Selling Books from the Pits

The boom in popularity of NASCAR auto racing has carried over to the world of books. Fans have all the usual suspects to choose from: Chicken Soup for NASCAR, NASCAR for Dummies, and all manner of encyclopedias, books of trivia, history, humor and even tell-all books from the pits.

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Burt Levy, the World's Fastest Novelist:

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As a young man, Burt Levy had two dreams: to drive great race cars, and to write great novels. Since then, he’s won over 70 auto races and eight championships, driving some of the world’s fastest and most famous automobiles.

Now 58, Levy has been a race driver, mechanic, shop owner, racing instructor, exotic car salesman (he once had a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow convertible taken from him at gunpoint on a test drive), and even served as a stunt driver when The Blues Brothers movie was shooting in Chicago.

The man has long understood America's love affair with cars and racing and early in his career began writing regular columns for national auto racing magazines. He originally started writing about motorsports "as a way to get my racing fix for free," and has done fairly well at it, covering major races, winning a few journalism awards, and “writing his way behind the wheel” of literally hundreds of famous and sometimes priceless old racing cars.

In 1983, Burt started to fulfill his second life’s dream and began working on a novel about racing.

"I always hated all the fiction I'd read or seen on the screen about racing,” he recalls. “It just didn't capture that world the way I'd seen and experienced it. I wanted to show the grease and grit and gallows humor, the gypsy lifestyle and the crazy, incredible characters you only meet in racing."

For a hero/narrator, he created a 19-year-old New Jersey gas station mechanic named Buddy Palumbo, who finds himself learning about life and love even as he's sucked inexorably into the glamorous, wild and dangerous world of open road sports car racing during the Eisenhower Fifties.

It took him ten years to finish that first manuscript -- working, researching, getting discouraged, giving up -- and getting a second wind and starting up again. But, he persevered and finally finished it, only to have it turned down flat by the New York publishing establishment and "virtually every major fiction publisher in the country." Some of them liked it, but felt there was no market for “car” fiction. Or, as one New York publishing executive rudely put it: "THOSE people don't read!"

But Burt thought otherwise, so he and wife Carol decided to take out a second mortgage and publish the book themselves.

The Last Open Road debuted at a Road America race weekend in July of 1994. With all their money tied up in books and no advertising budget available, Burt and Carol's promotional efforts were limited to photocopied "potty posters" taped up over urinals and inside porta-johns at racetracks where Burt was driving and the books were on sale. Discrete "The Last Open Road" decals started cropping up on racecars, collector cars and tow rigs all over the country.

“Marketing your books is the job that never ends,” says Levy. When you have some success, get some favorable comments, score some good publicity, you need to spread the word to everybody you can think of.

Word-of-mouth testimonials spread, claiming that The Last Open Road was true to life, utterly hilarious, and it struck a chord with anyone who knew and loved cars or racing. It earned excellent reviews in both the mainstream and motorsports press, with several reviewers likening Buddy Palumbo to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's coming-of-age classic Catcher in the Rye. Another writer called it "the best motorsports fiction ever encountered."

“You always have to be hustling for new types of media stories beyond the ordinary book review,” says Levy. “In our case, we also contacted the automotive and sports media (because of my background in automobile racing), the business sections (because of the way we used sponsorship and advertising to pay the production costs), the features/human interest sections (for the way my wife, son and I put our “potty posters” up where I was signing and selling books) and any media tie-in we could find with fifties history and nostalgia, since that’s the era when the stories took place.”

“We also made sure to barrage the local media beforehand wherever I was going to do an event. Mind you, most of this effort winds up in a trash barrel under somebody’s desk. But some of it works, too. I personally think that the mentions, features and interviews you get outside the conventional ‘book’ media may do more good and have more impact.”

After selling out two printings (about 12,000 copies), The Last Open Road was picked up by a major New York publisher, St. Martin's Press, and re-released in May of 1998.

It sounded like every struggling novelist's dream, but there was little in the way of promotional budget or effort, and the book languished in book stores. In fact, Burt and Carol sold more copies through their motorsports-oriented distribution network than St. Martin's ever did through the traditional fiction market.

Now, ten years later, The Last Open Road has grown into a full-blown trilogy. Levy kept on writing about Buddy Palumbo, spawning the two sequels Montezuma's Ferrari and The Fabulous Trashwagon. He also ramped up his marketing technique somewhat, moving beyond porta-johns to a technique that had also been right in front of him all along…

The sequels books broke new ground in the publishing world by being the first novels EVER to be funded –- just like the motorsports he writes about -- through in-context sponsorship and advertising sections. The books have interior ad sections, tastefully designed to resemble vintage auto journals. The ad revenues paid for deluxe hardcover printings, and the technique brought attention to the books.

Montezuma's Ferrari won a Benjamin Franklin "Book of the Year" award for this "novel" concept, and the money raised allowed Burt and Carol to buy back the remaining copies and rights to The Last Open Road from St. Martin's. Even Publishers Weekly enthused: "Levy is a marvelous storyteller, as adept at explaining the intricacies of a Jaguar's engine as he is at recounting the bewildering family dynamics at a Thanksgiving dinner."

The Last Open Road celebrates its 10th anniversary this July, and has established itself as a genuine cult classic on the vintage racing and collector car scenes. Now in its fifth hardcover printing with over 30,000 copies sold, it's become the most successful and celebrated motorsports novel of all time, and is on the recommended reading lists at many libraries, high schools and colleges.

“Always look for the next step or tie-in that will lead you to another potential market,” says Levy. “I give talks at libraries to would-be writers about writing and publishing. I do slide-show presentations for car clubs at their annual banquets. I even gave a talk at a high school to a combined English Lit and Auto Shop class! The point is that you’re always selling; always spreading the word. Always look for new eyes and ears that haven’t heard about you or what you’ve written.”

“Book stores are maybe the worst place to sell your books. I know that sounds odd, but unless you have an established name and following or some mega-publisher ready to blow a kazillion-dollar publicity campaign on you, I’m afraid you’ll find the crowded, cluttered, screaming-for-attention shelves of major book retailers a pretty forlorn place -- even if you have gotten a few nice reviews. Plus, the discount structure and returns issues of the retail bookstore market can make it your least lucrative and most frustrating venue.”

“We’ve done better on both counts seeking retail distribution opportunities relating to our core interest market even if they don’t normally carry books, least of all fiction books. For example, we’ve had great success with museum and racetrack gift shops, traveling event vendors and hardcore specialty catalogues aimed more directly at our core niche market of vintage auto racing enthusiasts. Go where your market is!”