WHY CAN'T I USE IMAGES FROM "FREE" STOCK WEBSITES TO CREATE COVERS?
Awhile back, some friends and I came across a pre-made cover with a model taken from a so-called free stock website. The creator insisted it was legit stock and the photographer had said they had a model release on file. We dug a little and discovered the photo was actually stolen from a German photographer's website without their knowledge.
There is NO guarantee when using these "free" sites that what you're using is actually free. If you can't trace it back to its original source, you're dooming yourself to potentially using something you shouldn't.
Paid sites like DepositPhotos and Shutterstock rigorously review all submitted images. They verify that model releases (AND tattoo releases for models with tattoos) are on file for every photo.
Sometimes, things slip by. Cosplay shoots of characters, company logos, etc., because reviewers can't possibly know every single thing that's against copyright rules to use. In this instance, what these sites offer are indemnification clauses, which cover YOUR butt legally if you were to be sued. Or worse: your client's butt, if you sell that cover with stock you shouldn't have used.
Which leads me to...
AN INDEMNIFICATION CLAUSE...WHAT?
Say Joe Blow steals a photo and uploads it to Shutterstock (or another paid site). He manages to sneak it by reviewers. You pay for the photo and use it on a cover. The original creator of the photo catches it and sues you. Shutterstock has your back with a nice little indemnification clause in their licensing terms. Not only will they pay for a hefty chunk of legal fees in your defense, but the fact that you purchased an image from a legitimate website shows that you attempted to receive licensing rights to that image in good faith. You're covered.
These free stock websites...they offer none of that protection because they can't. They aren't charging so they can't afford to cover anyone legally, nor do they have the means to have reviewers go through their images.
WHY SHOULD I SPEND MONEY ON COVERS WHEN I DON’T KNOW IF THEY’LL SELL?
I hate to burst your bubble, but cover designing is a business.
Every business everywhere has upfront costs. Whether it's editing, proofing, cover design, formatting, or marketing for authors, to cleaning supplies for maids, to rent and inventory and signage and employees and other overhead for brick-and-mortar stores.
Frankly, cover designing has one of the SMALLEST startup costs imaginable. You can get by learning from YouTube tutorials and lots of practice, using free commercial fonts, and free software (such as Canva or Gimp), and pay maybe a hundred bucks for a bundle of photos on DepositPhotos. (Often there are deals for 100 images for $69.) My monthly costs for my cover design business extend to an Adobe subscription, Pro/paid-for tutorials, stock images, web hosting, fonts, effects, brushes, DAZ assets, and more. Sometimes I’m dumping money into something and I have no idea how much use it’s really going to be to me, but I take a risk to see if it’ll pay off.
You have to be willing to put forth SOME money for a business, no matter what that business is.
WHY CAN WE USE FREE FONTS, THEN?
Many creators of fonts permit their fonts to be used free for commercial use, and it’s often easy to locate the creator’s website to check. FontSquirrel.com has tons of free-for-commercial use fonts, with links directly to the creator’s website and the license so you can check for yourself.