Friday, 6 February 2009

The Story of a Book Cover.

First, there was a book, a biography of Timothy Leary. When it was first written, it looked like this:



Clearly, it needed something. It needed a cover. And a publisher too, come to that. The publisher thing took a while, so while I twiddled my thumbs I turned my attention to the cover.

I knew that I didn't want it to have a groovy Sixties retro cover. I wanted it to look vaguely contemporary and relevant. This was late 2005, and the whole Banksy thing was still underground but starting to rumble. Fearing that I would end up self-publishing, I went out and photographed my back wall and I came up with this:



Please worry not for the sake of my back wall; the rendering has since been repaired and painted.

Also, I did not spray Leary graffiti on the wall. That would have been crazy. Instead, I mangled a photograph that I found online in Photoshop. I liked the way this image of Tim went with the title - while it was still blatantly a joke, the title and the image together made it a little more deadpan. (The photograph, incidentally, was taken by Robert Altman, whose recent book The Sixties is loved by all who see it.)

Enter Clare Christian and the The Friday Project, who - hurray! - wished to publish it. Clare was named Young Publisher of the Year shortly afterwards, and I can only assume that those two things must be related. Not only that, Friday liked the cover idea, and planned to use it.

The only problem was, it wasn't that good. It was a bit beige.

Ed Bramfit from the TomTom gallery helped enormously here, he took me to one side outside a pub in Soho and argued that such a book needed to look vibrant. He later mocked up the following to show just how crazy we could go:




Yowser. That woke me up.

I sent it to the publishers to scare them. They agreed to come up with something a bit more full on.




Argh! What the Hell is that? This suddenly appeared out of nowhere - Lord knows who did it. Leary had become a bemused ghost, wandering past my dirty wall, fretting about crimes of typography. Worse still, this was actually printed, as an uncorrected part proof, and sent out into the big wide world. Copies started to appear on eBay. Clearly, things were Going Wrong.

Slightly panicked, I returned to Photoshop again, although I had not developed any design skills in the meantime, or indeed any new ideas.




But all was not lost. Friday got a different designer on board - Denise Wilton from Kaius Design. She took the blue wall I photographed for the above (a wall in Brighton's North Laine, wall-fans) and started doing all sorts of marvellous things with it, such as:






And of all the designs, we went with:




Meanwhile, Barricade Books (my publisher in the US) sent through this:



Which with a bit of refinement became:



And everyone was happy. The books were released into the wild, proud in their colourful garb.

A year or so later, however, and the book was sold out and needed to be reprinted. Enter Scott Pack, now Commercial Director of The Friday Project. Scott had been Head Buyer at Waterstones. If you listened to journalists, he was one of the most powerful people in publishing and the literary world was littered with the bodies of his enemies. But what everyone agreed was that he was a man who Knew Things about book covers. And he wanted re-badge the book in a cover that looked less 'small press'. He wanted a cover where Leary was smoking a fag:




That was one possibility, nice and culty. Looking at it again, I'd forgotten how much I like that one. But we didn't go with that in the end. The winner was:




A bit solemn, true, but it now looked authoritative - especially as the book was reprinted on paper that made it twice as thick. It had become a serious slab of a book, one that would occupy the 'L' section of the Biography shelves for years to come. No other Leary biography would dare to muscle in for fear of angering it. You don't mess with a book like that. You certainly don't look at it funny.

That, then, is the face of the book in the long run.

But the old 'graffiti' look was not going to disappear that easily. If it could not be a book cover, then it would be graffiti instead. I found these on flickr:





These photos were taken in an abandoned bomb store in Snowdonia by the photographer abstract_effects. (It looks like a stencil was used, so if anyone has seen this graffiti elsewhere then please let me know.) The original idea had to pretend that people had been spraying Leary and his slogan on the wall. Now that idea had, without prompting, become real. I can't help but think that there is something magical about that.

I have spoken to a number of writers about this. There is broad agreement that awards, high sales and good reviews are all great and very welcome, but nothing really beats discovering that someone you don't know has sprayed your book cover on a wall.