Paul Levine is 63 years old, but that didn't stop him from reinventing himself -- for the second time. In the 1980s he was a successful trial lawyer. Then Levine began writing mystery novels, publishing 13 of them, and selling 400,000 copies of a single title.
It worked great until a single button disrupted Levine's life: the "Buy Used" tab on Amazon. The link, which launched in February 2010, is a killer app for finding used books. But it's also a killer app in the sense that it kills authors, because they don't make a dime from it. An author with dwindling royalties in a fast-changing industry, Levine realized he'd better be proactive -- or else.
While researching the industry, Levine noticed many authors publishing e-books for as little as 99 cents. Levine had an epiphany. To survive, he needed to reinvent himself as a digital publisher, distributor, marketer, and even PR machine -- not an easy transition for a solitary writer. "I didn't have a grand plan," he says. "I was fueled by fear and desperation." He had to embrace digital media, but he was all about dead trees. "I didn't have a clue," he says. "Not a clue."
Not having a clue is a feeling many reinventors face. The key for Levine was not being intimidated. "You just learn from scratch," he says. "I love learning by doing." Happily, much of that learning was free online. After studying Amazon's "Direct Publishing" page, Levine bought the rights to his backlist, which authors are able to do with out-of-print books. Yet covers belong to the artists, so to create new artwork, he did what any reinventor with a dwindling bank account would do: He got his teenaged neighbor to make new covers on his Mac.
Levine may have the same career, but his job has radically changed. Whereas Levine used to spend 95% of his work life writing and 5% selling, he now spends 50% writing and 50% marketing, all online. Every morning he first checks his book sales, then posts thoughts on books and culture on book forums and Facebook and looks at what his 4,859 friends have been doing. To get reviews, he offers free copies of his book to other authors. "We're not competitors seeking to carve up a limited pie," he says. "We're trying to bake a bigger pie."
Levine released his first e-book on June 14, 2010. Since then he's put up one backlisted book a month, making around $2 per book. He's projecting an increase of 30% to 40% by Christmas. And he's happy. The upshot? Reinvention isn't easy -- it's often terrifying, requiring that you admit what you don't know -- and figure it out. It requires believing in yourself at a challenging time. But as the stories here make clear, it can be done.
--Joan Caplin and Tara Moore contributed to this article.
David Kahn almost went bankrupt from his dozens of Blockbuster franchises. Now he's back with Yogurt Mountain franchises. More
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