Challenge,  publishing

Cover Basics

I Got a Surprise Today…

With the Covers 101 workshop starting next week, I decided I needed to round out my education a little on what the writers were doing who hired people to do their covers. All of you know I think that is a waste of time and money and can hurt your writing overall, but numbers of writers I know have others do their covers, so I was curious.

So I wrote one wrier and asked a favor, if that person wouldn’t mind sending me a blank copy of the contract they use with their cover designer. I got a nice letter back saying they didn’t have a contract with them. Nothing at all.

So figuring that was just odd, I wrote another writer I knew who is a student in a few of the classes and asked if they wouldn’t mind sending me a blank copy of the cover contract they use with their cover designer.

They didn’t have one either. So I asked point blank if they had to get permission to use the cover on different things? Stunned silence, then the writer came back said, “It’s my book cover, I can do what I want with it.”

Uhhh, no.

It is not your book cover.

The designer owns the rights completely to it and can make you take it down at any time if they wanted. And without a contract and the information about the art, how do you know the designer just didn’t take the art without permission. Who do you think the art owner would sue if that was the case? And since you don’t have a contract with the designer, guess what, you lose. (And you do not want to be on the wrong side of a copyright infringement suit, trust me.)

Both writers showed the complete (and fairly standard) lack of knowledge of copyright and licensing. I was afraid to ask any others and just decided I didn’t want to know what other writers were doing with covers and no longer wanted to see a contract. Especially after just two days ago I asked a writer about a font they had used and where they had gotten permission to use it and the writer said, “I just found it.”


Fonts are protected and licensed copyright, folks. That’s what the major part of the $40 or so a month or so for Indesign is to license their font library so you don’t steal other artist’s work.

So some of you out there are paying hundreds of dollars to have someone do a cover for you without a contract and without having the art license in a file, and thus you don’t even own your own cover.

Wow, just wow. (Head planted firmly on my desk.)

You know, I used to think Traditional Writers were just uninformed. Seems indie writers are giving them a run in some places.

And if you are getting contracts from your cover designer, please don’t tell me. I don’t want to see them now, and I don’t want to know you are not doing your own covers. So don’t send me anything.

And if you are having your covers designed and can’t go to a file and get the contract and the art license instantly, you might want to silently fix that before it becomes a major issue. And if you don’t have the art license and the designer can’t get it for you instantly, pull the cover down at once. And then exhale and learn how to do your own covers.

And then go learn copyright.


  • Topaz

    Hi Dean,

    it’s not just the writers who have no clue.

    I reached out to two different designers last year, because I liked some of their premade covers, and asked about the licence I get, the usage (number of copies sold) allowed, if there was a model release available, and so on and so forth, …
    They didn’t even understand what I was asking for and flat told, me the price for their premade cover again and that they would change the title and author name to my title and author name.

    I didn’t buy those covers.

    • dwsmith

      Oh, yeah, model releases are another factor writers don’t think about.

      Realize those designers may have been just playing you because they may have known exactly what they were doing holding all copyright on the covers they did. Makes their business more valuable, but that is another area writers don’t think about, the value of their IP.

      • Topaz

        Thank you for your answer.

        Maybe they were playing me. But to what end? They didn’t sell me anything with those answers. Whatever.

        Still doing my own covers with my own photographs of trees, clouds and sketches and drawings made by me. And reading lots of fine print on fonts. Always learning and improving.

        Thank you very very very much for your posts and articles and workshops about IP and copyright and good business practice. They surely saved me a lot of trouble down the road (a let me sleep deeply), although it’s more work now to read all the terms of services.

  • tony

    The licensing of fonts is less of an issue with e-books, I believe, since, unless you embed them (which takes more of a control freak than even I am), the only ones you need be certain of are the ones on the cover.

    In a print book, of course, every font must be licensed.

    Thanks for all your guidance (he says, having just binge read the ten Thunder Mountain stories and halfway thru the Cold Poker Gang–Thanks for those as well!)

    • dwsmith

      Tony, oh, god, No!!!! Every font you use for any purpose must be licensed by you from either another license holder or the original owner. Period. Anything else and you are stealing. Embedded or not. Not sure where you go that idea, but that is flat wrong.

      • LynW

        I think Tony’s referring to the fact that we don’t actually have any control over the fonts that are displayed on the ebook readers. Those fonts are determined, and licensed, by the ebook device provider (Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Sony, etc.) for use on their devices, and can often be swapped out with other available device fonts/resized/etc. by whoever is reading the ebook.

        For an ebook, the only fonts we’re in control of are the ones used on the book cover and any interior text inserted as an image. Same with content provided as a PDF. And yes, we need a license for all of those fonts.

        To Tony’s point about embedding a font, I’m not sure if we can actually embed a font in an ebook file and force it to display on the ebook device – if that’s an option, then we’d need a license for that font as well.

        If I’m missing something here, would love to know more.

        • dwsmith

          You got it Lyn. If Tony controls the font, he must have a license. If Amazon controls the font, they have the license. All basic.

          • tony

            Dean, Lynw, Thanks for the answers!
            Lynw is correct, I referred to the fact that the body display font in an ereader is set by the device, and so the author has neither control of nor the need for licensing of that font. Sorry if that wasn’t clear!

  • James Mendur

    I designed my own cover.
    I knew about art. I used a public domain photograph (and checked very carefully about that) and since this was a one-off, I wasn’t concerned about branding or uniqueness.
    I did not know about fonts.
    Luckily, I used Adobe Photoshop for my cover and those fonts are okay for commercial use. Last I checked.

    I know someone who used a cover designer. I’ll have to check to see if they got a contract. Just in case.
    Thank you for pointing this out.

    On a personal preference note, why do you prefer InDesign over Photoshop or any other image-maker program?

    • dwsmith

      Yes, the major reason you pay for Photoshop or InDesign is their font libraries that are licensed under your license with Adobe. And why InDesign over Photoshop? A couple reasons. #1, when it comes to design and covers, InDesign was built for that while Photoshop was built to work with photos. #2, it is a ton easier to learn. By factors.

  • Denise Gaskins

    I had an online friend who did a series of picture books. After they’d been out about a year, the artist decided to rescind permission for all the images. No contract, so no recourse. Almost destroyed the writer’s career.

  • Balázs

    Hi! There are also free fonts even for commercial use. I use them for my website and I pay for Adobe. I use both PS and InD, I find them very good tools. But how many things you should consider when it comes to business… For a long time, I didn’t even know fonts are also protected, but that was just my stupidity. I had to go to school and even there they didn’t told me… I had to find out this to myself. And there are free stockphotos, but I use them only for training. How many people doesn’t even read the license of the stock images… by the way this post was a good reminder for me. every person’s copyrighted material is important, not just the writer’s. have a nice day!

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Balazs. Exactly. All copyright is important and should be critically so to people who make their living from that copyright.

    • Gordon Horne

      Balazs, just so people who might not read carefully know, a lot of fonts that say FREE FONT in big type say somewhere else in much smaller type, “Free for personal use.” These cannot be used for commercial use. That means you can’t put in on your book cover, even if as an indie you think your book cover is personal.

  • Juliet Nordeen

    I am so glad that you and KKR started talking about this. I am one of the folks who heard it earlier and heeded it. Thanks for running it up the flagpole again so that others have the chance to learn an inexpensive lesson rather than a dear one.

  • Alice Sabo

    Way back when, I followed your advice and used Powerpoint for my covers. Then requirements changed and I could never get a handle on the new software. I tried to learn GIMP but it was so frustrating. I found a cover artist who is actually a professional graphic artist in his day job. We’ve had a long lovely relationship over the years and 15 books covers of original artwork that he has done for me.

    Day one I asked him about permission to use his artwork for an ad and he said that as soon as I paid for it, all the rights were mine. So we’ve basically worked on a handshake all these years. Since I didn’t have a clue about licensing, I haven’t pursued anything like that. But now you’ve got me thinking about those sort of things and I want to talk to him about a contract. Where do I find information on stuff like that?

    • dwsmith

      And he dies and his heir wants all your covers back and yanks them. No contract, you are screwed. And someone sues you for copyright theft because of a cover he did and you have no help from him because, let me repeat, NO CONTRACT. You got lucky so far. I would not push that luck too much farther.

  • Teri Babcock

    I googled for contracts and found the site of a designer who had a sample contract. His opinion was that contracts were non-essential make-work that were basically a waste of time, but had a sample because ‘some clients will want them.’

    In his contract was some language that the designer would promise to get the licenses and not steal anyone’s copyright, basically. But there was nothing in there that said he would provide said licenses — the proof that he’s doing what he says he is — to the client.

    If a graphic designer who is really skilled but hates wasting time on admin messes up on the license for a cover and the cover user gets sued, that contract isn’t going to offer them a whole lot of protection. Particularly if the graphic designer can’t or won’t produce the license, or unable or unwilling to produce a license they did in fact have because they are deeply depressed, sick, injured, dead, or have rolled up shop and just don’t care anymore.

  • Vania Rheault

    I do all my own covers. I know exactly where the images come from and that they are okay to use (I buy packages around the holidays for stock photo sites like Deposit Photos). I buy all my own fonts, know exactly where they came from and have their licenses. I will never trust anyone to make a cover for me. I’ve seen too many people wanting to scam authors, or are just too ignorant to run their own business safely.

  • Jason M

    Yeah, this isn’t rocket surgery.

    1) Enroll in InDesign. Any preinstalled font there can be used. (I use an outside one that I purchased and added, but that’s unnecessary.)
    2) Use images that either a) you have made or photographed, or b) have purchased from stock image libraries.

    That’s it.
    It ain’t more complex than that.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, InDesign has a great font library you can download, more than anyone will ever need. And all licensed. And one detail about using your own photos, make sure that the building you are taking a picture of gives you a release, and any person in the image as well.

      • James Mendur

        So, even with a public domain government photo, if it’s of a building, I still need to get a release from the building owner as well? I would’ve thought that public domain overrides that.


        Is there a copyright handbook for photos and artwork like there is for writers?

        • dwsmith

          If it is public domain photo, for sure, meaning before 1924, then you are fine. Or if the photo has been released into the public domain by the owner officially. But many buildings, monuments, and so on, are protected under the law in various ways. Yup. I know…

          Really, really be careful with movie stars and public figure photos. Those have another ball of ugly wrapped around them.

        • dwsmith

          Julie, a fantastic resource. Everyone, if you don’t safe that site, at least look at it and you will get the idea of what I was talking about. Thanks, Julie!

  • Cynthia M Clark

    A lot of self published writers i’ve talked tonight seem to think that this article is more fear mongering amoung those that are buying book covers with no contact. That having a money transaction and that emails between the cover artist and the writer are enough to allow for a ‘contract’. That no artist is ever going to pull their art from them.

    A lot of the writers that I’ve talked to about this tonight believe that no family member of an artist that “might” die would ever take the art from a writer (i guess they think people are really nice? I think anyone would do anything for some money) Mostly believe that there are a lot of “if’s” that would happen and that it would likely never happen.

    So I’m wondering how much my friends should be worried about not having contracts for their work or if they believe that an article like this is “fearmongering” for self published writers?

    Thank you for the great article. I have no computer skills to create a cover so when I do go the route of self publishing, I’ll be buying a cover, but I’ll be asking for a contract.

    • dwsmith

      Cynthia, LOL… Amazing when talking about good business practice makes the uniformed afraid and call good business practice “fearmongering.”

      Point of interest… Letters and money exchanged do not make a contract. And there is a comment below of one artist taking back covers, and I know of others. It happens.

      And so do copyright infringement suits.

      But my suggestion, Cynthia, don’t argue with folks that uniformed. Just let them go. They soon vanish into their own ignorance because this business of publishing takes a lot of knowledge to survive in it. Mother nature will thin them out. And if they are not doing their own covers, they have little to no chance of survival at any level anyway in this modern world.

  • BLitchfield

    Speaking of another kind of license, how many writers are using Microsoft Office Home edition and not Professional?

    • Cynthia M Clark

      Thank you for your comments! While others I have shared this with have dismissed it. One group has done a wonderful disccuson on it. They’ve had some great comments and there are a lot of people that are already taking this serious. It’s always surprising to see what group of writers will take a topic as something to learn and to take with them and what will ignore it as more work that they have to do.

    • E. R. Paskey

      That is *exactly* why I paid for Ms Office Pro years ago. I read the fine print (my dad is an attorney, so he engrained that in us) and realized that legally, I needed the professional edition. I use an old version of Office (b/c I really only use Word and Excel) and it was not expensive at all. But it gives me peace of mind.

      On covers, well, I do my own and license everything myself. It’s fun, albeit a little stressful at times.) LOL. But, honestly, they’re not hard. Plus, practice means I’ve gotten a lot better over the years.

      The only time I ever paid somebody to do a cover for me was on my very first book years ago. I had a contract, and I licensed the art we used myself. That said, I changed that cover after a year and never used it again. Nor did I ever pay anybody again! I took Dean’s advice and learned to do it myself. It can be done–even if you don’t think you’re very artistic!

  • J.A. Marlow

    Soooo agree with all of this. I do my own covers, as I’m an award winning artist (and graphic designer and cover designer). I know where I get any stock material, or make my own art, plus exactly what fonts I use. For those who are budget-limited, Fontsquirrel is a great place to find some free fonts that allow commercial use. There are also some great resources out there to buy commercial fonts for not that much money from those those who create them.

    I snorted at the comment above about the group of writers calling this ‘fear mongering’. It’s not. I’ve seen several suits and cases concerning not just art and stock, but also fonts. It’s not rare. It HAPPENS. And the infringers pay big. So, don’t be an infringer.

    It’s called taking care of business.

    Good business practice:
    Save those licenses
    Save those contracts (um, which means, have those contracts in the first place)
    Respect other people’s intellectual property.

    ‘Nuff said.

      • Julie

        Here is a Quora post about some court cases on font infringment:

        I agree completely that we should all have appropriate licenses for our fonts, not only for legal protection but also because it’s only fair to the fonts’ creators.

        But I’m surprised that infringement gets detected. The Quora post says, ‘There exist multiple online scanners that look for fonts posted online or used in web sites. Some are owned by major retailers/distributors, but at least one is available to any type designer or foundry that wants to pay for it.’

        But surely a scan is going to turn up every use of the font, legal or otherwise? How would the font company know which bought licenses and which didn’t? Won’t people often be purchasing the font license in their own name, which might not appear on the public product? When a designer has created a book cover for someone else, won’t the font license be in the designer’s name, not the author/publisher’s? In which case, why aren’t font designers constantly approaching publishers to check?

        • dwsmith

          Julie, if they detect it, they write you a letter asking for your documentation on the font. If the font is in a standard package like Adobe, and used for something like a cover, they tend to not bother. But a specific font, they will write and ask and you have to provide your documentation of your license to use the font. So if you the author don’t get a copy of the license from the designer with the contract, oh, oh…

          This is all such basic business, I should be surprised that writers don’t understand it, or comply, but sadly I am not. I have been banging my head against a wall for decades now trying to get writers to learn copyright and respect copyright. Even simple things. I can’t begin to tell you how many thousands of stories I have rejected over the decades because an author used a line from a song lyric in a story and thus don’t understand copyright at all. I just automatically reject stupidity, because if an author is that uninformed, they are going to be a problem to work with in other areas.

          • James Mendur

            I remember one author talking about song lyrics being hard to clear, so they had a technique for invoking the song without actually using a lyric. They were walking a fine line there but I found the technique useful.

            I wrote one story in which I would’ve liked to use the lyrics of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” but contented myself by referring to the Andrews Sisters early in the story and then later mentioning three sisters singing about a bugle player in World War II. No lyrics, no copyright issues, just an author relying on the readers to be smart and get it from the story context. I even think maybe the story was stronger because I didn’t rely on the lyrics to carry the scene. But that’s a craft issue, not a copyright issue.

            A song lyric would have to be HUGELY important to a story for me to take the time and expense of getting it cleared.

  • Julie

    Dean, this may be a question I should ask of an IP lawyer in my own country (UK) but if you buy a license to some art under your own name and make a cover out of it, presumably you have to write a contract between yourself and your own publishing company so that your publishing company is licensed to use it?

    • dwsmith

      Would depend on the type of publishing company structure you have. Just a regular business, nope. But if it is a full corporation, which is a different entity under the law, even if you own all stock, then yes. But why not just transfer the license to the art, or buy it in the first place, under the company name?

      • Julie

        Thanks, I didn’t know you could transfer the copyright – I’ve bought some art while practising covers and I don’t at this point have a company.

        Back to the Copyright Handbook for me!

        • dwsmith

          If you don’t have a corporation, nothing to transfer it to at this point. It is just part of your business.

  • Julie Milton

    I think you do right, James. A trad-pubbed friend of mine paid for the rights to use a line of poetry in her book and it took up a large chunk of her advance.

  • Gifford MacShane

    I found a font for my next book cover that has the SIL OPEN FONT LICENSE. I downloaded the license at the same time I downloaded the font. The license is full of legalese, but seems to say I can use it commercially as long as I don’t sell the font by itself.

    Are you familiar with these licenses? Am I interpreting it correctly? The ARC hasn’t been released yet, so I have time to change it if necessary.

    PS: found your website today — such a load of great information!

    • dwsmith

      Not a clue. I can’t use all of the fonts licensed to me in Adobe. So see no reason to go look for trouble with other fonts. But if uncertain, which you clearly are, don’t use. Simple rule that will keep you out of a lot of lawsuits over the decades.