Images in Books: Rights and Permissions

Writing a book that will include images can be a challenge for many reasons. Whether it’s getting quality images or securing permission to use photographs, authors need to do their research if they want to produce a quality book with stunning visual appeal.

Most authors are concerned about retaining the copyright to their books, but too often, they forget to give the same attention to materials copyrighted by others, especially when it comes to images. Using photographs and other images in books often can be confusing for authors, whether they are taking their own photographs or using other people’s images.

Many authors are clueless about photography and how well an image may reproduce in a book. Book designers and printers can tell you stories of authors who submitted photocopied pictures, or grabbed copyrighted images from the Internet, not realizing they needed permission to use those images or that those images would not be of sufficient quality/resolution for their books. Even if an author is taking his or her own photographs, certain requirements must be met if those pictures are to be included in the book successfully.

Image Quality

It doesn’t matter what is a photo’s subject or who took the photo if the photo is not first of good enough quality to be reproduced in a book. At minimum, you want quality photos of at least 300 dpi but the higher the dpi the better. Many museums and photographers will scan photos for you at 400 or 600 dpi. The “dpi” (dots per inch) refers to the image’s resolution, the number of pixels in it, which determines how easily it can be shrunk or enlarged to fit your space needs.

If you are taking your own photos, be sure to use a digital camera and set it to the appropriate setting. Most professional photographers will not have any trouble with providing you with photos of the correct resolution but let them know what you need up front.

It is always best to talk to the printer you will use to see what is recommended and will be usable. The last thing you want to do is take a hundred photos only to find out they can’t be used when you send the files to the printer. In many cases, those photos cannot be replicated if they are photos of events. (You’ll also want to talk to the printer about what your paper choices are since images need better quality paper).

If you have some older pictures you definitely want to use, but they are not of such great quality, don’t fear. A good layout person can work with most any photo. It’s understandable if you’re doing a memoir, for example, that you may have some old snapshots in a photo album from fifty years ago you want to use. In most cases, these can be scanned, touched up, and manipulated so they will reproduce in a book. You can always take your photos to a professional photo developer to have them fixed up if need be, or you or your layout person can use Photoshop or another program to make the images presentable. Make sure you get a quote for any work done to the photos. Most layout people will charge you a certain fee for each photo they have to alter. I’ve seen prices from $1-10 per image, so make sure you do the math ahead of time and plan your budget accordingly.


You cannot just grab a photo off the Internet and use it for your book, no matter how good its quality. Surprisingly, many authors do not realize this rule exists. If you do print a photo you haven’t acquired permission to use, you may end up paying serious fines or having other legal repercussions, so make sure you have the rights to the photographs you use.

“Historical” photographs may be old enough not to retain copyrights, but if they belong to an organization, such as a historical society, you still must gain permission from that organization and you will almost always have to pay a usage fee and sign a permission form. Make sure you let your source know you want to use the photo in a book. Permission rights and costs may differ depending on whether you want to use a photo on your book cover, inside your book, in your marketing pieces, or for a slide show or an education display.

Make sure you ask your source—whether it’s a museum, university archives, etc. if that source has the rights to the specific photos you want to use that are in their collection. That may seem strange, but photographers actually retain rights to their photographs. For example, I know one author who wanted photos of some old movie stars for his book. The photos he wanted were in a university archives, but they had been taken by a movie magazine that retained the rights. In his particular case, the magazine had gone out of business so the photos were donated to the Library of Congress, which would then need to be contacted for the rights. In other cases, you may want to reproduce a photo in an old book, so the book’s publisher may still have the rights; however, that publisher may have been bought by another publisher who in turn was bought by another publisher, so you need to contact the current publisher. It can become quite frustrating tracking down who has the rights to some photos, but it is in your best interest to make every effort to abide by the copyright laws, and if you can’t track down the owner, simply do not use the photo. In some cases, you might even decide the photo is not important enough to go through the cost and trouble of obtaining it.

Copyright on photos is currently seventy-two years, so if the photos are younger than that, you need to track the owners down. Even if the photographs are older than that, if they belong to a collection, such as a museum or library, you still will need to get permission.

Shopping Around

Acquiring permission to reproduce an image in your book can be not only time-consuming but also expensive, so shop around. If you’re writing a historical book and you need a photo of the old courthouse now torn down, the local county museum might charge you $20 for a photo, but the city museum might also have a similar but not the same photo and only charge you $10 while the local university archives might have a photo and only charge you $3. That said, you might find the county museum easier to work with and find it’s less trouble to pay $100 for five photos than $15 and get the run-around from the university archives. However, if your book is going to contain 100 historical photos, you will need to watch your dollars. You might also need to make some difficult decisions then about which photos are worth the expense of including in your book. It’s not uncommon to get photos from multiple sources, often with similar images, and just pick and choose those images.

Having a Creative Book Designer

Make sure you select someone who has experience in laying out a book with photos. You may want to ask a few different designers for copies of books with photographs they have done so you can see what kind of work they do. As an author, you may not have the artistic eye of a photographer or layout person, so look to see if the designer just plops photos “as is” into books, or if he or she is a bit creative with the photos. For example, if you use a historic photo of Theodore Roosevelt speaking to a crowd, the designer might crop the photo to provide a close up view of Roosevelt as well as the larger photo view. He might even zoom in on some details of woodwork on a building to provide some close up photos for your architecture book’s detail rather than just straight pictures of buildings.

While the use of the Internet makes distance of little concern today, you might feel more comfortable being able to sit down in person with the designer as you both decide to move a photo, enlarge or shrink it, or zoom in to enhance specific details. Working together in person still has its advantages over multiple emails, PDFs being sent, or talking on the phone. Remember, this book is yours and will have your name on it for the rest of your life, so as long as you’re willing to pay for it, you may want to get all the personal attention you possibly can from your layout person.

A Visually Stunning Book

In the end, photos and other images can enhance your book and create a visually stunning impression on readers. A history book with photos will definitely be purchased over one without, and for art, architecture, cooking, travel and many other kinds of books, the photos are as important, and sometimes even more important, than the text. Think through what you want, get quotes and talk to designers or photographers as needed. It will take a lot of effort, but in the end you can have a visually stunning book that will entice readers and make you proud.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.