Good Art Cheeeeep – Dorothy Grant

*Yeah, I know I owe you a chapter, but the thing is I’m finishing for reals stories that are overdue, (Novella delivered, yay) and haven’t had time to go through the backlog, which we agreed must happen, right?  Hopefully next week.
I was going to tease you with a chapter of the interim book, but I’m sitting here, half dead.  Those of you who are younger than I remember that stupid crap like jumping from walls, climbing cliffs and hopping from trains that are not quite stopped will come to haunt you in your old age.  Yeah, when you’re twenty you just grow past all of this, but at fifty one the bill comes due.  Or at least for the last week my left shoulder has been giving me issues, as in can’t sleep without advil.  Yesterday was stupid enough to go to bed without, and finally woke up enough at three am to take some.  Which brought pain level to bearable and allowed me to sort of sleep.  Anyway, I was whining to our very own Dorothy and she said, “hey, want a guest post?”  So, here it is.*

Good Art Cheeeeep – Dorothy Grant
Where do you find good art cheap?

Ahem, would all the authors look at me? Ignore the howling mob of artists and illustrators bearing down on us with torches and pitchforks after that question was asked; I’ve got the gates close and the drawbridge up.

Thank you. Now, the first answer is another question: what is good art? You with the pretentious air, you sit down. This is not your moment to pontificate. You over there giggling and quoting Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech… sigh. You’re actually closer than you know. Let’s try a simple working definition. Good art for authors is an image that will catch a browsing reader’s attention, communicate genre, tone, and theme, and lead them to click on the little icon and investigate your blurb to see what the book’s about.

You over there, complaining that definition is marketing, not art? Just. Shut. Up. Or I’ll throw you to the angry mob of commercial artists and illustrators who make such images for a living. Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel out of some wild whim of artistic vandalism, he did it because he was paid to produce work to spec on theme.

Now, how do you find good art?

There are three ways to approach this.

1. Start with books you like, in the genre you’re writing. You don’t even have to buy them, just click the “look inside” feature and check out the copyright page in the front matter. Many indie publishers list their cover artists, illustrators, and cover designers there. (If they’re not wearing all those hats by themselves, anyway.) Quite a few trad publishers put in the artist, too, though rarely the designer. (That’s likely to be an employee.) This one is likely to be moderately expensive in terms of time and money – after all, you already know that the listed artists do sell their art for commercial use, and you just have to backtrack where and how much. On the other hand, you’ll also end up having to sigh and filter out artists like Michael Whelan and Kurt Miller, because they do this for a living and charge prices that put them well out of our reach. Someday… Anyway, the artists run from $6 USD on a royalty-free site to $12,000 USD for custom oil painting.

2. Start by browsing the places that have art for sale, looking for things that’ll fit. This is very expensive in time, but cheap in money. Where are these places? In person, check the artist’s alley at your local conventions; you can browse portfolios (look at the art for sale) and ask artists about commissioning a custom cover, or buying the rights to use a piece they’ve already done as your cover.

Online, you can look at royalty-free stock sites. This is far cheaper than commissioning, as you pay one flat fee to download the art and use it as you wish in accordance with the terms of the rights agreement. This includes places like dreamstime, fotalia, photo morgue, istockphoto, etc. This option starts at free (morguefile), and then goes to around $6 – $20 USD.

Beware! For royalty-free sites, if you’re wildly successful and sell more than a set amount of books, you are legally obligated to return and purchase a higher circulation license. Also, you are not buying the right to put the image on things for sale – so selling posters, t-shirts, or mugs with your book cover is right out, legally! If you try to make money on an image in ways you did not purchase the rights for, especially that that you are not compensating the artist for, don’t be surprised if they come after you legally like you’d come down on a pirate site selling your books!

That said, it is by far the least expensive in money option.

3. Buy a pre-made cover from a designer. This already has the art purchased and the design work done, and costs less than custom because the designer did it on spec, hoping to catch a customer. All you have to do is tell them your author name, book title, and any minor tweaks if you want them, and it’s all done. This’ll take the time to skim designers, but starts at $50 USD.

Caveat! The designer got their work from somewhere, and all the restrictions on the rights they purchased still apply to you, when you buy from the designer! Also, make sure you’re buying the right to use, modify, and possess (there’s some more legal language, too, here) the cover design; If you hit bestseller, there should be no legal way for the designer to come back and demand more money, or assert legally that you don’t own the finished product and they can yank it. (It’s happened.)

Whatever you do, pay attention to which rights you buy or license. Not all artists, especially ones starting out, are savvy about this, just as not all authors are savvy about copyright, rights licensing, sub-rights, and territorial rights. The more rights you buy, the more expensive it’s likely to be – for example, artists will often retain the right to sell the image (and often retain the original painting, if it’s a physical painting, and sell it separately.) If you want exclusive use – nobody else can use this image – it’s going to cost more than if they retain the right to put it up on a royalty-free site and earn more money from other folks downloading it. If you want the right to merchandise – to sell posters, keychains, mugs, whatever with the image as part of your cover design, that’s going to be a fair chunk more, because now you’re directly competing with the artist’s main ways of earning income – namely, selling their image. And if you want to be able to sell the unaltered image – that is, to take their painting or design, and sell it yourself as though you were the artist – that’s going to cost you as much as the artist thinks they could make from that image over the lifetime of copyright. Protect yourself, protect the artist, and protect your ability to do friendly business in the future by learning about rights and making sure both parties are clear on who’s getting what before money changes hands.

33 thoughts on “Good Art Cheeeeep – Dorothy Grant

  1. Very nice primer. Particularly like the rights levels discussion. Sneaky important one, there.

    1. Ah, rights. Having gotten to the level where I think I can photoshop up the cover I like, now I gotta worry about rights.

      Good thing I like 19th century art, but that doesn’t solve all my problems.

            1. At you and your husband’s sugjestion I bought Filter Forge after I got back from LibertyCon (it was on sale). Which filter do you use?

              1. one of the aquarelle, or painter strokes. Then make that layer transparent, and put it on top of the original, otherwise too fuzzy
                But it depends on the book. I also use the oil paint ones (witchfinder) and for Dan’s cover (going up next week) we used artistic effects. You should go under effects, creative and look at all the filters on offer. And sometimes I do five renditions before I decide on one. The weird thing is that some look better for some books. I’ve even used collage and magic hatchmix. If I knew a lot of people were using it, I’d do a mini-workshop on it.

          1. True. Even a photograph of a unicorn or dragon would not signify a book as high fantasy (although a cover photo of Barack Halfelven bogartng a joint with several dwarves, a couple halflings and a wizard might move copies.)

        1. The lady who runs the CakeWrecks blog has a second blog that occasionally features art in the genres of steampunk, fantasy, robots, Disney-esque, Alice in Wonderland. I don’t know if any of the artists she features do cover art, but one might get some ideas. (The site is at

  2. Chris Nuttall has a great cautionary tale on using a designer/artist that uses stock art. Long story short, a far less successful author accused Chris of copyright infringement because the artist had used the same stock image. It never got to legal beagles stage (namely because Chris had proof), but just a question you might want to ask.

    I’ll also put a plug in for checking on DeviantArt and Cons for finding artists. While there are mixed feelings on my original cover (*cough* Cedar *cough*), I did find my first artist there for under $100 and have more than made back his fees. I’ll be happy to provide examples and what I paid for them across the spectrum if people would like.

    Also I’d also throw in make sure payment terms are clearly enunciated and laid out. Pay Pal is my preference but there are other alternatives out there.

    Last but not least, if you paid for it the artist should not have a problem giving you a file that can be modified by Photoshop / GIMP. I’m blessed in that the better half is Photoshop savvy, and this has allowed quick saves on typos and the like.

    1. It wasn’t the art I have a problem with, James, it was the typography. I think you have a designer working on it now, yes? Also, some of your interior art is terrific!

      1. Oh I know (my first comment disappeared) on the typography. Hadn’t been to Libertycon yet–now I know. Trust me, I’m probably getting my alternate history cover redone due to the cover discussions we’ve had.

    2. Ah, I should have mentioned Deviant Art. It’s a great place to go where the artists hang out, and a terrible place if what you want is a shopping mall of art for commercial purposes… like coming to ATH on a non-book-plug day, and expecting the comments to be able to give you a list of who’s an author and what genres they’re writing in.

  3. Rights are important, for the writer as well as the artist. Back when I was freelancing business & Marketing stuff, I had a contract with a group that wanted real hard to stiff me on their bill. I had offered several payment options – hourly, per project, royalty – but the guy chose hourly. Even during the project I offered to change terms to per project, but was ignored. And every person I asked what budget they had for the project asserted they did not know – Ask Steve (the bossman). But Steve never said.

    SO end of project came, the work was accepted, and I presented my invoice – and waited. And waited. I finally called up and asked when I was getting paid, to be told that the amount was ‘more than we’d planned on’. Well, DUH! I HAD asked! Repeatedly.
    I finally got paid, nearly a month later and after the end of the year, which put the income in a different year for tax purposes.

    So I reiterate – make sure the terms are clear, that everyone is on the same page, and there is actual agreement. And if you find yourself in a like situation, stand firm. You’ve done everything you could to do right by your client.

    1. Experienced artists learn to be wary or they get little more experience. People ALWAYS try to stiff you on the bill. And the answer to your question of Steve was, “Nothing.” They never thought of budgeting for art on the project and somebody had an asterisk to cover, which is why you never got an answer. I insist on quoting any job up front — especially to new clients (although it may be foolish to assume regular clients have a fair notion of what something they order all the time might cost) — and not proceeding until I get a go-ahead. ON quoting, I often get the response, “Wow! That’s more that we thought we’d spend.” or… “My budget is X (often less than 50% of quoted price), can you match it?” To which we restrain ourselves from answering, “Why, yes. We ARE a non-profit.” (If half the price would have done, we would have quoted that. Pillock!)

      And, for some reason, nobody understands that, yes, it is reasonable to charge $160 an hour for work done by someone earning $20-plus and getting health insurance and occupying space in a building where overhead runs 35% of retail and using a $30,000 computer rig in a million-dollar installation. Apparently, they assume that, because “You can get it on the Internet for $5” you should be able to get that price anywhere.


  4. I’m going to add one more thing: Always look at your cover at approx. 1″x1.5″ dimensions when evaluating if you want to use it. This is a good approximation of what your potential customers will see in the “also bought” area. Can you still read your title and name? Does the cover still look interesting? Don’t worry so much about coherent. Being able to say that it’s a dragon, space ship, or babe w/ weapon is enough. The idea is to get them to click on the cover. Get someone who you can trust to give an honest opinion to look at it as well.

    1. I’ll second the second opinion. Never done it for a book, but I had a friend that was setting up a web site for his new business. Asked me to look over some designs that they’d worked up and give my opinion. One was…juvenile, one was too busy, one was just bad, a couple were ok, but one really struck me as screaming professional & I know what I’m about. I pointed out several things that had never occurred to them. Besides, even the best of us can become emotionally attached to something when we really should just walk away.

    2. Thirded. And It’s amazing how little it takes to make a cover fuzzy in thumbnail or “Also Bought.” A couple wisps of gunpowder smoke and everything fogged over in the small view. Remove those and the image improved considerably.

    3. OTOH, look at some “Also Bought” icons. Notice that title being readable does mean with care for the overwhelming majority.

  5. Something to consider if you are using a cover designer is which artists he or she uses. For example, the same artist did the first two Colplatschki covers. For various reasons that gent couldn’t do the third cover by the date I needed it, so the designer went with a different artist. Artist #2 used Saul’s design, but the style is different from Artist #1. If we hadn’t already established a series look, that might have caused some problems.

    And I’ll add another recommendation for Dreamstime. The ability to put in some search terms and then see what’s out there is very helpful. And among other things, even if you don’t find exactly what you want, you may end up with scads of examples of what might work and (as important) what lovely images would be flops at thumbnail-size.

    1. I liked the first two covers, very eyecatching, but cover #3 is also very alive. I kept expecting the horse’s ear to flick, or smoke to start moving.

      Either that, or I was up very late reading the book, and it was my eyes making the cover seem so lively…. 🙂

  6. Art is art, in and of itself.
    Cover art is one component of the complete cover package, and the purpose of that package is merchandizing. Ideally, it should grab the interest of the casual passer by and always to the best of your or your designer’s ability represent the contents of your book. You will not aid your sales figures with art that sets up false expectations.
    Always consider the possible venues your cover may appear in. A huge billboard is everyone’s hope, but the thumbnail on Amazon or other e-book site is much more likely.
    And I’ll repeat, your target audience is the potential first time reader. All your fan base really needs is a legible title and author name. They will seek you out. It’s the newbie that you hope to entice to be a fan you’re after.

  7. A source for historical images would be your local historical society/museum. The smaller ones usually get pictures that no-one wants to throw away but are local, and the more up-to-date societies have digitalization programs. Our local one will sell you a CD or let you browse, and none of it is under copyright. (the STATE historical society on the other had charges and arm and a leg to use a copy the bastards)

    1. Another source may be right where you live. In the category of I am an Utter Idiot, I went for a walk at lunch one day and realized what a treasure trove I had right outside my building. Now, here’s the part where everyone agrees I’m an idiot. I’ve worked in downtown Washington DC for going on 20 years. I have made the occasional five minute trek across the mall for very particular exhibits at the National Gallery. I used the Lincoln Memorial on my first cover, but I just sort of assumed I knew everything that was out there. Well, not one block from my office is the Freer, a little maze of new gardens built after I stopped a particular walk a few years ago, fountains, courtyards, and architecture perfect for a short story I haven’t even started to write. Who knew?

      It was all weirdly new and fresh, as if I’d traveled to another city. Now I try not to eat lunch at my desk so much.

      I took a few pictures with my smart phone, and have fodder for my cheap FX Photo app. All that’s required is to write the story.

  8. I noticed on the latest (to me) Stephen Coont’s book, Pirate Alley, the cover photo credit lists Shutterstock and an independent designer even though it’s published by a traditional publisher. There may be changes in the wind at least for midsize publishers like St. Martin’s. Myself; I’m still trying to get through chapter three of ‘Do it youself book covers’ on Kindle. Thanks for the advice. I’ve met up with that copyright stuff a bunch lately.

    1. Good to note. A lot of photographers insist on credit. So stock photo places will insist on it, too. Not so much a courtesy to the image-maker, then, as a contractual requirement to have “Photo: Suzy Shuttersnapper – Honest John Stock” on the copyright page, even if you’ve altered the photo to near unrecognizability in the process. (And make sure you have a license to do alterations, as well as merchandise, too.)


  9. For historic images, the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs section online is good. Be sure to read what they say about the copyright status of each image.

    Some state libraries and universities have digital archives now, but costs vary (some do charge an arm and a leg — there are some Civil War-era images in an archive in Virginia that I would love to use but doubt that I can every justify the expense). If you can find images that were produced as part of the WPA or other project that was funded with Federal money, sometimes they charge less or nothing for them.

    Another option is to buy published pre-1923 art (in magazines, books, ads, etc.) on eBay or ABEBooks or other site, or post-1923 if you wish to check the copyright status on each item you want to use. For instance, old (1800’s) Cosmopolitan magazines have some lovely color illustrations in them, back when they were more about art, opera, and architecture instead of today’s topics.

    1. “The Making of America” over at Cornell is a wonderful archive site of public domain magazines, including some awfully nifty illustrations.

      (And dangerous as a time sink! Lots of stories and articles to read! I read most of the works of Fitz-James O’Brien in their original context, for example. And Harper’s used to be a darned good magazine, too.)

      Michigan’s half of “The Making of America” is all about Improving Serious Books. Or anyway, that’s what it sounds like. Maybe it’s all a front.

      Anyway… why pay E-Bay to rip up magazines, when you can get fairly high-resolution digital pictures?

      1. Yes, both Making of America’s are good. Michigan’s half has a surprising amount of Southern pre- and Civil War-era magazines and information. has lots of illustrated books and magazines, too, although from both Making of America and Archive often the resolution isn’t the 300 DPI recommended for printing. Of course, eBook covers don’t have the exact same requirements.

        Scanning from the originals usually provides more detailed images, which should reprint better. (There was an image printing technique in the 1890’s that used tonality of grays; for some reason it doesn’t seem to reprint well, despite all my efforts to make it work.)

        If one is gentle, the magazines and books often don’t have to be guillotined (I’ve read that is a proper term for cutting apart a book). Supposedly, when the digitization of books started, they did cut apart all the magazines and books, but nowadays you can see fingers or hands holding the book open in some of the scans.

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