topics that don't need them and fiction, I think mental pictures trump book photos every time.

Thanks so much for reading and chiming in! Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 19, 2020:

Pamela, I can't remember the last book I read with a photo either. Unless it's really relevant to the topic, it's useless. Thanks for reading and chiming in! Have a lovely day!

Adrienne Farricelli on June 17, 2020:

This is very valuable information for anybody thinking about adding pictures to their books, thanks for sharing your experience on this. Copyright is a big issue, and being that once a book is published no major changes can be made (compared to a website where pictures can be taken down), the risks at stake are higher.

I like the mental pictures tip. It's so true that reading is a great way to use our imagination and let our mind wander.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 14, 2020:

Linda, mental pictures, especially for fiction or non-educational nonfiction are usually superior to included photos. But for many of the subjects you address, photos are essential. Again, it really depends on the nature of the content.

Thanks for chiming in, as always! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 14, 2020:

Well, Marie, it does take a long time to get a full-length work published, whether you do self or traditional publishing. So don't be discouraged.

Aside from photos, I'm curious why copyright laws seem to be the obstacle. Afraid your work is too much like something out there? Afraid someone might steal your work? Not sure how to register a copyright (if you choose to do so)? Something else?

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Have a wonderful day!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 13, 2020:

You've shared some important points to consider, Heidi. I like the idea of mental pictures. They do make sense in a lot of cases.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on June 13, 2020:

Thank you for this thoughtful article, Heidi. I have yet to publish a full-length novel or book. Copyright laws may be one reason I've shied away from trying.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 13, 2020:

This is an excellent article, Heidi. I can see why getting permission to use a picture is essential and I really don't think you need a picture unless you are writing for young children. I can't remember the last time I found a picture in any book I read.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 13, 2020:

Flourish, I think historical books, or educational ones, are the only adult level books that benefit from photos and illustrations. Otherwise, they're just added noise.

Thanks so much for reading and chiming in! Have a wonderful weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 13, 2020:

Hello, Venkatachari! I so agree that we don't need photos to make the pictures in our minds. In fact, those are probably superior! Though I also think that historical and technical ones can benefit. It all depends on the purpose and nature of the content.

Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments! Have a great weekend!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on June 13, 2020:

Very intelligent discussion. I believe that photos are not needed in most of the books (especially in novels). The story itself creates a mental picture of each incident. Perhaps only historical books and technical ones require some informative photos or images. Illustrative books are of a special category. The name itself suggests that they contain images.

Your article is a good, intelligent one providing all the facts regarding the need or use of any photos in books


FlourishAnyway from USA on June 12, 2020:

The only situation when they are helpful or interesting is history books, but I don’t read too many of them these days.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 12, 2020:

Doris, yep, if you're not doing a National Geographic or coffee table art book, do you absolutely need photos? I say no.

Sometimes, as your family book experience shows, people are anxious to get their photos in books. As long as all the permissions and rights are clear and documented, go for it.

On KDP, there is a "yeah, I know it's not great, but go ahead and print the thing" button somewhere in the publishing process. So they'll do their best since you say you're okay with that. Sounds like that's what happened with your family book.

True, it's a judgment call on whether to include or nix photos for a book. For the sake of less hassle, I'm inclined to nix 'em. Can't tell you how many authors I've had to have that conversation with.

Which photo requirements are problematic on HP? Maybe I'm not aware.

Anyway, thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments! Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 12, 2020:

Lori, I'm with you! For some books, yes, they're a great and needed addition. Glad you found the info helpful. Thanks so much for chiming in and have a terrific weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 12, 2020:

Peggy, luckily you have the ability to take your own photos. And, yes, I think most of us like letting our mind make the pictures. Thanks for chiming in! Have a wonderful weekend!

Lori Colbo from United States on June 12, 2020:

I see no need for photos in general. As you said, the reader's imagination can conjure up the picture. I think they are only useful in certain types of books, such as children's books, manuals, cookbooks, biographies/autobiographies (optional but most people like to see photos of the writer's life), and perhaps in some instances a historical non-fiction book. Imagination is part of the fun.

Thanks also for the information about permissions and copyright.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on June 12, 2020:

Very helpful article, Heidi. I agree. Why use photos at all unless you are doing a "National Geographic" type book. I rewrote and edited a book recently for a family member who used a plethora of old family photos of ancestors and houses they lived in. These photos were owned by family members who all requested to "put my great grandma in." All but two of these were very old B&W photos, and I'm surprised that Kindle Direct published the book as is. One was a modern color photo, and he had written permission to use it. I made sure of that. The photos helped his descriptions, but it could have gone either way. I don't like the photo requirements on HubPages.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 12, 2020:

Your points are valid about using photos that do not belong to you. Even then, using photos in books, except in certain instances, may become outdated quickly, as you wrote. I like to form my own mental images when reading most books.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 12, 2020:

Bill, I can count the times I've used graphics in my books on one hand. In those cases, it was to illustrate a point and I used all my own stuff. And even then, I had to wrangle with KDP (it was Createspace at that time), even though the files were to spec.

If that's lazy, well, I'm proud of being so. I just can't waste the time futzing with this.

Hope your weekend is lazily lovely! :)

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 12, 2020:

For sure, Liz! Using your own photos is the best way to go in my opinion. And, yes, I think reading without pictures stirs our imaginative powers. Thanks for chiming in and have a great weekend ahead!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 12, 2020:

Hi MG! Glad you found it helpful for your upcoming books. Thanks for commenting and have a great weekend ahead!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 12, 2020:

This is a sticky wicket I don't choose to approach. I'm fine not having photos in my books, fiction or nonfiction. Call it laziness if you will, even though you didn't. It's just one step I choose to pass on.

Happy Weekend, my friend.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 12, 2020:

This is why whenever possible I try to use my own photos in articles I write. It also gives me a use for all the photos I take when travelling.

This is an excellent and very helpful article. You make useful and valid points. I agree. When I read fiction, I try to imagine the scenes as I read.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 11, 2020:

Nice informative article and one will follow in my books.

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