Fiction writers don’t generally have this issue, other than coming up with someone to do cover art if the publishing house isn’t seeing to it; most fiction readers beyond the elementary school level don’t expect interior illustrations. Nonfiction audiences, on the other hand, do. This is a problem for authors, not because we don’t want to please our audiences, but because getting the means to do so is neither cheap nor easy.
I will admit to being spoiled with my first three books, because I didn’t have to worry about pictures at all. All three were published through Eclipse Press, then the book-publishing arm of The Blood-Horse, Inc., and the pictures were pulled by publishing staff from in-house resources at The Blood-Horse. I didn’t realize that this was not the norm until I contracted with the University Press of Kentucky for Dream Derby: The Myth and Legend of Black Gold and found out that I was expected to supply any pictures I wanted to use along with the manuscript—at my own expense, of course.
Given that UPK is a relatively small press, I was not too perturbed after the initial surprise; small- and moderate-sized publishing houses have pretty limited budgets for both book production and marketing. The trouble is, my budget is also pretty limited, and I rapidly found out that getting licensing rights for pictures can be a major consumer of both time and money. Just finding pictures can be a real challenge, especially if you don’t have the resources to travel and examine collections for yourself. Sure, you can use the Internet, but then you have to track down the origin of the picture (not always easy), contact the originator or current owner, and be sure that you’re dealing with the person who has the right to authorize its use—always assuming that you can make contact, because some people and entities are very poor about responding to inquiries, and the bigger and wealthier the person/entity is, usually the worse they are about getting back to you.
Simply locating a suitable picture is not enough; you must have license to use it in your book, and this means having to develop a grasp of U.S. copyright law, knowing that if you make a mistake and someone comes looking for royalties or damages, it will be coming out of your pocket instead of the publisher’s (yes, it’s in the book contract). Since I, like most authors, lack the money to lawyer up if someone decides to sue, this can lead to a bit of paranoia about what one can and can’t do. Even pictures that are 95 years old or more and thus in the public domain are not necessarily safe to reproduce; my understanding of the law is that if the negative still exists, the owner of the negative is the party who has the right to authorize use. (Good luck on finding out if the negative still exists for a picture close to a century old, unless the photo is in a library or museum collection or is from the files of a major news organization.) I don’t want to even think about having to get authorization for pictures that are under foreign (including Canadian) copyright. Then there are the fees for licensure, which can range from nothing (bless you,. Keeneland Library!) to $1,000 or more for a single photo. You would think that a large publishing house might help its authors out with some of this as part of the production budget, but no—one of the authors I was talking to got her title published through a major New York house and still had to pony up 100 percent of the usage fees for her illustrations, plus all the costs behind the legwork to track them down.
Just to add to the fun, there is the need to translate the photo requirements for use by your publishing house. For those of us who don’t speak photography tech, this is a bit daunting, but the bottom line is that a low-resolution picture downloaded from the Internet or taken from a newspaper photo probably isn’t going to be reproducible at the quality needed. I had to regretfully turn away from trying to use several pictures the Keeneland Library had because they were from scans of old books or other print media and couldn’t pass muster with the needs of publication. Eventually, that led to the choice of not providing interior illustrations for Dream Derby because I didn’t want a photo collection that didn’t include Black Gold’s owner, trainer, and jockey—the omissions would have been too obvious—and the one good, clear, reproduction-quality photo that showed all three was in the hands of the entity that wanted $1,000 for its use. Considering that I would have to sell over 400 books at the full cover price for the softcover version just to recoup the price of using that one photo (remember what I said in an earlier post about average sales?), and that I certainly didn’t and don’t have $1,000 just lying around, I think the reason for my decision (and believe me, I didn’t like having to make it) is pretty obvious.
Understand, book publishing is a tough and highly competitive business, margins are tight, and most books will not turn a profit for the house. Even so, given the amount of work and expense that authors are expected to shoulder nowadays between book production and book promotion, it would be nice to be able to get a little more help from the publishing companies in the interest of turning out a more appealing product without the author having to go into extra debt to do it. Just sayin’.