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Burt Levy, "The World's Fastest Novelist"

Burt Levy calls himself "The World's Fastest Novelist"-not because smoke comes out of his fingers when he's typing, but because he races sports cars, and writes and self-publishers novels about the racing world. One of his books, The Last Open Road, is in its 5th printing, with over 30,000 sold.

The fastest he's gone, on land, is 188 miles per hour, "in a GT 40 Mark II, a sister car of the one that won LeMans for Ford in 1966. The car would do about 210, but on the track, there wasn't enough space."

The slogan has created a strong marketing hook, and a lot of interest. But what's made the biggest difference has been levy's active pursuit of the car enthusiast crowd. "Our best market has been through our own distribution system, at race track gift shops, car museum shops, catalogs that don't traditionally carry novels. We were in a catalog called Griot's Garage, but they took us out because Ferrari didn't like our logo."

Why was he at BEA? "We're here to take another run at the traditional bookstore market, which has always been very hard for us. Our books don't fit a particular genre, the mechanism doesn't exist. In the literature category, I sit between Doris Lessing and Sinclair Lewis--so people only find me if they are looking specifically. We've begged them to put them with the other automotive titles, but it's hard. Their systems don't operate that way." so he gets shelved with general-interest fiction.

"Where we were unfortunate is that none of the mainstream publishers wanted to touch it. They rightly assumed that it wasn't right for a traditional bookstore fiction buyer, most of whom are women. Unlike most fiction, we had an identifiable niche market and we knew where we could find them. It allowed us to make quite a success. And we persevered.

"Most of our successful marketing has been aimed at the vintage racing/old car guy niche. The first master stroke of genius came from my wife, Carol. We made up a bunch of posters, and put them where everyone could see them. I went to take a leak and she and my son had put them in every urinal and portapotty. We got a lot of publicity based on the potty posters. I got invited to do a lot of color announcing at some of the tracks. I knew the cars and most of the drivers, and I got exposure.

"I started racing in 1970, in a $600 Triumph TR3. Had a wheel come off my second day in the car. On my way to becoming a race car driver, I became a mechanic, and I didn't know anything about mechanics." Still racing at age 58, he's won over 80 races, all amateur. "I drove two years semi-pro, we got a second in a 24-hour race. I'd wanted to race all my life. Once I got to that first rung pro ladder, I discovered pro racing wasn't what I wanted. You're traveling all the time, there's a lot of pressure--my teammate would be that little tiny bit quicker. If you can't beat your own teammate, you're just going to be another guy in the middle of the pack. But I discovered I could write my way into cars I could never dream of affording. I write for a couple of different magazines, where for each issue I take out a different car.

Still, being a racing journalist doesn't necessarily prepare you for the challenges of self-publishing and marketing. "For every press kit you send out, every door you knock on, 80% close before you get a word in. You just have to keep after it. We'd been trying to get into the Chicago Tribune forever, and finally got in to the magazine just because of a contact I happened to make."

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