Material in the public domain belongs to ALL of us. You can use public domain material for any purpose you want without licensing it or paying royalties to anyone.
Public domain books are a boon to creative, entrepreneurial narrators! I made a video course exclusively for members of my NarratorsRoadmap.com site called Create Your Own Path. The first video discusses how to research the copyright information to determine whether a book is in the public domain. (I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that the course has its own set of resources, including collections of public domain books I’ve created for members to peruse for possible projects!)
When planning your cover art for public domain books, consider these quotes pulled from this Publishers Weekly article about publishing new editions of public domain texts:
“It’s been 95 years since they were published in the United States — so we’re thinking about how we can present them as fresh and relevant.”
“The design process for reimagining classic covers also requires a special sort of attention…You just need a cover that’s going to jump out from all the other covers.”
“I always feel it’s important to create covers for classic authors that they would appreciate. I think it’s really important to be respectful of the text.”
Many people who create audiobooks from public domain texts also look to use public domain artwork for their audiobook covers. I’ve done that with a number of books, including:
I found the image for JAILED FOR FREEDOM on the Library of Congress site. The sun on THE DYNAMIC LAWS OF PROSPERITY came from NASA.
You may even need to layer images to achieve the look you want. In the case of SO BIG, my cover designer found a perfect antique, public domain painting of the woman standing in the cabbage field. Meanwhile, I found a modern photograph of a farm boy squatting in a field on a commercial site of stock images. I bought the picture for around $15 and then used Photoshop to place him in the image of the painting with Photoshop. I used a number of filters and effects to give him the same look as the original painting.
Since I’ve seen a number of posts from narrators looking for sources of public domain illustrations, I thought I’d curate a handy list for all of us! Note that I’m not including the plethora of sites with modern stock images or that may charge fees for usage.