You Gotta Have Art

My Journey to the Top of the Best Seller List

“You Gotta Have Art” was a series of TV commercials that aired in the 1970s to promote the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is also an accurate description of what you need for your front cover when you publish a book.

The snappy jingle from those commercials kept running through my mind when it came time to choose a cover for my book, The Guardian of Detritus. GoD is my twisted tribute to Detroit, the place where I was born and raised. It is filled with references to Detroit people and places, and I knew I wanted the cover to reflect that content.

I also wanted it to help sell some books.

The people that know these things say the average amount of time a person in a bookstore looks at the front cover of book before deciding to explore it further or move on is eight seconds. Someone browsing for a book online spends even less time looking at the cover. For your book to have any chance of attracting readers you have to grab ‘em by the eyeballs and pull them in. Fortunately, I knew just the person for the job: legendary underground artist Robert Crumb.

One of the characters in GoD has a drawing in his office taken from Motor City Comics #1, a comic book published by Crumb in 1969. The drawing shows a stocky man in a suit punching a casually dressed thin man in the stomach and saying, “Don’t’ criticize Detroit unless y’can back it up, chump!” Full disclosure: I am a long-time fan of Crumb’s art who fell in love with this drawing the first time I saw it more than 45 years ago. I still have the comic book it appears in, which is an incredible Crumb homage (Cromage?) to people and places in Detroit, as I tried to do with my novel.

When it came time to develop a cover for my book, I immediately thought of this drawing. It is the perfect illustration of the style and tone I was going for in the book: a kind of comic crime noir, gritty and old school, but also funny. It was my dream cover, but I understood the reality of it as well: I figured my chances of actually getting to use it were extremely remote.

To begin with, my publisher, Aventine Press, would not put the drawing on my cover without the permission of the artist, a policy I understood and agreed with. So I asked them to design a cover with the drawing on it, and two without it in the very likely event that we needed an alternative. Then I set about the quixotic task of getting an eccentric, reclusive, artistic genius agree to let me use his work to help promote my work.

The only way I could imagine going about it was to try to contact him using the Internet. I had read somewhere that a lot of creative types – writers, artists, filmmakers, etc. – were supportive and generous with struggling newcomers, especially if you approached them with respect and restraint. I doubted this very much, but I tried it anyways. I sent an e-mail explaining what I wanted to the person who handles the sales of Robert Crumb merchandise. Not an exact fit, but it was the closest thing to a contact for him that I could find.

Then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I had almost given up, and was ready to approve one of the alternative covers created by Ryan Ratliff, the extremely talented graphic artist that Aventine Press uses to design its covers. It was a brilliant design that looked like the cover of a pulp fiction crime novel from the 1950s. Of course, it wasn’t the even more brilliant design Ryan had created that incorporated the drawing by my lifelong idol, but I had been preparing myself for disappointment from the start.

Then the impossible, or at least the very improbable, happened.

I received e-mail from Crumb’s literary agent, who is based in Paris. She said that Robert, who lives in France these days, would consider letting me use his artwork, but first he wanted to read my book. Could I send a PDF file of The Guardian of Detritus to them?

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes… I could send Robert Crumb a PDF file of my novel so that he could read it. If nothing else ever happened in my literary career, I would be perfectly content to have written a book that Robert Crumb had read.

Shortly after I sent the PDF, I received permission to use the drawing for a small fee. I’m not sure if Crumb read my book or not, but I like to imagine he did. I also like to imagine he really enjoyed my book, so much so that he gave me permission to use his drawing. Of course, I also like to imagine my book will journey to the top of the best seller list.

I have a good imagination.

There was one final hurdle to overcome: Crumb didn’t have a copy of the drawing anymore, so I was on my own when it came to finding the artwork for my cover. No problem there – as I said earlier, I still have a copy of Motor City Comics #1. The drawing of the two men on the cover of my novel is taken from that comic book.

Click on the Home button above to check it out, but don’t criticize it unless you can back it up.

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