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:
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:
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?
Hi NIck, I reckon I could be your biggest 22 year old fan and I read Analogue Men regardless of the cover. I think the saggy stunt buttock would have been better than the cracked iPad though. I wouldn’t have gotten the Ripper ’76 reference, but I think it gives more of a Nick Earls flavour to the book. Shame on those appalled younger people in the covers meeting!
I’m now thinking the UK cover of Bachelor Kisses was all your idea after all.
I know. It’s a bewildering turnaround, isn’t it? I only thought about it after writing this post. My defence – and of course I have one – is that that cover just looked a bit sleazy to me, and sleazy sold the book short. I’m happy to accept that my Analogue Men cover idea actually sells that book short too – it’s about far more than middle-aged bare arse – but unlike the BK cover, I hope it operates on a number of levels, and might actually amuse some people. There might still be those questions about reading it on public transport, but maybe slightly less so, since it looks less like porn. I think. Would if have turned readers off in droves? Quite possibly, and that was my main argument against the BK cover.
I would have picked up the reference loud and clear – I have the album in a dusty box somewhere (no analogue gear to play those round black things on these days). I would offer my 47 yr old buttock, but I am afflicted with a genetic mutation that maintains my glutimus maximus tight and bouncy, no matter how much TV I watch. I am the envy of all my male friends (yeah right – due only to the buttocks of course). Not that I flash it around in ripped up shorts outside ’76 ripper parties. Look forward to the read …
I know it’s hard, but I think in the end you’ll do better with the one without the buttocks. Good luck! Dani
I recently won an authentic original copy of Ripper ’76 in a trivia quiz at a friend’s 5oth. I’ve never been happier. PS The book sounds fantastic—just listened to the podcast of you on Books and Arts Daily. Looking forward to reading it.
A grand prize indeed. I was staying at a friends’ winery the weekend before the book came out, and they revealed that vinyl is their big new hobby. They’d picked up a turntable and are rapidly accumulating vintage LPs for 50c to $1 a time. I mentioned Ripper ’76 and out it came …
Noble work, Nick, and I’m chuffed you had enough impetus (nostalgia? cojones?) to walk your cover idea through the hallowed halls with pride. Perhaps Random House is ready for rebranding? Cleverly-Engineered-To-Appear-Random House. Margins are so tight these days that surprising covers are an endangered species – your bum cover would have worked, but the safe cover is good. Sad to have a good cover on what promises to be an exceptional book.