Publishing has never been easier for those with the drive to tackle the process. Easier being a relative term, of course. You have to acquire some skill to properly format the book's interior, and that's after you have edited the manuscript until it is a highly polished gem. The title has to be catchy. There is marketing after you've completed those tasks, but there is one aspect that could trip up your book before it is launched.
Readers do indeed judge books by their covers.
Your novel needs a cover that will catch the eye, while at the same time offer some insight into the content of your story. Consider the romance genre, and the ubiquitous bare-chested, abs of steel male model featured prominently. You can spot a Regency romance by the image of an adoring couple in period costume, with the distinctive waistline favored by the Empress Josephine showing, rather than telling, what era the reader will plunge into upon purchasing that novel.
But let us consider the erotic novel, which is something you are most likely to find as a self-published oeuvre. The Fifty Shades phenomenon began in the self-publishing realm because traditional publishers are not inclined to handle pornography.
If you've written a bit of mommy porn, you want a cover that hints at the steamy contents within, but you don't want too much explicit art on the cover. You want subtle, to appeal to women who are not comfortable leaving a book out where the wee little ones can see pictures and ask questions and cause no end of trouble.
You want beautiful people, of course. Pretty faces are more marketable than your own plain features gracing the cover. But where do you find pictures of such youthful beings?
If you want to avoid a lawsuit, go find a young couple willing to participate or buy some stock photos. Do not go to the Internet and download whatever picture strikes your fancy.
An author of erotica threw together a bunch of words and then picked a title that was pithy and timely. A GRONKING TO REMEMBER traded on an American footballer's name that became synonymous with a post-score celebration. People searching for information about the athlete just might be directed to the novel, and who knows but some of them would make a purchase on a whim, to see what erotic fiction was all about and did their sports hero play a role in the novel.
Said author found a photograph of a couple and downloaded it for use on the cover.
The couple saw the picture, which they had snapped as part of a photographic montage of their experiences from engagement to marriage.
The book cover caught the attention of the media, and suddenly the engagement picture was all over, associated with a pornographic novel. That's more than embarrassing, and worse, once something is out there online, it's there forever. The humiliation just goes on and on.
How do you track down an author using a pseudonym? And after you've forced the author to pull the book, how do you make it go away so people can't purchase the thing?
The publisher in a traditional setting would get sued. Publishers have in-house graphic artists to do book cover design so they avoid problems like this, but in the world of self-publishing, there are no such legal checks unless the self-publisher is aware of the restrictions. Just because there is a picture on the Internet doesn't mean it's there for the taking.
The couple whose faces are forever associated with a gronking to remember have sued Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble, suing them as the "publishers". The defense claims that they are not publishers at all. It is the self-publisher who is the publisher. The online marketplaces are just shops that sell an item. They don't have any control, or legal responsibility. Amazon pulled the book from its list, but that is all that it can do. Jeff Bezos didn't buy the manuscript and design the cover, now, did he? Go sue the person who did the publishing work, not the messenger.
The case will be heard in the U.S. Federal court because the issue is one of those things that has cropped up because technology is moving faster than the legal system.
Who is a publisher, in this day and age? A group of judges will have to define the term. While we are waiting for their answer, don't post pictures online that you wouldn't want to see on the cover of smut. And be very, very careful when designing the cover of your self-published opus.