A More Balanced Perspective on Book Covers with AI Art

Robert B. Marks
6 min readDec 12, 2022
AI art by Midjourney AI. Note the head that looks like a weird mushroom.

There’s a lot of heated discussion about AI art, people using it for creative projects like book covers, and a lot of people, frankly, talking alarmist nonsense about it. So, let’s have a more balanced discussion about it, from the perspective of the owner of a small publishing company, and somebody who has used both AI and commissioned art on book covers.

(This a reproduction, with slight edits, of a reddit comment of mine that you can read here if you want to see the original.)

Will AI art put actual artists out of business?

NO. I’ve seen these sorts of panics before, and they happen every time a new technology emerges and becomes viable. I remember when e-books were supposedly going to render the print book obsolete…and right now I see on average more print books move on Amazon than e-books, and I doubt that e-books have ever managed to gain more than a 20% market share, if they even managed to get that far. Photography didn’t put artists out of business (although there were claims about that happening too), nor did public domain archives like Wikisource, or programs like Photoshop.

Frankly, what is far more likely to happen is that AI art is going to become one of the tools in the digital artist’s toolbox. There are things it does very well, like randomly generated landscapes, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if AI generated elements start appearing in digital art sooner rather than later.

EDIT: A conversation on Reddit has recently given me cause to rethink this position, and there may be something to it in certain corners of the profession. Disruption is indeed possible in some corners of the profession with low to mid-level jobs doing board game art, trading cards, etc. As the Redditor pointed out, “close enough” can be good enough for a three inch trading card. However, as anybody who has tinkered with an AI art generator will know, getting any given result is not easy, and this will probably be a case where one door closing means another has opened, with AI art generation becomes its own specialization.

Is AI art legally questionable?

I have to preface this by saying that I am not a lawyer, and for legal advice you should speak to an actual lawyer. But, the short answer is that it depends on whether the new image is transformative in regards to the elements used in it. If it is transformative, then it is probably permitted under international law, and there is nothing legally questionable about it. If it is not transformative, and the elements used are under copyright, then it is copyright infringement. Something generating a new image, like Midjourney, is pretty much transformative by definition. However, to get a good sense of where the exact line lies, you need to consult a lawyer.

EDIT: I changed the wording here because the while the issue of transformativity is all-important here, it doesn’t actually fall under the category of “derivative work.” What category it does fall under depends on the country in question (in the United States it is a Fair Use defence; in Canada alteration in the same medium isn’t in the rights protected by copyright in the first place, etc.) This is also a legal rabbit hole so complex that any further discussion belongs in the hands of qualified experts.

Is using AI art morally questionable?

This is a more personal question, and I can’t tell anybody where to draw the line when it comes their own personal ethics — and nobody can tell YOU where to draw the line when it comes to yours. What I can do is make a few observations as to where I stand.

It seems to me that it comes down to how the image is used. If the image is properly credited as AI generated, then there is nothing wrong with it (and I put that credit on the copyright page of both books where I have used it). Sometimes, you have to make a decision between using AI art and not having a reasonable cover with which you can publish the book for various reasons (no room in the budget, it’s commission art or put food on the table, etc.). And if that’s the decision you made under those circumstances, I don’t think anybody actually has any grounds to criticize you for it. It’s easy to say “You should have hired an artist instead!” when you’re not the one who has to come up with the money to do it. And the argument that you’re taking work away from an artist is pretty empty when the money wasn’t there to hire an artist in the first place.

If you do have the money, that’s a different matter, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

If you misrepresent the art as being something other than AI generated, then I think you are about as in the wrong as it is possible to get.

And that is where I stand. As I said, I can’t tell you where YOU should stand, and neither can anybody else.

Should I use AI art if I can hire an artist?

NO. If you can afford to hire an artist, hire an artist. And the reason I’m going to put forward isn’t an ethical one, but basic quality. The work you will get out of an artist will ALWAYS be better than AI art.

Here’s an example of an AI art book cover:

Image generated by Midjourney AI.

That is the cover for Magus Draconum. It was a book that had sat on my hard drive for 20 years, it was little more than a vanity project through my little publishing company (and therefore there was no money in the budget for cover art). The art is good enough. It has a figure in the right position on the front that looks like it could (if you squint hard enough) be the main character, and has the correct number of legs (probably). It took 6 or 7 attempts with the Midjourney program to get there. The versions that didn’t get used had a figure with one leg, three legs, one had either four legs or two legs with holes you could see the background through, obvious other people in what is supposed to be an empty frozen wasteland, etc. An AI art cover amounts to figuring out your prompt, and then pressing the “reload” button until the random number generator gets close enough that you’ve got something you can use.

This is the cover for Re:Apotheosis, with the art by Foxtail (and yes, that’s how he wants to be credited):

Art by Foxtail.

And here’s the cover for the sequel Re:Apotheosis — Aftermath, art also by Foxtail:

Art by Foxtail.

Those are MY characters. They are not approximations. The artist worked with me to get a sense of what I wanted for the feeling of the book (it’s a spiritual sequel to an anime called Re:Creators, and the cover for the first book was a deliberate homage to one of the series’ posters). At every step in the process, I was able to send in corrections if something wasn’t right or didn’t work.

Whether you like the artist’s work or not, the fact remains that it completely satisfied my requirements, and had my characters in it. It is not “good enough” as far as what I wanted — it is good. An artist can do that. An AI art bot can do an approximation of your requirements, but that’s all. The artist will always be higher quality, and that will always make it worth spending the money.

Robert B. Marks is the owner of Legacy Books Press, and the author of the Re:Apotheosis series.

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.