Browsing the Chicago papers and the New York Times online before the workday commences is a daily routine for me. Call me a news junkie. Similarly, I rely on certain blogs and sites for my daily doses of noir culture and writerly biz, Literary Hub, Crime Reads and J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet (link below) key among them. Great for writers? You bet, but just as essential for readers and genre enthusiasts. In The Rap Sheet’s case, there’s often much more than genre goings-on to peruse. Case in point:
The 1.11.20 edition included a link to an August 2019 article from the AIGA Eye On Design site, “Why Do So Many Book Covers Look The Same? Blame Getty Images” by Cory Matteson. The AIGA? That’s the American Institute of Graphic Arts (and do I really need my day job’s turf creeping into my coffee break ‘me-time’?).
I’ll wager that, like me, many visitors and followers here at The Stiletto Gumshoe site frequent some of the truly excellent vintage pulp magazine, postwar paperback and classic illustration sites like The Rap Sheet’s affiliate Killer Covers Of The Week, Pulpcovers, Not Pulpcovers, Seattle Mystery Books and others. Betcha you’ve been amused by their periodic examples of classic pulp magazine or vintage paperback cover art re-purposed on another title…as-is, altered, or sometimes quite possibly stolen by a less-than-ethical offshore operation. More in the ‘now’, I get a little dizzy when I cruise the Seattle behemoth’s Kindle books and see how much classic Robert Maguire, McGinnis, Rader, Barton and other artists’ work appears on quickie crime novelettes and sexy-shorties. Let’s just guess those illustrations aren’t in the public domain and some self-styled self-publishers don’t own the originals.
But the Matteson’s AIGA Eye On Design article tackles a different situation altogether: Cover art’s stock photography redundantly appearing on different titles. Matteson notes, “The book cover design world, it turns out, has something of an all-star squad of stock and archival images that show up on book covers time and time again”. The AIGA article isn’t merely pointing out isolated examples of a stock image appearing on two books. The article depicts images used more or less concurrently on a dozen different titles, sometimes in different markets, sometimes not. And it occurs more frequently than you might expect. Just one example from Matteson’s article: Matthias Clamer’s 2004 photo “Naked Woman Sleeping On Gravel” is shown here on just two titles, but it’s actually been used on fifteen books.
Designers have a love-hate relationship with stock imagery: Grateful it’s available when budgets won’t allow for original photography or illustration, but well aware it’s being used by counterparts elsewhere. You need a photo of an apple? A coffee cup, hammer or clock? Are you really going to hire a photographer to shoot one, or just expeditiously snatch one from a stock photo site for a fraction of the cost, downloaded and ready to use now? Most creative resources maintain subscriptions or ‘bank’ credits with their preferred stock photo agencies for easy access, the images ranging from routine objects and insets, to stunning works of photographic art, to the digital building blocks of proprietary photo-composed imagery. Getty is kind of the Cadillac of the bunch, with iStock, CanStock, Shutterstock and others bringing up the rear with more affordable options. But with stock photos, you definitely get what you pay for, both in selection and quality.
This topic’s been addressed before – both humorously and seriously – at The Rap Sheet, Goodreads, various pulp illustration sites, indie/self-publishing sites (examples above from the Indie Book Launcher site, for instance). Surely you’ve spotted a memorable book cover’s photo on another title, or in an ad or magazine. I do, and often. Big city art agencies and studios repping the likes of Mike Ludlow, Clement Micarelli, Edwin Georgi and their ilk are long gone. In the mystery/crime fiction marketplace, Hard Case Crime has been the only reliable line showcasing contemporary figurative illustration. They’ve done so right from the start and continue to do so in their new ownership…God bless ‘em. But it’s a photographic world (a digital image world to be precise) and in publishing, it’s understandably a stock image world, realistically dictated by budgets and timetables. Still…that doesn’t excuse the redundant use of the same image. Blame Getty? Not me. I’ll blame inattentive (or disinterested) art directors, graphic designers and inexpert self-publishers.
I won’t include a direct link here to Cory Matteson’s AIGA article “Why Do So Many Book Covers Look The Same? Blame Getty Images”. Go to The Rap Sheet yourself to follow the link. It also appears on the Killer Covers of The Week site, and those links are below. Go to either to check out Matteson’s article for an interesting read, but I bet you spend some time at one of Pierce’s sites browsing other stuff. In fact, I defy you not to.