Photography: James Higgins
Prowling used bookstores in the search for old photography books back in 2002, photographer Karl Baden began to notice something unusual. Many of the most iconic images in the history of photography, he saw, were turning up on the covers of books that appeared to have nothing to do with the subject of the image. Man Ray’s Violon D’Ingres, for example, appeared on the cover of Walter Redfern’s Puns, one of four books that Karl found with that photo on the cover — and one of 41 books that use images by Man Ray.
Fascinated by this use of a work of photographic art, Karl began collecting books that place famous photographs on the cover, eventually building a collection of around 3,000 books. About 350 photographers are represented, and their images can be viewed at CoveringPhotography.com.
It’s a fascinating overview of one use of well-known photographic images, but most of the photographs that appear on book covers are not well-known. They might be drawn from stock inventories, and even these days microstock. Occasionally, they could be sourced on Flickr, a good place for buyers to find unconventional imagery. But many are commissioned, giving photographers a way to land interesting projects that put their works in stores.
You Can Sell a Book by Its Cover
Wendi Schneider has shot around 100 book covers in a career that has lasted more than twenty years. Many of those books are romances, a genre that suits her “graceful, romantic” style of hand-painted photography, she says, but they’ve also included The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, her first cover, and Louisa May Alcott’s collection of thrillers.
Photography: Wendi Schneider
The aim of the image should always be to attract the eye and interest browsers because a good cover, says Wendi, can be enough to sell books.
“A good book cover image should convey to you a feel for the book. It doesn’t need to tell you the whole story or be entirely literal, but should tease you, tempt you and draw you in,” she says. “I for one, will definitely ‘judge a book by its cover’ and have bought many books for their stunning covers.”
The process of creating the image depends on the book. Usually, says Wendi, the art director, editor and marketing department will have already conferred and decided what the cover image should be before she’s commissioned. Sometimes, she’s given the manuscript, allowing her to read the book, research the period, if relevant, and then begin looking for props, a model, and a location.
James Higgins, who has created about 30 book covers, many of them mystery and suspense, works in a similar way. He usually asks for a synopsis of the book so that he can “get a feel for the emotional center of things.” An image then usually comes to mind that might be something he’s already shot or “bits and pieces of things that, when put together, become the cover.”
“The cover image needs to be compelling enough to make the browser stop and read the intro text,” he says. “Keep it simple and dramatic.”
Find Work with Friends, Cards and an Online Portfolio
Finding that work, of course, is never going to be easy. Wendi Schneider’s career began in the late-eighties while working at the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. A background in painting and a love of photography led her to paint on photographs, and her images were used editorially in the newspaper and the Tulane Alumni magazine. It was while she was working for the New Orleans media that she was asked to design, photograph and art direct the Creole Cook Book. That project gave her something to show when she later moved to New York and was introduced to artist reps.
“It has all been a bit serendipitous and fueled by friends,” she says.
In addition though, Wendi also sent art directors at the major publishing houses 5×7 cards of one of her hand-painted images, together with her contact information. She created three cards during the six years she lived in New York. Today though, she assumes that many art directors are using a lot of stock images, and also search the Web for photos and photographers. A strong online portfolio is crucial today, Wendi says.
That’s what works for James Higgins. Most of his work comes either from word of mouth or from hits on his website. When he started, however, James placed advertisements in trade publications to advertise his photography.
Clearly, connections help then, and they’re always going to be easier to pick up and keep once you’ve already won your first job. But shooting the right images is vital as well. Wendi Schneider’s unique hand-painted photos match the atmosphere of romance books so closely that it’s easy to see why the art editor at a publishing house would be confident of hiring her. James Higgins, too, understands the importance of researching current trends, as well as the physical needs of an image that’s going to be used on the cover of a book.
“Doing your homework is very important: go to the library or to the books section of Amazon.com and study the cover art,” he advises. “Besides the obvious vertical format, you’ll notice that the better cover artists know where to leave dead space for the title and author typography, and know how to create drama without a lot of clutter!”
Few photographers think of targeting publishing houses in their search for clients, and even fewer rely on them entirely. Wendi Schneider also offers editorial, fine art and commercial photography, as well as design. James Higgins provides a range of photography services too, and much of what he says about creating a good book cover is also true of stock images — and they have more buyers.
In fact, according to Karl Baden, many of the famous images that he spotted on book covers weren’t just there because they were famous but because the pictures themselves had an “open” quality that allowed them to be interpreted in a range of different ways. If you want to see your photos on book covers then, it pays to focus your marketing on publishers, but make the images broad enough to be used again and again.