So Where Has All The Reading Gone?

I’m on the road at the moment with a book for younger people – 8-12-year-olds my publisher says, and they would know more about that than I do (though it already has some adult readers too). Like anything I write, at some level it got written because the urge to write it was an itch I couldn’t scratch any other way but, at a pragmatic level, it’s no bad thing it’s being targeted to that demographic.

Why? Because they read. They have time to do it, many of them like to do it, people buy them books and they read. I don’t mind what platform they choose to do it on – whether the book be e or p – but most of them still opt for the paper version. If a child shows an interest in a book, if the family has money for it, there’s every chance that book will come their way. We know what reading does to young brains, and it’s good.

But what about the grown-ups? Who’s still reading? And what are they reading? Are you 30 and still reading a lot? Or 40 and still reading a lot? Or 50? I suspect a lot of people aren’t. I fear we’ve shed readers this century, and I don’t know if or when they’re coming back.

Here are some factors I think might be at work. For many people, there’s work, study and family responsibilities, but there’s nothing new going on there, so I think there’s more to it.

There are some economic factors, though I don’t think they’re the whole picture either. When the GST came in in Australia in 2000, books were taxed for the first time and unit sales of books in Australia dropped 19% the following year. A few years after that, the financial crisis made people cautious with their spending – novels were a discretionary purchase that suddenly became way more discretionary – then in Australia a major bookselling group collapsed.

Some books are still selling, because they’re textbooks or some other kind of non-discretionary purchase. And kids and YA books are booming. All of which means some segments of the adult discretionary market must be quietly tanking.

Who is still reading? Some voracious readers of genre fiction are perhaps more voracious than ever. When the numbers were crunched on all sales in Amazon’s Kindle Store for one day last year, three genre categories dominated: romance and its subgenres, crime/mystery/suspense, and fantasy and the other spec fic genres. If you look at the numbers and extract only those relating to adult fiction, those categories are the killers and everything else is in their dust. Three per cent of adult fiction purchases in the Kindle Store that day were literary fiction.

Readers of genre fiction often read a lot of genre fiction. Maybe what we’re seeing is people with 200-book-a-year reading habits suddenly working out they can buy 300 books a year for far less by ebooking it. And genre readers talk. They are networked and they were in chat rooms when the rest of us thought all rooms needed walls and a ceiling. Some genre fiction has surged from nowhere to huge success on a tide of reader support.

But what about the rest of us? The people who read outside those genres and used to read, say, 20 books a year? If that was you in 2000, how many books are you reading now? My guess is a lot of people are reading less. So, where has all the reading time gone?

On public transport, people used to sit reading novels. Now most of them are working their phones. A handful might be reading books on them, but most aren’t. I can’t complain. I hit level 52 of Fruit Link before I started dreaming too much about playing it and made myself back away. Here are three interesting stats that might be part of the story.

In 1971, the world videogame industry grossed $0. The following year, Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn put a Hitachi TV in a wooden box and created Pong. By 2013, the world videogame industry grossed US$60 billion a year. That’s a huge amount of human time going to videogames.

And then there’s all the enticing interweb time-suckage options (news sites, Facebook, Twitter, you sitting here reading this when your time could be gainfully spent purchasing my books, ahem, I meant reading books). I buy into these as much as anybody, but here’s just one to think about. By the time Gangnam Style racked up its billionth view on YouTube, if each view had involved only one person and they had watched to the end, it would have used up 50 million hours of human time. Indulge me in some pure speculation: if a fifth of that time would otherwise have gone to reading and an average book takes ten hours to read, that’s a million books that weren’t read. A million books. Because of one song on one platform of a vast, captivating internet.

Twelve days ago, Netflix became official in Australia. We signed up on day one. This is a golden age of TV, and some of the long-form drama now being made for grown-ups is remarkable. On night one, we watched episode one of season three of House of Cards. I am now binge viewing it until it’s done. Here’s one point that surfaced on Netflix’s launch day: despite it being illegal, 200,000 Australians households had set up fake US addresses to access it already.

My bet is a lot of those people used to read and now they read less. Anyone I know who has signed up to Netflix has done it because of a love of quality long-form narrative with complex characters. A great novel used to be our best and maybe only option for that, and now it’s not.

I’m wondering if, one way or another – and often in many ways – our entertainment time is being sliced up finer and finer until there’s no longer a space big enough to fit a novel in.

In case there’s any doubt, let me be clear about one thing: I am not talking about the end of writing or the end of literature. I’m aware the world is in another phase of that debate at the moment (see this article in the LA Times). Writing will continue for the simple reason that far too many of us can’t resist the urge to do it. But how is reading going?

How about you? How is your entertainment time carved up? Are you reading novels? Are you reading as many as you once were?

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Analogue Men – The Missing Chapter

Every novel goes through editing. Things come in, things go out. More is made of some things and less of others. And then a thousand tiny tweaks occur.

Analogue Men lost very little – only one piece of any real size, in fact. My publisher noticed we didn’t actually need the short chapter about yoga at all. Yes, I thought it was funny. I have no idea if she did. But once she raised the dreaded question of relevance, I knew it was gone. Maybe I had things I really wanted to say about yoga, but is Analogue Men a novel about yoga? No. Does the yoga chapter take the story forward in any way? No. Does it cast fresh light on the workings of the central character’s brain? No. That job’s already in hand.

In editing a novel, you pick your battles. And sometimes you tell yourself, ‘this’ll at least give me an out-take to share when the book comes out’.

So here it is. The missing yoga chapter. It takes place after Andrew goes for a run one morning. Other than that, there’s nothing you need to know.

I’ve always taken a yoga DVD with me when I’ve travelled for work, and always the same yoga DVD, featuring Jessie Chapman, supple as a jellyfish, on the beach at Byron Bay.

Jessie Chapman, who never breaks a sweat, would not condone moving straight from the run to the mat, but Jessie Chapman isn’t the boss of my day and we get on perfectly when I allocate her twenty seven minutes to order me around, calmly and reassuringly and in the same series of instructions and poses every time.

My three favourite yoga poses are tadasana (mountain pose), savasana (corpse pose) and the rest at the end. At a technical level, tadasana might be complicated in fifteen intricate ways, but the lumpen non-yogaphile – the brittle question-mark-shaped conscript – can learn to love it as the pose he or she comes to know as ‘standing still’. As for corpse pose, even dogs can play dead. You’re flat on your back with your arms out to the sides. It’s only number two for me because, in yoga, there is no pillow. And without a pillow, my neck holds my head just above the floor.

I am not a group yoga person. I do not do yoga for the bells, or to chant ‘om’ with other devotees, or to have a hippy make odd observations about my thyroid status. That intrusive triad sums up the one yoga class I went to. I do yoga because, if I don’t, I might seize up into a big nerve-crunching act of Meccano.

What I don’t understand is why people pay for classes at all. Isn’t that just paying for someone to stand in front of you and tell you you’re crap at bending, and all the while you’re risking a fart in company?

After twenty-seven minutes I don’t feel serene or that I’ve gone any way to tidying my errant chakras, but at least it’s done. For what it’s worth, I’ve banked another yoga credit. When the day of reckoning comes and all spines are assessed and most found wanting, I can know I’ve got Jessie Chapman in my corner, insisting that I’ve done my bit.

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Why Sheppard (and Others) Say Geronimo

The success at last week’s ARIA awards of Brisbane band Sheppard and their irresistible hit Geronimo got me thinking – why does anyone shout ‘Geronimo’ before a leap into danger? Wasn’t Geronimo a 19th-century Native American warrior? Was his name shouted then? Why did the practice persist? The amateur etymologist in me couldn’t resist doing a little sleuthing. Here’s what I’ve found. As is sometimes the case (eg, with the word ‘okay’), something brought the new expression about, but it’s likely it took a sequence of events to keep it alive.

Yes, Geronimo was a Native American warrior. He was born in 1829 and given the name Goyathlay (‘the one who yawns’) in the Mescalero-Chiricahua language. In 1851, after Mexican soldiers massacred his camp while he and other men were in town trading, he was involved in tracking and attacking the soldiers. He went into battle with a knife and, regardless of the gunfire, repeatedly threw himself at the enemy. This battle is where the name ‘Geronimo’ began, either as a repeated panicked call from the soldiers to Saint Jerome (‘Geronimo’ in Spanish) to save them from this apparently unstoppable warrior, or from their mispronunciation of his name.

From that time, there are stories (some might be true, some apocryphal) of his name being shouted out during the daring attacks and escapes that were a feature of his decades of armed resistance to the Mexicans and then to US forces. In 1886, his band of 38 became one of the last to end their resistance and surrender.

He became a prisoner, and his story might have ended there, but for an unexpected turn early in the 20th century. Well into his seventies, Geronimo became a celebrity. While still a prisoner, he was invited to participate in the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair and, with presidential permission, he did. From there, his fame grew. He rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905 and dictated an autobiography.

All this probably kept the interest in him and his story going after his death in 1909. With his story popular and well documented, in 1939 it was turned into a movie. There was also a song of the name around at the time.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that the parachute came to be seen not just as something to be used in emergencies, but also as a way to drop troops into action. Some of the first jumps occurred at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940 and it was there that the troops – with the movie and/or song and Geronimo’s bold deeds in their heads – took to shouting ‘Geronimo’ when they jumped. By 1941, with the permission of Geronimo’s family, ‘Geronimo’ was incorporated into the insignia of the US Army’s first parachute regiment (the 501st infantry) and war coverage of the exploits of paratroopers had made their call of ‘Geronimo’ common knowledge.

That fixed it in the public mind for at least decades. And then Sheppard came along and pushed the name up in the public consciousness again.

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On cuts to the ABC …

Last year, I had the chance to be involved in the development of a TV series. I was flown to Sydney for two days in the offices of a big production company. I worked with people I respected, I learned plenty and, I hope, I contributed something. But there was a moment mid-morning on the first day that stood out, probably only to me.

We had the network bosses there for an hour or two and one of them, as we were talking through the practicalities of the show said, ‘One of the great things about this is that it could be be set anywhere. Literally anywhere. Sydney or Melbourne.’ For once, in the face of comments like this, I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t point out that Australia isn’t a country comprising two cities only, total population 9 million. (Yes, that’s right, the broader Australian definition of ‘literally anywhere’ includes almost 15 million other people, ie, 60% of the population.) But the speaker works for a commercial TV network. He has no obligation to think otherwise. He has an obligation to shareholders. It’s possible he only thinks about places as far away as Parramatta because people have TVs there and he needs them to be watching his network. He knows how to make a TV series in Sydney or Melbourne, he knows the people he would use, so why wouldn’t those two places be at the top of his mind?

This is partly why we need the ABC, and partly why we should be resourcing it to do more, and to broaden its geographic production reach, rather than making changes that are going to narrow its scope further. From where I sit, I’m already not sure it’s able to do its job. As far as TV goes, it already feels rather too focused on the 9 million than on the whole almost 24 million of us. Other than news and current affairs, it already has only one TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, and that will now close.

When the ABC stretched to create channel 24 without any additional expenditure, the result was mostly impressive for a zero budget channel, but at times the constraints showed. The breakfast news program offers the best news coverage going, but there have been occasions when I’ve preferred to think of it as In Melbourne Today. The regular in-studio commentators seemed to all be from Melbourne, and I have to admit I once stopped watching for months after one of them referred to the Australia beyond NSW and Victoria as ‘the outlying states’. It was enough to make me veer unwillingly towards becoming one of those grumps who places far too much importance on place-name pronunciation (the Warrego River isn’t pronounced to scan like or rhyme with ‘virago’ – the emphasis is on the first syllable, dammit). That’s what happens when you’re continually getting the message that you’re from somewhere of less importance.

Why does this matter now? Because Malcolm Turnbull says the ABC budget can be cut without affecting programming and Mark Scott says it can’t. That suggests at least one of them doesn’t know how to run a national broadcaster. Mark Scott is cutting, and one of the things to go is the state-based 7.30 shows. This show should be state-based every night of the week – and once was – drawing on the most relevant and important stories from other states. It’s more recently been national, with a state-based show on Friday nights only. It’s going to be cut. Here’s one instance of why it’s important.

When the LNP was elected in Qld in 2012, the Barrett Centre – the state’s specialist inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents – was scheduled to move to a new facility which had yet to be built but for which land had been allocated. Under the LNP government, that land has been sold and the Barrett Centre closed, despite protests and warnings (from stakeholders and experts) that lives were at stake. It was a centre of last resort for teenagers with significant mental illness. In its 30 years of operation, no Barret inpatient or recently discharged patient took their own lives. Within months of the new government’s closure of the centre, despite reassurances that Barret patients would receive top-quality care, three of them had suicided.

The national 7.30 show had four nights a week to cover that story, but I haven’t seen it do it. The state-based 7.30 team have treated it as the serious story it is, covering it twice that I know of, performing multiple interviews and using right-to-information laws to reveal behind-the-scenes details. The coroner is now investigating.

This is what journalism is for. It’s what the ABC is for. It’s one of the things we will lose with these cuts. If that were not the case, 7.30 could have given it national coverage on just about any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday this year. It didn’t.

Perhaps the national 7.30 show meets the needs of the member for Wentworth and the member for Warringah, but the ABC doesn’t belong only to them, or to the other 9 million people in Sydney and Melbourne. As far as I’m aware, we’re all funding it.

The ABC needs to be national, state- and territory-based and even local in both its base and its reach. It needs that for news, current affairs, drama and everything else. I can accept when a commercial network drama boss doesn’t think to make a city-based show outside Sydney and Melbourne – I don’t like it, but I can accept it – but the ABC should be the exception.

Am I saying there’s no scope to do things more economically at the ABC? No. I don’t know the organisation’s finances inside out. The only work I’ve done for the ABC has been on local radio, where I can say staffing levels are lean and pay packets don’t match the commercial equivalents. People in ABC local radio aren’t in it for the money, and they provide a service that no one else comes close to duplicating.

I’ve seen pieces saying that Fairfax faced bigger cuts, so the ABC should suck it up. Fairfax is not the ABC. Fairfax is a for-profit company that has old media at its foundations and the rivers of gold of classified advertising have dried up. It’s a different suite of products, a different model and it serves different masters.

And don’t get me started on election promises, and how this funding cut isn’t a broken one.

Here’s Tony Abbott in 2011, when in opposition: ‘It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.’

Tony Abbott on election eve in 2013: ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.’

Tony Abbott today: ‘This a government which has fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people … Members opposite thought that the ABC was the one institution that shouldn’t be subject to an efficiency dividend. We think it should be subject to the efficiency dividend. The ABC should not be exempted from the kind of measures that are being applied to almost every other part of government. We never promised special treatment for the ABC or the SBS.’

You promised ‘no cuts’, and don’t go telling me I’m too stupid to understand the meaning of something as clear and unequivocal as that. Even if it was reasonable for Malcolm Turnbull to find room for interpretation in a guarantee two words long, his justification was that Tony Abbot meant no cuts to services. And the direct response to the budget cut is a cut to services. This is not merely some back-office tinkering.

Centralising of our urban dramas, the closure of the last non-news TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, loss of state 7.30s, the shunting of Lateline – these are not efficiency dividends. They are cuts to programming, a narrowing of scope and out of keeping with the charter of the ABC. They might not all have an impact in Sydney’s northern beaches or eastern suburbs or Ultimo, but a lot of us – most of us – live elsewhere. News, drama and every other kind of content happen where we are too. The ABC has an obligation to be part of that.

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Cats and the Internet – a Review

Of all the unintended consequences of progress – or perhaps that’s just change – I don’t think any of us could have predicted the impact of the internet on cats. Yes, cats.

Just when they’d breathed a collective sigh of relief that they were no longer widespread subjects of suspicion as medieval witches’ familiars, black cats have found themselves in trouble again. Apparently, they don’t work out as well in selfies, and this is seeing them dumped in increasing numbers for allegedly more selfie-genic tabbies and gingers. Among the burgeoning universe of First World Problems, having to turf your wrong-coloured kitty onto the roadside in order to crank up your selfie virality must rate pretty highly.

Displaced onto a mountaintop in northern Iraq with no food or water and extremists closing in to massacre you? Sure, that’d suck. But when I take a photo of my cat all you can see are its eyes, dammit. Can’t you feel my pain?

Maybe the pressure on cats to boost the appeal of their owners’ selfies wouldn’t be quite so great if it hadn’t been for their dominance in another corner of the internet. While quirky cats pics go back almost to the birth of photography – the Victorians were right into it, putting cats in crinoline skirts and captioning whimsically – it wasn’t until 2007 that a cat first lolled us with a line as winning as ‘I can haz cheezburger’.

It was only with the arrival of the internet that we learned (a) cats can talk (b) thay don no sheet about gramr and spayling and (c) that combo is pretty much a guaranteed crack-up. The web now has close to 15 million hits worth of lolcats. Seriously, if you’re a cat and you’re not lolling, you’re not up to much. Expect to be kicked to the kerb.

But lolcats don’t just haz cheezburger. They’re into everything now. Ceiling Cat is no longer merely watching you attend to your personal needs – Ceiling Cat now has a Bible in her/his language. That’s right. By 2010, the Bible had been translated into lolcat. It’s only a matter of time before, among the John 3:16 crowd clustered at the 18th green at Augusta, we see a tabby holding a sign that reads ‘So liek teh Ceiling Kitteh lieks teh ppl lots and he sez “Oh hai I givez u me only kitteh and ifs u beleeves him u wont evr diez no moar, kthxbai!”’

Is this what the founding parents of the webz were thinking when they bunged together a bunch of networks in the early seventies and realised they’d begun a thing they called ‘internetworking’?

No. Surely they were thinking, hey, if this works out really well, maybe a bunch of people like us will get together over the wires and do something awesomely useful like … translate the Bible into Klingon. Not to worry. Work on that mighty task began in 1994 and continues to this day, though hampered somewhat by the wiki crowd being distracted by hilarious pics of non-black cats, and Klingons lacking any concept of, or word for, God.

(This piece first appeared in Monday’s mX in Australia.)

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Travelling Tight – Three Work Travel Habits I Finally Need to Share (or Confess)

A work life involving a lot of plane travel and hotels can throw a lot of routines out. Or entrench them, and add a few more. For better or worse, I’m in the latter category.

At home I aim to get a run in every day. On a work trip I plan and scheme and go to far more trouble to make it happen, even if I find myself heading at night to the hotel gym, or getting dressed in my hotel room in Melbourne in July waiting for just enough of a hint of dawn to let me head out into the single degree temps for a brisk lap of the Tan.

I’ve made no secret of the running, but here are three valuable things I’ve learned through book tours that I think it’s time I passed on. It’s probably no coincidence that each of them either saves money or gets me something for nothing.

1. The Shampoo Cocktail
Let’s face it – if you’ve got straightforward hair, the differences between most shampoos get down to advertising, and where they erroneously place the acute symbol to make the name look French (try to at least pick a vowel, please). Other than that, I accept that some are creamy and some are clear. But, inconsequential tweaks in fragrance aside, that’s about it.

On the advice of an expert publicist late last century, I keep a toilet bag permanently packed, since it’s much easier than rounding up the individual items each time. Actually, I have two – a seriously compact one for two- or three-days trips and a full one for longer. In neither do I have room for massive amounts of shampoo.

Welcome to the shampoo cocktail. Four- and five-star hotels will always provide shampoo. Even quite a few motels do. So, my first step on arriving in any hotel room with a free creamy shampoo – I prefer creamy over clear – is to top up the bottle in my toilet bag, if it needs it.

Not only is the hair wash no different, but I try to kid myself into thinking the subtle shift of the fragrance with each addition keeps things interesting. And of course, it comes with my preferred budgetary implications: it’s free. In a year in which both the hotels and I are on top of our games, my travel shampoo budget is zero.

2. The Hot Chocolate
The four- or five-star hotel room comes with a notoriously over-priced minibar and a selection of free beverages – regulation teabags, coffee sachets or perhaps a vacuum-sealed lump of coffee for a plunger and two plump sachets of gourmet hot chocolate powder.

Step two after arrival, once my shampoo is topped up, is to place the two hot chocolate sachets in my bag. I tell myself I’m taking them home as a gift for my four-year-old son. And then, in transit, I decide the last thing he needs in his life is more hot chocolate. So, when I get home, I sneak them into the pantry behind the little-accessed Obscure Teas of the World section and from time to time, when it’s just me here on a workday, I drink the hot chocolates myself.

If you think I’m being mean to my son, tell yourself I bought him a dinosaur at the airport. Or a Mr Men book.

The point is, the gourmet hot chocolate in your room is yours to keep. The hotel wants you to take it. Don’t make them sad.

3. Room Laundry
I’ve saved the best till last. I run every day I can so, even on a short work trip, I generate my share of stinky clothes. Do I ask the hotel to launder them? No. At their prices, it would be cheaper for me to bin them and buy new ones but, even if that wasn’t a consideration, there’s every chance I’m moving on the next day, and I can’t tour the country leaving unfinished laundry in my wake. So, that means room laundry.

Room laundry is a science, and should be approached as such. It works for many items, but is at its best for manky running clothes. The return is huge (they’re not great if left unwashed) and, for running clothes, laundry standards don’t have to be particularly high to be more than good enough. On a longer trip, I might have some travel laundry detergent and handwash other items, but for running clothes on shortish trips, I take them in the shower after the run, rinse them in the soap/shampoo run-off, while stamping all over them and continuing until the water runs clear.

Then I wring them out good and hard, and here’s the bit you have to play close attention to: next, I spread a fresh towel out on the floor, spread my clothes out flat on the towel and then roll it up tightly lengthwise. Then I put a foot on one end of the towel, pick up the other and stand and twist the towel, putting some effort into it.

Then I shake the clothes from the towel and they’re most of the way to dry. If you can hang them overnight, they’ll dry every time. If you have to leave right away, you’re packing them merely damp in a plastic bag, and hanging them out can be agenda item 3 in your next hotel room later that day.

This system is close to perfect, but there’s one warning I have to give. The stamping, wringing and towel-twisting all involve exertion. If you’ve just been for a run and get dressed before the wringing and towel-twisting, there’s a real risk you’ll drench your fresh clothes with a new load of sweat. In the interests of not sweating out your clothes and not overheating and sweating when you least want to, room laundry is best performed nude.

Over-sharing? I’m not including pictures.

It’s a great system, but there is a risk. There’s always the fear that a well-intentioned staff member will appear while you’re mid-twist, and you’ll look like you’re doing some strange erotic dance, naked and wrestling a white towel snake of your own making. It’s not easy to explain anything to a stranger while fully nude, and particularly not easy to explain this.

In real life, I will continue to claim I have avoided such an encounter, though I’ve come dangerously close at times. I should really give a lot more thought to the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, but when I get to my room on a tour I don’t have much mind left.

In fiction, though, I could go beyond the near miss. In making Andrew Van Fleet in Analogue Men a work-travel veteran, I could give him my approach to room laundry, but also give myself the liberty of a very different set of consequences …

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My Half-Arsed Book Cover Idea That You’ll Never See

With every book in the months before publication, there’s a wholehearted debate about the cover that no one else ever gets to hear about. This time, for the first time for me, that debate involved buttocks. Buttocks play a role in Analogue Men. Several roles, but this was more than that. I’d done that thing no one really wants the author to do. I’d had a cover idea.

Australians of a certain age might remember the archetypal compilation album of the 70s, Ripper ’76. For those of a non-Australian disposition, let me hasten to clarify that ‘ripper’ is, or was, actually a good thing. Not a late-19th-century murderer of London sex workers, or anything else untoward. Back in the 70s in Australia, to say something was a ripper meant that you approved of it highly.

Which meant that, when Polystar was rounding up twenty of the hottest hits of that year for an album, Ripper ’76 seemed like a ripper of a title. And that created the cover opportunity that led to this:

Ripper 76 Front Cover

It was bursting with wrongness, it was the landmark crass compilation album cover of its time and it was the closest a 13-year-old boy could get to having porn legitimately in the house. The album, sure, it was a great way to have all those songs for one price, but the cover … whoah.

Here’s how it goes in the novel, when my character finds the album in the present, aged 49:

It’s my first close look at it in years, and you can see goosebumps on the cover model’s skin. It was long before photoshop, so the track titles are probably actual writing on an actual buttock, exposed by a savage tear in the short white shorts. In the mid-70s, that album cover bore the promise of some great seamy life waiting in a cooler place beyond the trap of the suburbs. Hip people, shredding clothes, scrawling on butt. Guys lounging in spas with awesome moustaches and proud animal coats of body hair, girls who only ever bought the bottom halves of bikinis and lost them soon enough. All of them high on the kinds of stuff we were lectured about at school, with the record player in the corner pumping out the seductive beats of Ripper ’76.

At some point – and this is where it gets dangerous – an idea occurred to me about something other than the words. A cover idea. An idea that would be striking and familiar to some, and that would send the comedy signal loud and clear, and turn the sexism of Ripper ’76 on its head. And take ageism down at the same time. I wanted a book cover just like Ripper ’76, but with a 49-year-old male buttock emerging from the shredded shorts, with ‘Analogue Men’ written across it.

Not my buttock obviously, since it’s spectacularly toned from all that running and would send entirely the wrong message. A somewhat saggy stunt buttock. A buttock of some anonymous Random House gent of appropriate vintage, because that’s the way publishers used to do it, back when they shot book covers rather than going to image libraries. (One of my editors actually appears on one of my older novels and, long before Underbelly and Offspring, Kat Stewart’s eye apparently featured on one Penguin book cover when she was a publicist there.)

I knew the cover would have its risks. It would only be recognised by some people in their 40s and 50s and the book, I hope, has a readership older and younger than that too. Even then, it was no guaranteed winner whether you recognised it or not. It’d certainly stand out, but would it stand out even slightly in a good way? Also, the discount department stores would run a mile, and they’re 30% of the book industry here now. But would they take the book even with a DDS-friendly cover? That’s maybe a separate question, but why put great effort into meeting their cover expectations if they weren’t going to stock the book anyway? Go for broke. Give the indies something genuinely indie. So the logic went.

Whatever. Once the idea was had, it was had, and it wouldn’t go back in its box. I couldn’t keep quiet and idly accept a straightforward cover when the most dramatic, most noticeable and possibly most awful cover ever was in my head.

I put it to my publisher, and I backed it to the hilt. I told her I wanted her to take it to a covers meeting. If it was going to go down, it was going to down with smoke and flames gushing from its one remaining short leg. It wasn’t just going to peter out in an email exchange between two people and glide silently out of view.

Okay, I knew it would probably never get up, but I wanted it raised anyway. I wanted to send a clear signal within Random House of the kind of book this was and how I wanted to to be handled, and that I wanted something that would really stand out on shelves.

So, how did it fare?

A few of the Ripper-era people in the covers meeting laughed and the younger people were appalled. That’s the actual word used – appalled. There’s no reason not to speak frankly about these things. Apparently, no one in the meeting would pick up a book with a bare male buttock on the cover. It wasn’t the time to ask if the same would apply to female buttocks.

Here’s the cover the book got instead:

analogue men cover

That’s the result of exploring my second idea, that of working with the title. My actual suggestion had been to create an eye-catching logical inconsistency by, for example, having a man using the mouthpiece and earpiece of a circa-1900 phone, with the leads connected to a smartphone instead of a walnut box with a rotary dial. But an image library could give us the guy and the cracked tablet, so we went for that. It’s eye-catching. It’s ‘guy versus tech’, or at least perplexed by it. It tells you something about what’s inside.

But what would have happened if that Random House covers meeting had inexplicably embraced my idea, taken pen to age-appropriate male butt and given me the cover I’d suggested?

You’d notice it, but would you run a mile? Would you think I’d lost it?

How do you think the book might have fared?

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