I recently encountered a book with a cover that is nearly identical to one of my clients’ novels. It’s not the first time I’ve tripped on look-alikes of my clients’ book covers, but I tend to go all mama bear when there is the slightest possibility that one of my clients is being ripped off or plagiarized. So I sent a link of the book to my client.
I could almost hear the sigh in her response.
“That’s the downside to using stock photos,” she replied. “I’ve considered hiring my own photographer and models but, thus far, I haven’t seen any covers shot and designed that way that I’ve liked.”
Well, that IS a pretty big downside to stock photos. I don’t know how one measures emotional energy — is there such a thing as emotowatts? Emotovolts? — but I know authors put it into their books by the barrel. The writing. The editing. The rewriting. The formatting. The promoting. The financing. Ad infinitum. And that intense emotional energy includes cover design. Authors want their original work to look, well, like an original work. They want covers that accurately and alluringly reflect the storytelling, and they want those covers to be powerful and potent marketing lures that are darn-near irresistible to book browsers, buyers, and fans. (Fans have plenty to say about a book’s cover, and they rarely hold back!) Authors often rack up formidable hours gleaning through the most obscure stock photos they can find to ensure their book covers are as singular and original as possible, even as that publication date vibrates like a muted buzzsaw over their heads.
The stock photo conundrum isn’t just about book covers. I’m increasingly reading lamentations about the same frustration with website art, logos and other media that require graphic design elements.
“Stock photos are killing differentiation!” boomed a recent blog post for a branding firm I follow.
“Let me be blunt: Stock photography needs to die,” writes Clive Thompson in his recent Wired article, “Only You Can Overthrow the Tyranny of Awful Stock Photos.” He makes a powerful persuasive argument, citing the predictable and stereotypical results of search engine image results and the efforts by some groups to work with stock image providers to offer a broader range of diversity and perspective for certain keywords (such as ethnic groups or authority figures). In Thompson’s opinion, stock photos are to graphic design what cliches are to language and what Hallmark is to poetry. Like cliches and banal poetry, stock photos dumb us down, he argues.
Thompson encourages a sort of anti-stock photo activism — or at least, being authentically original with graphic elements. “The true cure for stock photography is inside your camera phone,” he writes.
Or, perhaps, in your actual camera, or in a family photo album, or on a video camera in your closet, or even in your own hand-drawn squiggles. I agree with Thompson, which perhaps makes me a bit of a hypocrite, since I snagged the above photo from Google images. In hopes of redeeming myself and practicing what I (and others) preach, I offer a few shots from my cameras and cell phone below. Help yourself (if you want).
What are your thoughts about stock photos and alternatives to them?