"Look," says Lyle Kenyon Engel, "I expect to get $750,000, maybe a million for this book. Up front. So start writing."
The impresario of paperbacks is talking on the phone from his home near his "novel factory" in rural New York. Engel will not say which of his 80 writers is on the other end of the line (their real names are a closely-kept secret), the caller is important -- he (or she) knows the home phone number.
"Ten weeks? Of course you can write the book in 10 weeks...
"Don't worry about expenses. I'll take care of expenses. How much do you need, $5,000 a month? Not that much?
"Look, I expect to get $750,000, maybe a million for this book. Up front. So start writing."
Engel, proprietor of Book Creations Inc., calls himself a "book producer," which means that he does for books what Cecil B. DeMille did for movies: He decides what the public wants to read, gets an advance contract with a publisher, and then makes it happen.
Paperback publishers welcome a call from Engel, because the record shows that what Engel likes will be liked by millions of readers. His name never appears on best-seller lists, but it shows up frequently where it counts.
"You won't find the name of John Jakes on any of the contracts relating to the Kent Family Chronicles," Engel remarks with pride. There also is pride in the way he opens a file to bring out the statement of royalties he paid to Jakes for one six-month period -- more than $400,000.
Engel dreamed up the series for the Bicentennial and assigned Jakes to write it. There are now 26 million books of that series in print. His latest production is an expandable four-part series entitled "Wagons West," detailing the adventures of a group of pioneers in the 1830s going out to settle in the Oregon territory. Bantam Books, which published the first volume this month, ordered an advance printing of 750,000 copies.
In view of Engel's consistent penchant for fast-paced historical adventures -- with an emphasis on children and dogs -- it is easy to criticize his operation. One writer, who does not work for Engel, says "It's Grub Street all over again -- it's the writing factory." But such complaints are rare, even from Engel's competitors. "There are many roads and only one destination -- best-sellerdom," says publisher Bernard Geis. "We both get more than our share, and I wish him luck."
Engel says his aim is to produce "a good read" for a large readership, and the sales figures say he is right on target. "We are not creating great literature," says Engel, "but we are not creating junk. The reason we're not creating junk is that there's no money in creating junk."
Engel combines the roles of agent and editor for his writers and has exclusive contracts with about 40 of them. In contrast to the usual agent's fee of 10 percent, Engel divides publisher's payments with his authors "50-50, right down the middle," and what he does more than justifies his price. "Fifty percent of $1 million is a lot more than 90 percent of $100,000," says Dana Fuller Ross (not his real name), author of the "Wagons West" series.
Ross reports happily that he "made more money with Lyle in eight months than I had made previously in my whole career as a writer. Before I went with Lyle, I was using nine names. Now, I don't count any more."
Ross uses up a typewriter ribbon every two weeks, and the fourth volume of "Wagons West" will be his 200th book. Now under exclusive contract to Engel, he says he has "a dozen books on paper and God only knows how many in various planning stages." "Independence," the first volume of "Wagons West," was his ninth book for Engel, and three more have been written since then.
One of Ross' books (under another pen name) will be the lead release of another paperback publisher in June. Ross will have two series coming out simultaneously, from two publishers, under two names. "I don't tell the publishers who my authors are when they are writing under pen names," Engel confides. "But once in a while one of them makes a smart guess, and if they do I won't lie to them."
Going for the Money
Ross "was a little suspicious at first," Engel recalls, "and we did two books without a contract before he would sign. But it worked very well. I never ask a writer to do anything he doesn't want to. He has to believ in it, enjoy it, or you lose the sparkle and spontaneity."
Ross, professional writer for 30 years, explains his decision to go with Engel simply: "I was nominated for a Pulitzer six times and never won it. Now, I know I never will win it. So I decided to go for the money -- make some money and have some fun."
Another writer who went for the money is Roberta Gellis. She uses her own name (as does John Jakes, who is now glad that he made that decision), and is something of an exception to the rules.
For one thing, she confesses, "I can't write about Americans. I blame it on the way I was taught American history. I told Lyle I couldn't, and he managed to take it in stride. Engel's best-known efforts usually deal with America a century or two ago. Gellis is the author of the "Roselynde Chronicles," which are about England at the time of the Crusades. "America really comes too late for me," she says, "I'm basically a swords-and-bows-and-arrows girl."
Unlike Ross and others, she adds, "I'm a very slow writer. I can only do about 1,500 words a day. Other professionals, as distinguished from -- what shall I say? -- literary giants, are faster.
"And I have trouble writing about children and animals. Lyle is crazy about dogs and children, but they drive me up a wall. "They don't always fit into the action of a story, but you can't just abandon them like a piece of furniture while you write about other things."
Engel explains his affection for animals and children this way: "A lot of actors refuse to play with animals or children because they steal scenes. The reason they steal scenes is because people like them so much."
The subject comes up again in a phone conference with "James Franklin Wallace" about "Wings of the Hawk," a forthcoming volume in the American Southwest series. Part of the conversation is technical: "He has to buy more bullets and gunpowder in that place; we can't have him just shooting and shooting without any supply"), but a lot of time is devoted to Lobo, offspring of a wolf and a dog in an earlier volume:
"We don't have Lobo in this outline. What you've got to do is develop him. Get him housebroken to the extent that he doesn't have to be locked up in that shed. In Hungary, my father's family raised a baby fox, and it never touched the chickens on my father's farm; it went out and killed the neighbors' chickens. When Sandoval repairs the wing of the partridge, I want Lobo to come up close, sniff it and get to be good friends.
"Then Lobo has to come to love the boy who is going to be kidnaped later, so that when they come back and find the wife raped and the boy gone, Lobo can start sniffing and be off on the trail."
Engel concludes with a general admonition: "We need more characters, we need more people, we need things happening."
'I Did Nothing but Read'
Engel's professional relation with the printed word dates from his New York City childhood when he worked for his magazine-distributor father (at $5 per week) checking the returns on "True Story," "Motion Picture" and "True Confessions."
But his literary tastes were formed elsewhere. When he was 12, Engel injured his right leg in a football game and for the next few years spent most of his time in the hospital, undergoing some 40 operations. He still has a limp, and when there is snow on the ground, he uses a ski pole to help him cross the terrain between his home and the adjoining office buildings.
"When I was in the hospital," he remembers, "I did nothing but read -- 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' 'The Three Musketeers,' 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' 'The Last of the Mohicans."
He can still describe many scenes from these books in detail.
"You need a foundation in the classics to really understand dealing with literature," he says, and those classics have obviously left a mark on the books he produces.
Engel continued in the magazine business until 1971, starting with "Song Hits" magazine which he inherited from his father in 1939 and sold 10 years later, and including others devoted to popular music or auto racing. He also produced records -- mostly spoken-word, ranging from James Mason reading excerpts from "Oliver Twist" to such utilitarian items as "Training Your Dog to Hunt, Point, and Retrieve" -- and worked in public relations.
He recalls the way he "created" "The Song from Moulin Rouge," as part of his promotion for the picture. "I never met Georges Auric, who wrote the music and called it 'Le Long de la Seine,'" Engel says, "but I made him millions.
"I got some kid to write the English lyrics -- I forget his name, now -- and I insisted that it should be called, 'Song from Moulin Rouge,' so that the name of the picture would be mentioned every time the song was played on the radio. I got 750,000 actual logged plugs for the film in its first eight months."
In 1975, at age 60, Engel sold out the record business, but he was already well established in books, from collaborations with Pearl Buck ("The Oriental Cookbook," "The Story Bible," "Fairy Tales of the Orient") to mass-market paperback fiction ("The Expeditor," The Vigilante," "The Baroness," "Horrorscope" and many others).
His biggest success before the Kent Family Chronicles was the new Nick Carter series, and he remembers it fondly:
"In 1962, I went to Conde Nast Company. I wanted to buy the rights to the name of Nick Carter and start a new series. He was a turn-of-the-century detective who used to say things like, 'Hold firm or I'll fire' -- hopelessly out of date, but it was a good name.
"I changed the character into sort of an American James Bond. I couldn't give him a number like 007, so I gave him a title and he became Nick Carter -- Killmaster. I produced 73 books in that series, using a dozen writers and sometimes publishing two titles in a single month. They sold 15 million copies, which was a very impressive figure at that time, and I gave one-third of the royalties to Nast."
In 1975, Engel had withdrawn from everything but books, and decided to leave New York City: "I could live up here, 132 miles from New York, and do all my work by mail and telephone. I still drive down to New York twice a month and stay for four or five days. A lot of my book ideas come to me while I'm spinning down the Taconic Parkway. I can outline a whole book, sometimes two, on one of these trips and then get it down on paper after I arrive. An outline may begin about seven pages long and grow to as much as 150."
' $1 Million in Royalties'
At first, the operation in Canaan was strictly a family business -- a sort of cottage industry. But it grew rapidly and now keeps a staff of 12 editors, typists and support personnel busy full-time. "We bumped the local post office up a grade when we moved the business in here," Engel says. Each manuscript is edited at least twice, usually by two or more editors.
"We used to publish more than 100 books in some years," Engel recalls. "Now, we're publishing fewer books, but bigger ones -- and in the last years, our income has been doubling each year. Last year, we paid our authors over $1 million in royalties."
Engel denies that he has any "formula" beyond "giving people what they want to read," and his normally mild manner becomes heated when he is asked about "trends."
"There are no trends," he insists, "there are merely junky imitations. When people talk about a trend, they really mean a ripoff of some good book, produced in less time, for less money and with not as good a writer. People see a bandwagon and everyone jumps on it and it gets overloaded."
But there are clear patterns in Engel's books. Most are period pieces, because, he says, "Period pieces go on forever while trendy books get old. Look at 'Mission Impossible' in 10 years and you'll laugh -- but 'Gunsmoke' can go on forever. The Tarzan books have a style that no longer works -- too stilted -- but they could be rewritten, because there is always an unknown jungle somewhere -- on another planet, maybe, or in the reader's mind."
An Engel production is also likely to be a series. "The reason I do series books is the same reason they like series on television," he says. "Once you come up with a good format, why waste it on just one book? You save all that work on the second book, and the readers already know the characters and background. They know what they're getting into.
"Also, one book in a series helps to sell the others. The way paperbacks are distributed in this country, there may be places that get volume two of a series without ever having seen volume one -- and then you get a lot of orders for the first volume from that place."
"Engel is solidly in the Dumas tradition," says Ross. That means a cast of thousands, a plot with frequent changes of scene and action, a few characters shown in some detail and many others quickly sketched.
The story is embodied in the archetypal cover (which Engel likes to help design). Typically, there are one or two characters standing out, at the focal point of the front cover, and beneath them, in smaller perspective, a panorama that stretches all the way around to the back cover. A Lyle Kenyon Engel book is usually one that you can judge accurately from its cover -- an important advantage in the paperback market.
The system works, according to Ross, because "First of all, he's the damndest promoter I ever ran across. A lot of good books, hardcover and paperback, just get lost because they don't have someone like Lyle pushing for them.
"He also does all the editorial functions. His staff goes over the manuscript for errors and actually does an editing job. They will send the manuscript back for changes, which are usually minor, at least in my case, retype it and send the publisher a copy ready to go to the printers. After the type is set, they go over the galleys and answer editorial queries -- they don't even bother you about these things unless it's something major.
"He handles advertising and promotion, legal fees and subsidiary rights. All I have to worry about is the writing -- which is usually only a part of being a writer.
"Most important of all, from where I sit, he has a very large input. When he says, 'I like that -- let's develop it' or 'I don't like that,' you can hear a million readers talking."
'On the Lookout'
In contrast to Ross, another writer (known only as Nancy) has not yet written a word for Engel but seems ready to come in. Engel met her at a literary party some time ago, listened to her complaints about her present hardcover publisher, and asked to see the two books that she has had published so far.
"I'm constantly on the lookout for good writers who are not satisfied with the deal they are getting from their publishers," Engel explains as a secretary dials Nancy's phone number. "I told her, as a new writer with a big company, you're going to be lost. There are 400 or 500 writers all competing for attention in the same company. Last week, she called me and said, 'Lyle, you're right -- everything happened just the way you said it would. Now, I want to make some money.'"
On the phone, this time allowing an eavesdropper to use an extension and hear both sides of the conversation, Engel's manner is a combination of friendly appreciation and shrewd, market-oriented criticism:
"You have insight, there's a depth to your writing, there's a quality that I always look for, and I think you can be developed into a very popular writer."
Then he gets on to the novel he has been reading. He has two basic criticisms: "First, the subject is so downbeat -- and also, there's so much classical music in it. Not everyone goes to the symphony, you know -- I'm talking about the general audience."
Nancy is interested, hesitant, a little defensive. "I can do other things -- once I finished that book, I knew I could do anything."
Engel is businesslike: "How much did you get for those two books?" Nancy is quick with the figures: "The novel was $24,000, the other was $12,500. I'm working my way up. They got good reviews, but nothing much happened after that."
"Every house likes to have a few books like that," Engel replies. "They get good reviews and don't make much money. That's all right for the publisher, but what does it do for the writer? If you want to make money, I can come up with a new series for you and we can get going."
Nancy hesitates, and Engel moves in for the clincher: "We'll keep trying until you can trust me. If you want to, I can give you the numbers of a couple of writers who work for me, and you can talk to them."
Nancy will talk to "Dana Fuller Ross," and soon she will probably be working for Book Creations Inc.