Don’t Book a Cover by its Judge

When we’re reminded not to judge a book by its cover, it’s intended metaphorically. By ‘book’ we actually mean ‘people’ and we all know it’s very good advice. And in fact if by ‘book’ we actually do mean ‘book’ it’s probably still advice worth listening to.

However…we’re all human and we’re all prone to making instant assumptions about everything we see, including (and probably especially) books. If we’re into edgy legal thrillers and we spot a book on the front display of our local book store which features a Southern Belle all decked out in five miles of taffeta and gasping for dear life inside an 18-inch corset, then we’re going to walk right on by that display, aren’t we? And when we do that, we might have missed out on an edgy legal thriller about the inexplicable death of the belle of the Sweet Savannah Cotillion who was, by day, a sharp-minded legal secretary for DeVere Gaston, Savannah’s most outlandish defense attorney whose penchant for sticking his nose where God didn’t intend for it be stuck is legendary among the more stately homes of Georgia’s most hospitable city.

My guide to self-publishing–“Self Printed”–insists-to-the-point-of-begging that you have the cover of your book professionally designed because whether we’re browsing at the Barnes & Noble superstore at The Grove, or at the used book store we came across when our car broke down in Fresno last August, or while skipping around the pages of Amazon, we do in fact judge a book by its cover. When you think about it, a book’s cover is probably its best advertisement so why would you go to the trouble of writing a fabulous book and whack a homemade, do-it-yourself, “that’ll do” cover on it?

Everything else Catherine Ryan Howard has said has been spot on so I decided to follow her advice. As with editors, finding one (read: the right one) proved to be a journey in its own right. As with the freelance editors, there is a website where you can go to find all sorts of creative types. It’s called and is a veritable treasure trove of people who can held you write/design/conceive whatever your project is.

So I went through the many, many pages and emailed the people I thought had the most relevant experience to what I was looking for. And just like with the editors they came back quoting all sorts of prices (anywhere between a couple of hundred bucks to $1500(!)) for all sorts of services. For me it came down to how they replied (assuming of course they weren’t going to whack me for 1500 bucks thank-you-but-no-thank-you-have-a-nice-life.)

The guy I decided on responded (a) straight away (always impressive) and (b) with a whole bunch of suggestions about the approach we could take, what we could use (in terms of images) and how they could be manipulated to give it a 1920s look (my book opens in 1927) – tinting with sepia tones, font types etc. Right from the start I’d found him to be on exactly my wavelength so he got the nod.

But that opened up a trap door out of which flew a veritable Pandora’s Box worth of questions. I had some images of both the Garden of Allah hotel and its original owner, silent film star Alla Nazimova, that I wanted to use on the cover. But…

  • Was I entitled to use them?
  • Were they under copyright?
  • Are photos copyrighted like movies and songs and books?
  • Or were they now in the public domain?
  • At what point does anything become public domain?
  • Is it different if it’s a movie still? Or a publicity still?

These were images I’d been randomly pulling off the internet for the past few years because I thought they looked great and might be useable. But we’re talking about photos taken in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. How the hell do you establish who took a specific photo back in 1928??? It could have been some random guest of the hotel trying out the new box brownie he got for Christmas 1927 and yada yada yada 84 years later I’m pulling them off without any thought about who owns what and are they even still alive…?

It was important that I ask these questions and try very hard to find the answers because the last thing I’d want is to publish my book and then get a letter from the great-grandson of the guy who got a box brownie for Christmas of 1927 (or worse, his lawyer) saying “Excuse me…but…”

So I sent yet another flurry of emails around the cyber channels asking everyone I could think of and after a full week I managed to find the answers I needed. Turns out, yes, photos are copyrighted so I would need permission (or pay for it) but not movie stills and publicity stills. They’re not copyrighted and are in public domain, as is anything produced before 1923.

It took a lot of to’ing-and-fro’ing to get the answers but I got there in the end. So I sent my cover designer all the useable photos he needs, paypal’d him my 50%-up-front-deposit and sent him a bunch of Amazon links to books whose covers I like and the style and/or layout and/or font of which I thought might serve as inspiration for him. I do have a vague sort of idea about what I expect the cover to look like but secretly I’m hoping he’ll exceed all those expectations and come up with such a boffo cover that I’ll gasp like the belle of this year’s Sweet Savannah Cotillion.


About Martin Turnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author writing about the golden era of Hollywood in his series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
This entry was posted in Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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