Getting Started with Image Permissions for Your Book

by | Apr 11, 2024

To say we live in an image saturated world is a major understatement. We have instant access to pictures of nearly any subject just by typing a few words into a search bar. That accessibility can make it extra hard to understand why obtaining image permissions for a scholarly book is so complicated. 

Image use in scholarly publishing is complex. If you’re planning to use images you created yourself, you’ll still need to make sure they meet the publisher’s specifications in terms of format and quality. And if you want to use images someone else created? That’s when it gets really interesting! 

All of this can seem overwhelming at first. Yet books with images in them get published everyday. Like with any other aspect of publishing, the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed is to plan ahead. Some standards will vary from field to field and from publisher to publisher, so you’ll need to consult with your publisher regarding the specifics of your book. 

I can’t cover the entire wild world of image permissions here. For an excellent and comprehensive overview, check out Susan Bielstein’s book, Permissions, A Survival Guide. In the meantime, I can help you get started with some general guidelines that will be useful to consider as you prepare to illustrate your manuscript. 

Start planning image choices and permissions early

When writing a book, there are so many things to consider in addition to drafting the book itself—from choosing the best press for your book to building an author platform. It’s easy to think of images as something that can happen later. But do not wait until the last minute to start thinking about images and graphics. 

Ultimately, the number and type of images you include will be worked out with your publisher and included in your book contract. So you should discuss this with your acquisitions editor early on. 

You will save yourself so many headaches if you are strategic about this process from the get-go. For example, it’s not uncommon for first-book authors to get their hearts set on particular images, only to discover that they can’t obtain or afford the proper permissions. Alternatively, some authors frame an argument around a series of images that wind up falling outside their contract. Planning early and being prepared to cut some of your preferred images will help you avoid these scenarios.

Another reason to start early is that researching and obtaining image permissions usually takes a long time. Because contracts and usage rights vary so much, I don’t recommend handing this work over to someone unfamiliar with the process, like a graduate assistant. Start researching early and, if possible, work with a professional image permissions specialist who knows the relevant (and evolving) copyright and publishing law and can guide you accordingly.

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Adjusting image expectations

The exact type and quantity of images that your book contains will depend on your field, your publisher, and your book contract. Some fields, like film and visual studies, will obviously need more. And presses that publish those books will be accustomed to that process. Regardless, images require more work and expense on everyone’s part and so most publishers prefer to keep the number to a minimum. 

When deciding which images you need, keep in mind that the final book will probably have fewer than you initially planned. It’s useful to consider which ideas would most benefit from an illustration and which could be made clearer through editing rather than illustration. You might also consider having a back-up plan in place for all of your preferred images, just in case you can’t find something that meets the press’s formatting specs or your budget. 

A great time to work on selecting the best images and graphics to illustrate your book is during the developmental editing process. This is because developmental editors, like the ones at Ideas on Fire, help authors find a book’s big interventions, including how best to craft an overarching argument carried through the text via narrative arc, analysis, and engagement with sources.

Budgeting for image permissions

In scholarly publishing, it is standard practice for authors to pay for image rights themselves, so start budgeting early. This is another reason to keep your images to a minimum. 

Most commonly, image permissions will be an out-of-pocket expense. There are some funding options available, depending on your institution and scholarly field. Some universities offer subvention grants to offset these costs. For example, the University of Texas at Austin awards up to USD $5,000 to help pay for “artwork, maps, photographs, permissions and other special production elements.”  

Some scholarly associations have similar funds available for members, so it’s a good idea to check. Be sure to read the guidelines carefully and early. Some grants, like this one from the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies—require that the application be submitted by the publisher rather than the author. 

Fair use and public domain images

Given all this, maybe you’re thinking you’ll stick to images that are in the public domain or that clearly fall within fair use guidelines in the context of your book. That should avoid all of these tricky image permissions problems, right? The answer, like so much when it comes to images and graphics, is a solid maybe

Fair use comprises a complex (and, honestly, fascinating!) set of legal guidelines. And even public domain images often require some form of permission—even if you don’t have to pay for the right to reprint them. All of this varies by country and context (and AI is making this even more complicated).

That’s why I recommend starting this research early. The International Communication Association put together a fantastic set of guidelines for fair use. It’s geared toward communication and media scholars, but it is useful for a wide range of adjacent fields. 

Making your images accessible

Once you’ve sorted out which images to use and obtained legal permission to use them, a final thing to consider is how to ensure that your illustrations are accessible to readers with visual impairments. For example, make sure any charts or graphics are created using colorblind-friendly palettes and that your captions are complete and genuinely descriptive. 

Increasingly, it’s expected that your book will be published electronically, even if it’s also being printed. This means you’ll need to include alt text (alternative text) for each of your images. Alt text is the text that screen reading software reads aloud and that is visible when users click on an image in a digital interface. If you’re new to the process, Harvard has a great guide for writing useful alt text

Images are indispensable to adding depth and interest to so many books. I hope these tips on getting started with the process clear some of the fog surrounding how to get them into your book. 

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine and Dismantle Writing Services as well as a freelance writing consultant.

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