Phil Campbell’s asthma-inducing book jacket quest

I’ve said it before, but my friend Phil Campbell’s Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics is a blunt, hilarious assessment of an idealistic and ultimately ill-fated city council bid he managed. Campbell indicts not only his own small-time Seattle campaign but the race-to-the-middle mindset that pervades all aspects of contemporary politics. If you’re looking for solutions, or for even the tiniest atom of hope, Campbell’s definitely not your man. But if you’re interested in a cold, hard and highly entertaining look at the situation the American left finds itself in, give his book a try.

Here Campbell writes about his search for Zioncheck‘s cover.

My book is named after Marion Anthony Zioncheck, a young radical from the 1930s. Elected to Congress the same year FDR was elected President, Zioncheck was a legendary boozer, a terrible driver, and a relentlessly idealistic politician. When he realized how difficult it was for one man to change the world for the better, Zioncheck went insane. He had an eight-month long public breakdown that involved arrests, violence, front-page tabloid articles, involuntary commitment to a sanitarium, and a tragic ending that I will not give away in this essay. Marion Zioncheck is the patron saint of the book.

As a writer with no graphic design experience, I had no idea how someone would come up with a book cover involving these themes. My book was so deeply personal to me, in the way that all books are deeply personal to their authors, that I toyed with the idea of asking the editors to just leave it blank like the White Album, or like the early edition of George Orwell’s 1984, which was kept simple, as were many books that were published in the first half of the twentieth century.

Zioncheck for President‘s first cover design was created by Evan Sult, a friend of mine who appears in this memoir. Since the book is (mostly) about a grassroots, DIY political campaign in Seattle, it made perfect sense to have someone who had a cameo role in the book also contribute to it artistically. DIY, in fact, is the best way to describe Evan’s approach, since he decided he would just make a cover image for me, and after we had worked together on it a little we would submit it to my editor on ‘spec.’

I exhorted Evan to create a book cover that exploded with theme: idealism, obsession, madness, failure, and hope. Also, ambiguity and contradiction. And, while I was at it, no goddamn images of Seattle’s Space Needle, which would only make readers in New York and Cleveland think this was a regional book; it may not be red-state read, but Zioncheck for President is more than just a city-council elections story.

This is what he came back with. Here’s Evan’s run-down of what he hoped to convey:

  • The composition itself is meant to imply an American flag.
  • The staircases leading into–or out of–the center are hopeful but also connote death.
  • The halo of light bulbs intimates both hope and idealism; the one burnt-out bulb alludes to Marion Zioncheck’s failed mental faculties in 1936.
  • The empty room and the crowded, dim bulbs on the ceiling suggest someone against whom the odds are stacked.

I was entranced by Evan’s cover. He had created a complex work, and elegant work; or at the very least, he had designed something that didn’t echo the cover work of all the other books out there, an embarrassing problem exposed by Galleycat last year.

But could I trust my own reaction? This is my first book, and every little step towards publication has felt like a joy ride in a stolen car: unreal and intoxicating. Just seeing my name for the first time on a proposed cover was enough to cloud my judgment. Doubt began to gnaw at pleasure. Having spent three years alone, writing, slowly transforming a stuffy political diary into an aggressive political campaign adventure, I was now being confronted with work that was not my own, but which had a real chance of influencing my book’s chances of success.

And had I been too hubristic in my instructions to Evan? Was the cover too high-concept, too busy? Was this jacket too artistic and not — I couldn’t believe I was thinking this — commercial enough? What really separated those realms, anyway?

I debated with myself: There’s a lot between the covers of my book that’s not Zioncheck’s story. This book is, at heart, a quasi-gonzo memoir about a Seattle city-council campaign, with a subplot about a power-hungry housemate who seems to hate my guts. Shouldn’t I have requested the kind of cover more likely to be found on a pulp-fiction novel, something that punches you in the face instead of invites you to take a seat?

Evan wanted to know what I thought, and was willing to make whatever changes I requested, but I had no idea what to tell him. Change one element of his design and this complicated system of symbols would fall apart.

In the end, none of this mattered, because my editor rejected the proposed cover with very little hesitation. He didn’t give me much of an explanation, other than to say that he didn’t think it would work. So Evan’s efforts were in vain, and I was privately relieved that a decision had been made for me.

When I received the publisher’s first cover mock-up (at right), I was reminded of a scene in Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel.

Earbrass stares at the cover he receives from his publishers and is appalled: “Even after staring at it for twenty minutes, he really cannot believe it. Whatever were they thinking of? That drawing. Those colours. Ugh. On any book it would be ugly, vulgar, and illegible. On this book it would be these, and also disastrously wrong.”

I looked at this design and felt punishing waves of regret. I should have fought for Evan’s cover. The central image to Nation Books’ cover is a pair of outstretched arms holding up a sign that bears the book’s title. In the background there is what appears to be a crowd of protesters. The subtitle — the wrong subtitle — is at the top, and my name’s in white letters on a red background at the bottom.

The image was certainly singular in nature, not at all the complicated weave of symbols Evan’s cover had been. Which was what I thought I wanted. But singular images like this convey singular messages, and this absolutely wasn’t the message I wanted to convey. This is a 16-year-old boy’s — or some stoned hippie’s — idea of what activism is: Going into the park with some other earnest people and holding up a sign. Say what you think, chant a little, change the world, it’s that easy. This is the very type of activism that I turn my back on in Zioncheck for President.

Moreover, this cover fails its own claim as an outsider protest image: The font on that sign is some software company’s idea of handwriting. It looks like our anonymous protester wants to buy the world a Coke, not stand up to The Man.

At least they got the arms right. I really am that skinny. But I tan better in the sun, and I have a Shelley Jackson word tattooed on my left forearm. And how did the subtitle get changed? After some thinking, I realized that that this was the subtitle from my original book proposal, which is now two years old. That was before I had a strong idea of what I was doing. With a subtitle like “A True Story of Idealism and Activism in Liberal Politics,” there’s little wonder the designer came up with that image. I’m betting he or she never even had a chance to read the book.

The hardest part about making the transition from bitter, anonymous writer to bitter, published author is learning how to speak in terms that the publishing industry understands; I knew I had to put forth an argument against this cover, but I didn’t know how.

Around midnight, after drinking a few shots of Maker’s Mark chased down by a couple of Budweisers, several hours after I received this image, I emailed my editor. Four times. Each increasingly hysterical message I sent, I came up with stronger reasons why this cover would be inappropriate for my book. In short, I found myself speaking in commercial terms. I told my editor that the ‘wrong’ demographic would be picking up my book at bookstores, solely as a result of this cover. Without maligning that demographic (don’t we need as many liberal idealists in this country as we can get?), I described the difference between ‘those readers’ and ‘my readers.’ Those readers were folks who were looking for something to read that will simply support their progressive worldview, leaving their coherently Naomi Klein inspired, Chomskyian-Marxist perspective intact while the rest of us wallow helplessly in today’s thoroughly up-ended, corrupt Republican universe.

Meanwhile, my readers — well-read, generally disgusted and jaded progressives — would refuse to give Zioncheck for President a second glance.

As it turned out, I was lucky. My editor supported what I was trying to do. He went back to his colleagues and argued on my behalf. “You’re putting an Abba cover on a Black Sabbath album,” he said. To my relief, he won the argument. The designers started over, from scratch.

One day I went to Amazon’s website to forward someone the link for my book entry, and I saw that the first jacket image had been slightly edited. The subtitle, specifically. Now it read Zioncheck for President: A Tale of Madness and Idealism on American Politics.

A tale? Doesn’t a tale suggest fiction? I had worked my ass off to make sure this book was factually accurate. It’s all true, with a few carefully noted exceptions. I really did lose my sex drive trying to win a city council campaign. Our volunteer coordinator really was doing crystal meth. My temperamental candidate really did kick my car so hard he permanently dented it. This is the stuff of rich personal memoir; I’m sure I would have written it differently it if had been a product of my imagination.

And what of “on American politics”? I won’t go into the ‘on,’ as that is so egregiously wrong it needs no commentary, but who came up with “American”? It sounded so academic, like it needed to be part of a subtitle with a dozen clauses, and all my sentences run on for fifteen lines and I’m going to show up at readings wearing a wool cardigan and an ascot, my eyebrows twisted into a manufactured arch as I read between sips of sparkling water poured from an ornate carafe for an audience hooked on This American Life that chortles delicately to each of my carefully wrapped bon mots.

Was I over-reacting? Falling out of my chair, I fumbled around for my asthma inhaler.

I hadn’t been consulted on these changes. Should I have? Should I check my contract to see what I had agreed to, whether the publishers had the right to change stuff like this so arbitrarily? Where was my contract, anyway? I had probably ruined it with one of my incessant, anxious, meaningless doodlings.

Found my contract. My book is North American rights. Were we going to market heavily in Canada? Were Canadians so sensitive that subtitles had be clarified to this degree? Don’t they know Seattle isn’t part of British Columbia (Given Seattle’s cool personality, perhaps not)? Canadians really irked me, anyway, always getting stuff right, like having less gun violence, fewer prisons, universal health care, and approving gay marriage with nary a reference to the Bible or the collapse of “family values,” whatever the hell that was. We were obviously not going to accept that they’re better than us, so shouldn’t we boycott those hockey-playing yahoos, starving them of our organic tortilla chips and Rolling Rocks?

Who the hell was I kidding? I wasn’t going to boycott anybody.

I’m not much of an activist anymore, though I do give to the ACLU when despair strikes me hard enough. This book’s about the implosion of idealism, when you get to the point where you realize that, as an individual, there’s little you can do to change the worst things happening in our society. Frankly I’m amazed that Nation Books is publishing this — didn’t you read the end of the book, fellas? I’ll spoil it for you: This is a book about losing.

Maybe I’m not qualified to be writing about idealism. I’m just another guilty white liberal who grew old and disgusted. I went from wringing my hands helplessly over the state of race relations in Memphis, Tennessee, to gawking in confusion at anti-globalist protest in anti-WTO Seattle, to running a failed grassroots campaign, to working a day job for Rupert Murdoch in midtown Manhattan. That’s right — Rupert Murdoch! It wasn’t intentional, but it happened. It’s a job, it pays the rent and provides my medical insurance, so I’m not quitting any time soon.

At least Sam Lipsyte, who wrote Home Land, and was recently named one of “The Ten Funniest New Yorkers You’ve Never Heard Of,” thinks I’m funny. He called Zioncheck for President “hilarious,” and “a wild and tender campaign memoir that reads like a deadpan comic novel.” Mo Rocca says I’m “funny and refreshingly bitter.” The Boston Globe‘s Kate Bolick calls my book a “rare personal story that merits widespread attention” as well as an “incredibly candid portrait of idealism and disaffection.” And The Huffington Post’s Michael Schaub (also of Bookslut) said Zioncheck was “the rare political book that’s both genuinely sad and funny.”

So that’s something. I’m a former police and politics reporter, but I’m also the guy who once organized 22 Phil Campbells and one Phyllis Campbell to meet me for a weekend in Phil Campbell, Alabama, an experience I wrote about for Might Magazine.

I wish it were December already, so I could stop fretting about book promotions and start working on some other project, one in which I am decidedly not a central figure.

Fortunately, the cover search story has a happy ending.

I received the cover pictured at right from my publisher in mid-June and have been passing it around to people ever since. The colors, the atmospheric photo in the background, the playfully designed title and subtitle … somehow it all seems to work, in a way I could not have conceived on my own. The designer had restored the subtitle’s “true story” and let go of the “on” in favor of the grammatically logical “in.” (They also told me to chill the fuck out). And somehow the “American” they slapped into the subtitle made sense; there was no chance of mistaking this for a regional book now.

Although I still like the cover I got from Evan, I had to admit the blurbs I received from Mo Rocca and Sam Lipsyte didn’t seem to fit with that cover as well as they did with this one. Evan’s book cover seemed to need blurbs that praised the restraint and thoughtfulness of my writing. “Deadpan comic novel” seems out of place as a phrase on Evan’s cover, but it fits right in with the newer Avalon cover.

So, after months of being immersed in the publishing industry, I saw another crisis come and go. Now all I have to do is get smart people like you to buy my book.


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