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Innovation Is Desperation Turned Inside Out, Or, World’s Fastest Novelist Tells All

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The only reason my wife and I self-published my novel The Last Open Road was that it had already been rejected by just about every “real” fiction publisher in the country. A few of them liked it, but felt that mainstream readers wouldn’t be much interested in a coming-of-age story about a 19-year-old New Jersey gas station mechanic learning about work, life, and love during the era of open-road sports-car racing in the Eisenhower ‘50s.

I have to admit I’ve been kind of a car junkie all my life. I’ve raced cars, fixed cars, sold cars, written about cars, and even filled in as a Hollywood stunt driver when the movie The Blues Brothers was shooting in Chicago. I argued that there was a huge audience out there, filling the stands at all sorts of racetracks all over the country. But as one particularly rude and arrogant young New York publishing executive told me: “Those people don’t read. And, if they do read, they most certainly don’t read fiction!”

I wasn’t so sure. So my wife and I took a deep breath, got a second mortgage, formed our own company and published The Last Open Road in 1994. To say we had no idea what we were doing is putting it mildly. But we pushed ahead and persevered, and today The Last Open Road is in its fifth hardcover printing with more than 30,000 copies sold and has become a genuine cult classic on the motor-sports and collector car scenes. It’s also, I’m proud to say, on the recommended reading lists at seademl libraries, high schools, and colleges. Better yet, it’s grown into a trilogy with sequels–Montezuma’s Ferrari and The Fabulous Trashwagon–and all three titles continue to find an expanding market worldwide among those “people who don’t read.”

Total retail sales are now in excess of a million dollars, and most of them occurred outside the conventional publishing and book-retailing world. These are some of the things we did and some of the lessons we learned:

Aiming at Automobile Enthusiasts

Over the eight years it took me to write that first novel (much of it spent trying, giving up, and trying all over again), I don’t think I ever asked myself the all-important question: Who, exactly, is going to want to buy this book? Nope, I just had this story I wanted to tell and this strange cast of characters rolling around inside of me, trying to gnaw their way out. I figured if I could just tell it with enough humor, honesty, accuracy, and enthusiasm, people would want to read it. And if I could just get it published, into bookstores, and praised to the heavens in a few foaming-at-the-mouth reviews, everything else would take care of itself. I didn’t figure it would be too hard, either, since I was absolutely convinced the book would be brilliant . . .

Right.

What we learned is that the competition for media attention in the publishing world is overwhelming, that niche publishers have a hard time getting access to it, and that finally breaking into the wholesale distribution network and getting your title onto the shelves at Borders or Barnes & Noble is no guarantee that anyone is going to pick it up and buy it. Which meant our only hope was that unproven core market of automobile enthusiasts–you remember, those people who don’t read? We went after them with everything we could think of. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but we kept on pitching. And that’s one of the real keys. Marketing is a job that’s never over until you’re ready to give up and throw in the towel.

The first thing you’ve got to ask yourself is, What sort of people might be interested in my book? What are their interests? Their demographics? What sets them apart? And then you’ve got to think about how to reach them. Where can you find them? What do they read and listen to?

Potty Posters and Other Promo

Once you’ve zeroed in on where you might reach targeted potential buyers, you need to come up with creative ways to spread the word. Face it, conventional media advertising is horrendously expensive and largely ignored, and it requires a barrage of costly repetition to have any value. The big guys do it because they have to, but it’s not for you and me.

Because we knew that our audience went to races, car museums, swap meets, and car shows, and also that they read a lot of magazines and club newsletters that had nothing whatever to do with novels, that’s where we went to find them.

I’ll never forget our first weekend with The Last Open Road. We’d decided to debut the book at a big vintage car race in Wisconsin, and we figured it was a good fit because I was racing there that weekend, I already had a small reputation with the fans and racers thanks to my magazine columns, and the racetrack and a rather infamous nearby tavern were settings for key scenes in the story. As it turned out, the very first copies were sold right across that tavern’s notorious beer-stained bar.

I made a deal with a racetrack vendor who sold mostly videos, diecast models, and racing memorabilia to do a book signing from his booth in return for a percentage (40 percent off the cover price if he owned the inventory, 25 percent if I did). Then I created some cheesy 8_” x 11″ flyers announcing the book’s debut. We didn’t have anything in the way of blurbs at the time, so we simply called the book “the flat-out fastest, funniest, most true-to-life racing novel ever written”– hey, who was going to argue?– and played up the notion that I was the “World’s Fastest Novelist.” Which I think I am, unless somebody else in the literary world has topped 180 miles per hour.

I told my wife and son to put the posters up “where everybody would see them,” but later in the afternoon I noticed I hadn’t seen any and started wondering if my wife and son were goofing off. Then I went to the john to get out of my racing gear and realized instantly that they were both marketing geniuses! They’d put my posters up in every bathroom and Porta-Potty on the premises. Talk about a captive audience.

Since then we’ve gotten something of a reputation for our potty posters–in fact, we’ve gotten quite a bit of media coverage thanks to them alone–and we still advertise that way today when I’m signing books at racetracks and car shows. Of course, some tracks and show venues don’t like it, but I’ve always figured that forgiveness is a lot easier to come by than permission, so we just do it and live with the fact that many of the posters will be torn down. I can assure you that going from one porta-john to another at the crack of dawn armed with a stack of posters and a roll of tape is not the most glamorous part of the publishing business. But it works. We’ve also learned a little bit about proper placement: over the urinals in the men’s rooms, next to the mirror in the women’s.

How We Parlay Publicity

Can’t get The New York Times to review your book? OK, how about a Jaguar club newsletter? Or an old-car Web site? The point is that the smaller and more focused the publication, the better the chance that it’ll give you some serious ink.

Always look for a fresh angle. Large publications or small, news directors and assignment editors aren’t much interested in Please read my book. The key is subject matter tie-in. They need to know why your book will be interesting to their readers. While conventional book media unanimously ignored The Last Open Road when it was first introduced, we got stories and reviews in car-enthusiast magazines, newsletters, and Web sites large and small all over the world. And we did it by sending out copies and press releases and staying in touch and writing and calling and pestering and following up.

The good news for us was that a lot of gearheads out there–you remember, those people who don’t read?– fell head over heels in love with The Last Open Road. Two reviewers compared it to Catcher in the Rye and another called it “the best motorsports fiction ever encountered.”That, of course, gave us ammunition for another barrage of press releases, phone calls, and e-mails and some more hot copy for our potty posters at the racetracks and car shows.

We still constantly seek local print stories and radio and TV interviews wherever I go to do a book signing at a race or car event. We have a package we send out to try and pique interest, and we always follow up. The point is this: if you’re lucky enough to get good publicity, you want to use it to get even more because that will fuel the best publicity of all–word-of-mouth.

Doing It with Decals

Taping posters up in porta-johns provides one kind of visibility, and media stories and interviews provide another. But we found a third when we gave out simple, tasteful little The Last Open Road decals with every copy. They’re roughly 2″ x 10″, and we made them in “cappuccino cream” (for dark finishes) and “hearty burgundy” (for light finishes). Pretty soon they started popping up on racecars, sports cars, classic cars, tow rigs, motorcycles, toolboxes, and beer coolers all over the country. Canada and England, too. We even started selling them, and they’ve turned into a nice little profit center (they cost less than 50 cents each and we sell them for $3 apiece or two for $5).

We’ve also added silk-screened and embroidered-logo shirts, caps, pins, temporary tattoos, and even an art print of the street-corner gas station where the whole saga started. Each of these items creates more interest in the books.

A New Way to Pay for Production

After we sold out two printings of The Last Open Road (about 12,000 copies), a major New York publisher (St. Martin’s Press) picked it up and rereleased it in a somewhat edited form to the conventional bookstore market in 1998. You’d think it was the answer to a dream. But it didn’t quite work out that way. St. Martin’s didn’t put a lot of promotional money or effort behind the title, and it turned out that we were selling far more copies through our network of track vendors, museum gift shops, specialty catalogs, and event signings than they were through the trade.

Before long, we were back on our own. But I had an idea. It had occurred to me that the big problem with book publishing is that all your costs are front-loaded and the expense of printing a book is a pretty big nut to try to cover one copy at a time. So why not pay for producing a book the same way motor-sports teams are funded–with advertising and sponsorship? It was just one of those wild, flashbulb-pops-in-the-middle-of-the-night ideas, but it turned out to be a good one.

We designed a full-color, 32-page advertising and sponsorship section, to be bound into the book, and formatted it as a fictitious old-car-nut magazine from the same era as the story. It was a pretty easy idea to sell based on the success of the first book and the obvious shelf life of the advertising, and it brought in $55,000 in just eight weeks, which paid for printing the new book and buying back the remaining copies and the rights to the first one. That “novel” idea worked so well we’ve used it on all the books I’ve written since.

The Endless Road to New Readers

Conventional wisdom in the publishing world holds that the shelf life of a novel is six months to a year. And yet The Last Open Road and its sequels continue to find new readers and exposure 10 years after the first novel’s debut. But that’s in part because we’ve kept hustling, kept sending out copies and press releases, kept trying to find new ways to expand awareness of the books. I do book signings and slide-show presentations at car-club banquets, talk about writing and publishing at libraries, and have even addressed a combined English lit and auto-shop class at my old high school. Plus I’m off to race events and car shows all over the country almost every weekend from March to November to race a few cars, get material for columns and articles, do a little color announcing, sign books, and, most important, spread the word. You have to be relentless, because nobody’s going to do it for you. I still hold out a slim hope that, based on the unprecedented success my titles have had with “those people who don’t read,” they may even find acceptance in the fiction mainstream someday.

But I’m not holding my breath.

After a brief “noncareer” as a professional driver (wheels fell off in two of his first three races), Burt Levy turned to writing about cars “as a way to get my racing for free.” His columns and articles appear in national magazines and have allowed him to “write his way” behind the wheel of hundreds of famous and sometimes priceless racing cars (see the photo gallery at www.lastopenroad.com). He is now working on a fourth novel, an audiobook version of his first novel, and an art show of classic racing cars.

 

From the potty posters collection. The copy under the author’s name in the “Here this weekend” box notes, among other things, that Burt Levy will be “signing and otherwise defacing copies” of his books.

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