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The LitKicks Visibility Program

an interview with Levi Asher
by Caryn Thurman

The LitKicks Visibility Program, an innovative publicity service targeted at independent artists and publishers, will launch in October 2002. Caryn Thurman asked LitKicks founder Levi Asher a few questions about this launch.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the LitKicks Visibility Program?

Asher: I produced a digital movie on a CD-Rom a few years ago. I had a couple of thousand dollars to spend on publicity, but there was no venue in which to run my ads. Strangely enough, even if an independent artist or writer has money to spend on advertising, there is nobody who will take his money.

Q: Why is this the case?

Asher: Newspapers, magazines, TV and cable networks all sell advertising space to large companies. They don't have time for small players. Say you were to call your local cable company, or call Time Magazine, or even call a major website like Yahoo, and say you wanted to advertise your poetry chapbook, or your band's CD, or an excellent video short you just finished directing. Then say you tell them you have less than $5000 to spend. If the person on the other end of the phone is polite, maybe they'll tell you to try running a classified in your local "Pennysaver". More likely, you'll just hear a fast click.

The indie artists of the world deserve better! We are proud of the books, CD's, videos and movies we are creating on our PC's and Mac's, in our garages and basements and living rooms. We are tired of handing out handbills and putting up posters. Visibility is what we want and need.

Q: What exactly do you think you will be providing independent artists that other online sponsorship or ad programs do not?

Asher: First of all, we're making it very easy to create and run an ad. And we're making it cheap. I think those are two important things.

I should mention that this concept has been pioneered by other websites, mainly Google. They began a text ad program about two years ago that targets small businesses instead of the large companies that usually advertise on major websites. The LitKicks program was inspired by Google's success with this concept.

But what we're doing is taking Google's concept and targeting it right at a single group of advertisers: independent writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers. This is the second thing we are providing. I think of it as a challenge. We're trying to shout to the chapbook poets and unpublished novelists of the world, come on out! Show us your best stuff. If you think your work is good, if you think it's ready, show it! We are providing the way to show it, and the place.

Q: You say you're making this an easier and faster way to gain visibility... so what exactly is the process?

Asher: You go to litkicks.com and click on the link for "Visibility Program". This is an online form where you enter in a few pieces of information about the work you want to advertise -- the title of the work, the name of the artist, a short description, and the URL of a website where the work is either for sale or on display. You can also provide a single, small graphic image, a 90 by 90 JPEG. The ads are text format, which makes them both lighter and easier to create (another great idea we took from Google).

Once the information is entered, it will be reviewed and approved by LitKicks staff, and the advertiser will then get an email with instructions for payment via PayPal. PayPal is a very friendly and safe online credit card transaction system -- the same one used by eBay and many other companies.

Q: Can an advertiser sell their books or CDs or other products through your website?

Asher: No. You are required to have your own web page if you want to sell something. The whole point of your ad is to take viewers to your website, or your own page on Amazon, or wherever it is that you are offering what it is you are offering.

If somebody has no experience setting up their own online payment system, though, I strongly suggest they check out PayPal. It's incredibly easy to set up your own commerce website to sell whatever it is you have to sell. I've used them for years and never had a problem. Amazon is pretty friendly to independent publishers as well.

Q: How are you able to spotlight a product to a large audience for only $75?

Asher: Web advertising is cheap! It always has been. For $75, you get 10,000 ad views. That doesn't mean 10,000 individuals. It means 10,000 times somebody will click on a page with your ad. Maybe they will look at it. Maybe they won't. $75 for 10,000 is known in the industry as a $7.50 CPM, which is really an average price for this medium.

Q: Will you be providing any kind of summary reports after the ad run is complete? How will the advertiser know if the ad was effective?

Asher: You know the ad is effective if people click through to your website. It's up to you to have a compelling title, a good descriptive phrase, an attractive image. Other websites provide summary reports to advertisers, but we believe this to be unnecessary. We are trying to run this service in the most streamlined way possible, and we've concluded that summary reports are not worth the trouble. The measure of effectiveness is increased traffic and sales, and you can monitor this yourself.

Q: LitKicks is a site devoted to literature, but I understand you are not just limiting this service to books. Why is that?

Asher: I think people who are into fiction and poetry are also into music, film, digital art, internet culture, etc. The Visibility Program is for anybody who wants to reach the kind of people who come to LitKicks -- bright, sensitive and sometimes hyperintellectual people. Nerds, in other words. But not math nerds or science nerds -- literature nerds. We're a unique market segment!

Q: Do you think the concept of do-it-yourself promotion will take root among writers and poets?

Asher: I have sensed a serious lack of indie spirit among writers and poets, a sense of defeatism in the face of the monolithic world of big publishing. This is partly because of an unfortunate stigma against self-promotion in literature.

It's not easy being an independent or self-publishing artist in any field. But at least DIY filmmakers and musicians get some respect from the established companies in those fields, because a hot new digital video director, songwriter or musician is supposed to be an entrepeneur, is expected to publicize his or her own work tirelessly. But an unknown writer who tries to publish and promote his or her own work is stigmatized with the insulting term "vanity publishing". This unfairly minimizes the talents and vision of hardworking and serious writers who choose, for any number of reasons, not to spend their time knocking on the doors of large corporate publishers.

I would love to see the LitKicks Visibility Program help to create a sense of solidarity and strength in numbers for independent writers. There is so much talent out there! This can be seen on the LitKicks writing boards, where poets and writers all over the world can be seen displaying a wide range of styles, talents and voices. It can be seen at poetry slams and coffeehouse readings, or in the "chapbook" shelf at a few enlightened bookstores -- there are a few left -- that allow poets to walk in off the street and place their books for sale.

Q: But doesn't the process of selection by major publishers help weed out the unworthy works?

Asher: Look at the movie business. Would a major studio have ever financed the early films of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch? If you have an original vision, you may be wasting your time trying to squeeze it through the tiny, tiny funnel of major-league publishing. Take it to the streets instead.

Of course, we do not believe that every unknown writer is a worthy talent. But we strongly believe that some are. I recently read a Salon article where Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post basically dismissed the entire industry of independent publishing, claiming that no worthy manuscripts are being rejected by the major publishing companies. Here's the quote: "I'd be a little bit surprised if work of real merit is getting lost out there. I've always said there is no such thing a a really meritorious book that can't get published." I find it incredible that a major book critic would believe this. No, Candide, the contemporary publishing scene is NOT the best of all possible worlds!

In fact, I think the stuff getting published these days by Random House, Simon & Schuster and Doubleday is pretty weak. This is the pinnacle? Ask the average man on the street to name an exciting literary writer who has published a book in the last ten years, and he'll ask: "Can I say Stephen King"? It's time for some fresh air. I'm not saying the LitKicks Visibility Program is going to change the world. But I think it's a step in the right direction, and I hope it will help.

Q: What happens if someone comes along with $75 in their grubby little paws trying to sell something that may be of questionable content or quality?

Asher: That's a good question. Well, the first rule is, let the buyer beware. Traditionally, advertisement does not imply endorsement of any kind. LitKicks will not be endorsing these works -- these are paid advertisements.

Q: But advertising venues are selective in what they put in their visible space. You won't see an NRA ad in Rosie Magazine.

Asher: You won't see an NRA ad on LitKicks either. Yes, we reserve the right to reject any potential advertiser at our own sole discretion. And we will exercise this right.

We will not review the artistic quality of the works submitted, but we will reject anything that is grossly offensive or hate-filled. We'll follow the same standards we use in other LitKicks community areas. Artistic erotica is fine. Racial or misogynistic violence is not.

Q: How do you intend to attract advertisers outside of the LitKicks community?

Asher: I think we'll just rely on word of mouth. We'll see how it goes.

Q: Why are you so passionate about independent artists?

Asher: Hmmm ... well, I have just always rooted for the underdog. The indie artist is the underdog. It's the same reason I'm a Mets fan instead of a Yankees fan.

Also, I think media conglomerates have way too much control over arts and literature. I've worked for companies like Time Warner and Sony, and I've learned a bit about how their publishing divisions work. The view from the inside will not warm the heart of any hopeful indie artist. You've heard the cliche that it's all about money? Well... it's all about money. I don't like this.

Q: When can we expect the LitKicks Visibility Program to launch?

Asher: Mid-October, I hope! We'll be launching a general site redesign at the same time, and adding a few new literary genres on the front page. I'm pretty psyched about it all.



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