Can We Use Your Picture(s) in Our Book?  Only If You Pay Me

Can We Use Your Picture(s) in Our Book? Only If You Pay Me


It’s an email I get weekly. “My name is John and I work for this massive publisher, and we love your image of that thing. We’re creating a book for our client, and want to use your beautiful image as a spread in the book – can we get permission?”

I’m always happy when publishers, corporations, or individuals want to use my images in their books. They’ve been used more than I can count, quite often as one-offs in corporate promotional books, art books, architecture books, and even a few textbooks. Some quick examples: an eyewear company licensed a few of my pictures for one of their books which sits in every one of their stores, an airline has licensed pictures for a hardcover book about their history, architectural publishers have licensed pictures of mine galore for use in books to illustrate projects and concepts, the list goes on.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that we are talking about companies that were/are not our original client (even if YOU are your own client, and it was a personal project). Therefore, the people interested in using your images for their book/publication have no license to use them unless they get your permission to do so.

Now before you get that warm fuzzy feeling of someone wanting to use your work and the little endorphin hit that goes along with it, let’s start off with a few facts.

  1. The cost of printing a large hardcover fine art or architecture book professionally through a major publisher e.g. Rizzoli, Thames + Hudson, Assouline, etc (as any large corporation is going to do) runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have to pay designers, writers, editors, printing costs, proofing costs, shipping costs, licensing fees for images and drawings, etc. Don’t forget all of these entities need to profit on top of those fees, too.
  2. These books solely exist to promote the commissioning company. They are literally a marketing effort, they aren’t doing it for goodwill and donating the profits from the book. If they say they are doing this, it is up to you to decide if it is a cause you align yourself with, and if donating your work will give you the warm fuzzies.
  3. You need to be compensated, no matter how much they tell you the exposure will help you, because I promise that the value of exposure is always less than is promised with these commercial book endeavors.

What is happening is that these companies – whether a Fortune 500 or smaller – are going to try and get your pictures for free before they pay you. Here is an email I copied straight out of my inbox. The only edits were to remove company names where applicable.

“Hi Mike,

My name is Alex, and I’m a Senior Photo Editor here at [redacted] book publishing in New York. We’re working on a book with a print run of about 4,500 copies for the clothing brand [redacted] and are interested in a couple of your architecture photos of houses in LA which our designers have used in our mock up; we would love to use them as the endsheets if you would give us permission. Could you please email me when you have a moment so I can send you the images we’ve selected?

Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you,

This email tells me a few things right off the bat. One, that they have a relatively massive budget for this book (major international clothing brand). Two, that they can afford to hire a major publisher to make the project happen for them (another fact that leads me to believe they have budget). And the best part, three, is that they accidentally let it slip that they’re already using my images as placeholders or mockups, which means they’ve probably spent a decent amount of time designing around my images and it would suck for them to have to go find new pictures when mine have already been approved.

So I’m just going to ignore the request for permission because we should never work or provide work for free – and send back a simple, straightforward response. This is pretty much what I say to anyone looking to use my images; no sob stories about how hard artists have to work for their art, no mention about making ends meet and the struggle, no rants about how the industry is being destroyed by people looking to get something for nothing. Just the facts!

Hi Alex,

Thank you for your interest in using my images, I’m glad to hear you think they’d be a great fit for the project. The price for this usage (4,500 copies, full endsheets) would be $650 USD per image. If this works for you, please let me know and I can prepare the invoice and files for you.


I come back a little high in my estimate (who knows, maybe someone out there thinks I’m low, post in the comments if you think my estimate is off) so that I can leave room for negotiations if they really want to push. Given that the end sheets are a full spread at both the front and back, they are somewhat important and therefore demand a higher price than a random full page spread or single page image somewhere else in the book.

I ignore the implied request for free permission and get right down to brass tacks. I know that since they’re using my image in the mockup already, the odds of them going to find another version of these images are quite low and the odds of them finding something just as interesting for the same price are also quite low (there aren’t too many photographers who can just send the same exactly pictures over) so I can ask for payment confidently.

In the end, the client negotiated usage of both images for $1100 and the invoice and images were sent shortly after.

When should I give my images away for free for publication?

There are some times where exposure might actually be valuable. One example is a book accompanying a gallery or exhibit that features your work that is in the exhibit, which is kind of a no-brainer, or a book that features artists/photographers and is actually about those artists and photographers, as in some sort of compilation of work. An example of this would be Civilization: The Way We Live Now. I was asked to provide images for the book which is meant to compliment the exhibition of the same title. I was interviewed for the book and my work will be seen in galleries around the world next to some of the top photographers on the planet; nobody is getting rich off of this and it’s purely a passion project for the curators. It is a very clear example of commercial usage vs. artistic usage.

If you are interviewed for the book and it features a few pages about you and your photography, I look at that as promotion and I am generally okay with providing images and texts for this purpose at no or little cost. Same goes for magazines; if they want to interview me and make the article about me they are welcome to use images at no cost.

If the client, let’s say an architect, who commissioned me to take the pictures in the first place wants to use those photos for their monograph or a book featuring their work, that is usually fine with me – though that will depend on your original licensing agreement with that client. Some photographers charge extra for this, but use a lower upfront photography fee to offset it, and some bundle it in with their licensing agreements but charge a higher photography fee.

In general, if it was a commissioned project that I photographed, it’s also worth noting that 99.9% of the time I’m charging for it. I won’t give away commercial images that my clients paid top dollar for me to make. My personal projects, however, I am a little more liberal with. I hope those previous examples made sense.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, image licensing fees are very small in comparison to the money spent to design, edit, print, and distribute a commercial book project. If someone is making that book as a marketing piece for a business, at the end of the day, you need to get paid for your images. Remember: we charge based on the value of the image to the end user, not based on the work we already put in to make the image. Don’t be afraid to ask for payment in these cases as even though companies may ask you for your participation for free, they have budgeted for image licensing.

Any book worth being seen in, at least!

Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.
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