I suppose I should start by plugging my books. Always start out by plugging your books. You may never get another chance. So here goes. The Last Open Road is a hopefully funny, worthwhile, and entertaining coming-of-age story about a 19-year-old New Jersey gas station mechanic set against the backdrop of postwar open road sports car racing in the Eisenhower 50s. It was originally self-published (in July of 1994) for one very simple reason. Nobody else wanted anything to do with it. “Oh, it’s a wonderful story,” as one particularly snotty and arrogant young lady in the New York publishing business told me, “but those people don’t read!”
So, with my wife Carol’s trembling approval, we took out a second mortgage, formed our own publishing company—Think Fast Ink, and published it ourselves in July of 1994. Our necks were stuck out a country mile! If this thing flopped, our son might not be going to college. Fortunately, the book got great reviews (none, I might add, in the mainstream “book” media—more on that later), sold out two hardcover printings (about 12,000 copies at 25 bucks each), and became something of a cult classic on the old car hobbyist/motor sports scene. Or to put it less delicately, among those very same people who “don’t read” that the know-it-all New York publishing lady warned me about. Ultimately The Last Open Road attracted the attention of St. Martin’s Press, who bought the rights and released a slightly edited and revised edition in May of 1998.
Every aspiring novelist’s dream, right?
Then why on earth would we want to go back to self-publishing for the sequel, Montezuma’s Ferrari, which we released in July (and October—more on that later too) of 1999? Simple. It was a better deal.
Conventional Wisdom holds that self-publishing fiction is a good way to: (a) Go broke, (b) Drive yourself to drink, (c) Entertain recurring thoughts of suicide, and (d) All of the above.
But, hey, if all anybody ever listened to was Conventional Wisdom, the earth would still be flat, women wouldn’t vote, and we’d all head down to the corner barber shop for a good bleeding any time we felt poorly. I’m here to tell you that there are ways to successfully self-publish fiction. And make money at it too. But you’ve got to start by thinking “outside the box” of that old Conventional Wisdom. You’ve got to identify your core target market—Who the heck is going to want to read this book?—and figure out how and where to access them. And you’ve got to treat it as a business too.
At least if you like to eat….
But first, a little background of how I got to the world of self-publishing.
I’ll start with an admission—I’m a hopeless car junkie. There, I’ve said it. And probably lost three-quarters of my audience. Or at least that’s what that old Conventional Wisdom would have you believe. I don’t know where the attraction came from—certainly not from my parents, who were properly appalled by my addiction to cars and racing. But from about as far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated by it. Particularly European-style road racing, which has a more upscale, well-educated, and higher demographic following than your average one-quarter-mile drag race ejaculation or slam-bang Saturday night demolition derby at the local dirt track. Fact is, it’s a very technical, cerebral, sophisticated, and demanding sport—on many different levels—and addictive as hell once you get the bug.
And that’s mostly what I daydreamed about when I was growing up. Becoming a great racing champion. Either that or a great writer. In fact I flip-flopped between those two romantic notions the way young girls change outfits before a big date. But the point is, around my folks’ house anyway, it was okay to believe in your dreams. In fact, it was encouraged. Although my dad was a successful packaging salesman, he saw himself as something of a free thinker and after-hours philosopher—”a beatnik in a gray flannel suit” was the way he liked to put it—and there are a few things he told me that really stuck with me over the years. Like: “If there’s something you want to do in this life, you’d better DO it, because you’re a long time dead!”and: “There’s only one thing you need to know in life, and that’s what you need to do next!”
I took a bunch of creative writing courses in college during the 60s (hey, who didn’t?) including one of John Schultz’s very first—and excellent!—Story Workshops at Columbia College right here in Chicago. But I got bored with school and dropped out to Head West and write one of those Great American Novels that never get much past the first few paragraphs. I remember I wound up in Boulder, Colorado, working as a dishwasher in the basement of the Boulderado Hotel and living in a tiny room on the top floor with little more than a bed, a nightstand, a shared bathroom down the hall, and a small desk topped with an antique typewriter I bought out of a resale shop with my very first paycheck. Oh, yeah. And a cigar-box-sized window looking out towards The Rockies for inspiration. There was no doubt I had all the credentials to be a successful novelist (shaggy hair, well-worn denim work shirts, and an overpowering sense of self to name but three), but like a lot of young writers, I really didn’t have all that much to say. I guess I was more in love with the notion of being a writer than moved by some urgent, inescapable story I needed to tell. So mostly I wrote poetry. And the reason I knew it was poetry was on account of no way could any of it be mistaken for prose….
Eventually my hippie odyssey ended (i.e.: I got tired of sleeping on floors and watching early AM TV test patterns to see how the plot developed) and so I came back to work for my dad’s packaging business in return for a sizable Pound of Flesh in the form of my very first race car. And lest you think I’m one of those silver spoon kids who got a shiny new Porsche attended by mechanics in crisp, white lab coats with suspiciously thick German accents, let me assure you that this was the saddest, sorriest, most used-up, piece-of-dogmeat Triumph TR3 in the known universe. Not that I knew it at the time. All I knew is that it took every cent I could beg, borrow, and scrape together—some $600 all told—to buy that thankless old destroyer of dreams. And that was just the tip of the damn iceberg as far as begging, borrowing, and scraping together went. Or as my wife will cheerily explain: “The only thing stupider you can do with money than race cars is to pile it in the street and set fire to it. But at least then it’s all over with and you’re spared the ongoing grief and agony.”
Did I mention that she’s a hell of a sport?
I wanted to go racing in the worst possible way. And that’s exactly how I did it. But in spite of countless failures, frights, and disappointments (I had two wheels shear off—at speed!—in the space of my first three races), I was hooked more than ever. I loved the pure sensation of speed, the addictive balance of risk and control, the yin-yang paddock relationship between competition and camaraderie, and especially the demand for quick, sure judgment and grace under pressure in racing situations. People on the outside will never understand that race driving on a good road course—at least when you and the car are hooked up together and everything’s going right—is more like playing music or dancing than anything else. There’s a marvelous flow and rhythm to it. There’s also a quiet, peaceful, almost Zen-like center nestled inside the focused concentration of race driving that nobody who’s never experienced it will ever understand.
I loved it all.
But it was costing me a fortune….
And that’s how I turned to writing again. To help pay for my addiction and get a little notoriety for myself on the racing scene. Almost on a lark, I’d written a story about the car we had when I was sixteen—hey, everybody remembers their first car!—and sent it off to a magazine. They rejected it, and as I’m sure you can imagine, I was thoroughly crushed. But I stumbled on it again when I was cleaning my desk a few months later and figured, what the hey, why not send it someplace else? And there’s a lesson here: Be relentless! Never give up!
So I sent it off to another magazine and they liked it and published it and even sent me a check. I’d actually gotten paid to write about cars! Although I had some difficulty forcing myself to cash it, since what I really wanted to do was walk around with that check stapled to my forehead.
Eventually, piled atop of a mountain of cruel lessons, broken parts, unpaid phone and electric bills, and assorted other embarrassments, I started to win a few races and bush league local championships. By this time, my wife and I had sold the albatross of a sports car shop we’d quit two solid downtown jobs with decent benefit packages to open (Mellow Motors at 747 Wrightwood on Chicago’s soon-to-be-trendy near North side) so I could pursue my destiny as a racing champion.
I told you she’s a hell of a sport. (Either that or the most gullible woman on earth!)
Anyhow, we’d worked three hard, thankless years at it, I’d done less racing than ever, and by all rights, we really deserved to go bankrupt. I mean, as much as I loved sports cars—and I loved them dearly—I really didn’t know all that much about fixing them. And in retrospect, that’s where a lot of my stories and characters came from. When you think about it, humor always has its roots in adversity, and equally so, the seeds of eventual success are most usually sown in failure. In any case, I knocked around the motor trade for a while—I’d be damned if I was going back to my dad’s packaging business with my tail tucked between my legs!—working as a service manager and later as a car salesman for a fancy import dealership downtown. I also moonlighted as a minor league stunt driver when the movie The Blues Brothers was shooting in Chicago and made all the local papers when I was summarily relieved of a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow convertible at gunpoint on a test drive.
Chalk up two more stories!
I was also racing an Alfa Romeo on the National circuit, sponsored in part by the dealership, and doing pretty well with it. In fact, I qualified for the National Championship Runoffs at Road Atlanta (sort of the Olympics of American road racing) and endured the Week From Hell down there when one thing after another broke, blew up, fractured, or fizzled out. We wound up stumbling to eleventh place with a Frankenstein motor built in the dirt and the darkness the night before while guys I’d been beating all year long ran second and third. Damn.
I’ll never forget that ride home from Atlanta, driving a borrowed van—one of those cheap jobs with no sound deadening material so it’s like riding inside a kettledrum for 15 hours—with our sad old Alfa hitched behind on a similarly borrowed trailer. I owed everybody, every credit card I had was at the redline, and I had absolutely zero prospects for anything better to come. I looked over at my wife sitting beside me and at our four-year-old son Adam sleeping in back, and I remember thinking there was just no way I could do this anymore. Not like this….
But you forget stuff like that when you have the bug—like I said, it’s an addiction—and I was ready to try it all over again come spring. Even though On Track magazine had rung me up about being a race reporter that summer. “Oh, no,” I told them, snickering up my sleeve, “I’m a racer, not a writer.”But then my mechanic, Eric, who had been with me through every long-distance tow and every garage all-nighter, wanted to go through race driving school. With me as his instructor. Only, at the very last minute, the car he was building wasn’t ready. And so he asked if he could borrow mine. I remember that night distinctly. My wife was in bed beside me, silently mouthing the word “no” even as I heard myself saying, “Sure. Okay. Why the heck not…”
Visualize my mechanic Eric on his first solo lap in driving school. See him rounding turn six at Blackhawk Farms Raceway in my freshly rebuilt Alfa Romeo. See him get sideways. See him slide off the track. See him roll over. And over. And over. Fortunately without injury. See the crushed and twisted lump of metal that used to be my racecar. See me calling On Track magazine: “Say, you guys remember that race reporting deal you offered me a while back….”
This turned out to be another of those Blessing In Disguise deals, as it ultimately led to more stories and feature articles and eventually even regular columns in several magazines. Plus what has certainly been—aside from my family—the happiest and most startling surprise of my life. I discovered I could write my way into cars I could never even dream of owning! Vintage racing was just catching on, and soon I was racing and track testing many of the great (and not-so-great) icons of motorsports history. Everything from spindly old MGs to Le Mans-winning Ferraris to Grand Prix single seaters to thundering NASCAR stock cars—and all under the thoroughly transparent pretext of “writing magazine stories about them.” And getting paid for it too!
So what has all this to do with self-published fiction? Well, let’s start with the first and most basic truth: You’ve got to write what you know. Or at the very least, you need to be comfortable, conversant, and familiar with your subject or genre. Nothing smells worse than bullshit, and people will never pick your book up once they catch a whiff. Secondly: Have a story to tell. This is so obvious, and yet it’s so regularly and wrongfully ignored. Thirdly, and most importantly, ask yourself this: “Who is going to want to read this book?”
Remember that last one. It’ll be back.
So why did I decide to write a novel about automobile racing? And particularly open-road sports car racing back in the early 1950s (when I was personally about seven years old)? Well, to begin with, I pretty much hated all the racing fiction I’d ever read (or worse yet, seen on the screen) because it just didn’t capture that life the way I knew it. The magic of the cars and the skill, thrill, and risk of speed. The incredible characters: genuine heroes, even more genuine idiots, black sheep heirs of famous fortunes, long-suffering wives, dangerous Other Women, and especially the broken-down racing bums who can’t really afford to be there but can’t help themselves because they’ve got the bug. The wild, roller-coaster race weekends and lonely gypsy road trips in between. The invisible sea of money running just under the surface that it all needs to float on. And most especially, the singular brand of gallows humor that forms a special bond between racers and sets them apart from the rest of the world.
Plus it wasn’t just another lame racing potboiler about some genius hero driver who can win in almost anything but finds no meaning in his life. It was a genuine story, told from the viewpoint of Buddy Palumbo, a blue-collar kid just out of high school coming of age in the Eisenhower 50s. A real, three-dimensional kid with family problems and girlfriend problems and the same, incurable, and unshakable case of Car Lust I knew so well from my own experience. Buddy’s dad is a union shop steward at a big chemical plant over in Newark and wants the kid to take a nice, safe, solid union job with a secure future and benefits. But all Buddy wants to do is hang around the corner Sinclair station fixing busted cars. And spending a little time with the station owner’s niece, Julie Finzio, a wannabe fashion illustrator who waits tables at the Doggy Shake down the street, cleans up the office at the Sinclair a few days a week, and whose prospects aren’t much better than Buddy’s.
Then one of the station’s customers buys a Jaguar—one of the first in the country—and Buddy essentially becomes a racing mechanic for balance of the summer. They follow the 1952 racing season exactly as it happened, only with my fictional characters and the issues of their lives interwoven with the actual people, places, and events of the time. I was very careful with my research (in fact, my original goal was to capture a bit of history in readable, narrative form), but somewhere along the line, the lives and interactions between my fictional characters got a whole bunch more interesting than the era I was trying to capture. I don’t know exactly how that happened, but it’s probably the heart and soul of good fiction writing. When your characters start to move on their own—when they surprise you!—that’s when you know you’re onto something. And also when you really need to chain yourself to the keyboard—even when you don’t feel like it—to see how it all comes out.
It took me about eight years to write The Last Open Road, but a lot of that was giving up in anguish (“I’ll never get this done!”) and then trying all over again a few months later. Or putting the manuscript up on a shelf at the beginning of racing season, then taking it down again in the fall, starting over from the beginning to “get myself up to speed.” For the first five years, about all I did was rewrite the first 200 pages five different times! But like anything else you do for the first time, the important thing is developing a methodology and learning how to do it. How to force yourself to write every day even when you know it sounds like crap. How to evolve your story while you’re working on it and keep track of time, place, characters, and continuity. How to do the necessary research so the narrative rings true.
Hey, if you don’t believe it, nobody else will!
Most important, you’ve got to find your voice and style. I tried writing a novel in third person omniscient a couple times, and it simply didn’t work for me. I was too far away from the action and far too formal with it. In fact, that’s where Buddy came from. He’s part of the action, but not really one of the stars. I call his style “First Person Barstool,” and if I do it right, it sounds like Buddy’s sitting on the next barstool, telling you how things are in his life and spinning a few racing yarns.
Sadly, anybody with half a knack can fill up reams of pages with action, description, and dialogue. The problem is that finally, somehow, you have to get to the end. And that takes persistence, compromise, realistic goals, and rock-solid discipline. Plus, above all else, encouragement and trust from the people you count on. I never could have done it without my family. Rightly or wrongly, they believed in me, and that was the fuel that kept me going, even when I wasn’t sure where.
OK. So I finally finished the damn thing. Now what? Well, like most aspiring writers who figure they’ve just finished the next Catch 22, I sent it off, unheralded and un-agented, to every major publisher in Manhattan. Then I waited for all those big, fat offers to start rolling in. Only instead I got rejection slips. One after another. Some were nice enough to say that they liked it—even liked it very much—but that the subject matter was a major problem. Or as that one particularly rude young New York publishing lady told me (I believe they must breed them out there): “Oh, it’s a wonderful book. But there’s no market for it. Those people don’t read….”
But you can’t really blame her (although I surely did!). Publishing—and especially big-time fiction publishing—is a risky business. It takes a lot of money to put a book out, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg if you’re trying to promote a new writer that has no following and nobody ever heard of. Especially when every new title from every major publisher springs forth draped in accolades and often trumpeted to be, surely, “one of the year’s 10 best.” Add to that the fact that the current—and colossally stupid—marketing strategy is to have a huge pile of every hot new title stacked to the ceiling in every single Borders, Barnes & Noble, and mom-and-pop bookstore across the nation. To give the public an idea of just how scalding hot your new title is. So even on a good, solid best-seller, you could be talking 40%—or more!—returns when all is said and done. Which is why all the major publishing houses prefer to put their money into More Of The Same from their already established authors. It just makes sense.
Anger and frustration can be tremendous motivators. They can cause you to do things you would never dream of if you weren’t so damn pissed off. And right at that moment, with the phone receiver still shaking in my hand, that’s when I decided to get into the publishing business. In fact, “I’ll show YOU!”was about the full extent of my game plan.
In Part II, Burt Levy learns to how to become a successful fiction publisher.