Don't Judge a Book by its (Stock Photo) Cover

Anyone who has self-published knows the agony of relying on stock photography for the “perfect cover.” There is no such thing. But we self-pubbers understand that (unless money is no object) it doesn’t make economic sense to commission an artist or photographer to custom-design a cover. Royalty-free stock photography is licensed for a small, one-time fee that allows an author commercial use of up to 500,000 copies. (To give you an idea, many so-called “best-sellers” sell only about 4,000 - 5,000 copies.) Lest you think using stock photography is tacky, even traditional publishers do it.

I first forayed into the netherworld of royalty-free images nearly two years ago, when I was about to launch my debut novel, Later With Myself: The Misadventures of Millie Moskowitz. After a dizzying search, I was thrilled to find a pretty-close-to-perfect image dubbed “Girl on Bus;” it captured with uncanny emotional accuracy Millie’s foolishness and despair when she cut school to have underage sex with an intimidating school bus driver. Is it the perfect cover? Hardly. But the mood and imagery are spot-on, and for me, that is what matters most in a cover.

Fast forward one year to my third novel, The Floater. This one’s a legal fiction drama, but it is also a highly personal story about "finding oneself" in mid-life—about moving past self-imposed limitations, bad behavior patterns, and the emotional shackles imposed by small-minded, self-serving family members. I combed through thousands of images before settling on my controversial potty pic (see All the legal-themed photography I found was either boring, lacked emotional nuance, or depicted a woman who did not remotely capture the spirit of my protagonist Norma Reyes. Since The Floater contains some squirmy adult material, I opted for a racy and jarring cover, hoping to convey the paradoxical provocativeness and lightheartedness of this story, while playing off the book’s title.

As anticipated, I've gotten some flak for my choice:

“The cover portrays what looks like a white woman sitting on a toilet wearing a thong. This is a serious novel about discrimination and harassment of a Puerto Rican woman. I would not get that from the cover.”

“I . . . really, really disliked the cover. A woman sitting on a toilet with a pair of thongs dangling between her knees while writing on a pad does not invoke good things to go along with the title 'The Floater.' Just saying . . .”

I got some positive comments, too:

“Let's talk about the book cover first. Caught your eye, didn't it? It may seem light-hearted and maybe even comedic. But this book has way more serious moments than the cover portrays.”

“The cover of Sorrentino's novel, The Floater is eye-catching and fun, but there are surprising scenes behind it that are thought-provoking, revealing . . . and so very human . . .”

Two novels later, I’m back to trolling stock photo sites, hoping to find the perfect likeness for my title character in Stage Daughter. Razia Schoenberg is a multi-ethnic, attractive twelve-year-old, thin yet well-developed for her age, with signature dreadlocks dangling down her forehead—a rather tall order for stock photography! For the moment, I’ve settled on a whimsical picture of a young girl meditating cross-legged on train tracks. While it adequately symbolizes Razia’s rebellious spirit and monumental transition from adolescence to adulthood, the model in the photo is flat-chested, has a big forehead and no dreads. I learned from a careful read of the license agreement that I can modify the image (with certain restrictions). So I tried drawing in some dreadlocks—with disastrous results. My girl looked like she had bad facial tats or hair dye dripping down her forehead.

I am once again resigned to never finding the perfect cover for my latest book. Perhaps I should have Razzi’s mom snip those twisties in the dead of night. After all, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and no “right” way to choose a cover.

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