In the Paperback Jungle, Packaging Whiz Lyle Engel Is the Prince of Pulps
Calling Lyle Kenyon Engel just a book packager is a little like calling General Motors just a car distributor. In the past decade the 66-year-old Engel has become the paperback prince of the industry with a stable of 80 writers (40 under exclusive contract) who have cranked out an amazing 236 titles and more than 60 million books. Among them are 29 different series, mostly historical fiction, including the best-selling Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes (eight novels, 35 million copies), The Australians by William Stuart Long (three novels, 3 million copies) and the Wagons West pioneer saga by Dana Fuller Ross, which last month scored another bestseller with the seventh in the series, Colorado! "We have been on at least one of the industry's best-seller lists every week for the past five years," claims Engel. Indeed, an awed Publishers Weekly marveled two months ago that "on the mass market scene, Lyle Kenyon Engel appears to be running the show."
Engel orchestrates his act not from Manhattan's inbred publisher's row but from a rural retreat in Canaan, N.Y., near the Berkshire mountains. There his company, Book Creations, Inc., which has a staff of 20, carries out a unique arrangement with book houses. Engel conceives the idea for a novel, assigns a writer, suggests designs for the cover and then helps the publisher package and promote the finished novel. "Every one of our books is an individual creation," says Engel, who demands that publishers give his titles maximum promotion. Engel often matches their promo budgets dollar for dollar. "Writing," decrees Engel, "may account for only 40 to 60 percent of the success of a book."
His own promotional prowess has made Engel renowned for blitzing the market with gimmicks—like plastic burros, steers, rulers and pens—pushing his various titles. Typically, Engel has hyped one series with a car raffle and another with 3,500 coffee mugs announcing Ballantine's American Patriot Series' first book, The New Breed, set in prerevolutionary America. (The book's promotion included prewritten glowing book reviews for newspapers too lazy or too strapped to do their own.)
Such ploys come naturally to the only son of a Manhattan magazine creator and publisher (Radio Mirror, Love Mirror, Song Hits), whom Lyle remembers as "a tremendous salesman." At 12 the young Engel broke his right leg playing sandlot football, contracted osteomyelitis and over the next eight years underwent 30 major operations. He found plenty of time in hospitals to became a voracious reader whose tastes ranged from the Bible to The Three Musketeers. Although he left high school without his diploma, he filled in the gaps as a nonmatriculated student at a couple of New York colleges. When his father died in 1939, Lyle stepped in and ran the family business for 10 years before selling it. He then went into publicity (an early client, he says, was the fledgling Today show) and also produced children's records with a stunning young actress, Maria Ray. When his first wife, Beatrice, died six years ago, Maria became Engel's second bride. In the 1960s Engel made his plunge into the book business. He scored his first success by reviving the Nick Carter detective series (73 titles sold 15 million books). Then, picking up on America's Bicentennial fervor, Engel launched the superpatriotic Kent Family Chronicles, which soon had three best-sellers within a single year (The Rebels, The Seekers and The Furies) and made author Jakes, like Engel, a millionaire.
Engel generally splits his profits 50-50 with his authors, whose advances can range up to $150,000 for a novel batted out in as little as three weeks. Most of his writers use pseudonyms—Jakes is a rare exception—and Engel claims that one of his writers has been nominated for a Pulitzer six times under his real name.
Engel prides himself on the literary quality of his operation, which has a library and research services for his authors. "Lyle's books are as historically accurate as we know how to make them," says Douglass Elliot, author of The New Breed, and most publishers agree. Yet Engel still gets steamed at the "snobbish" New York Times, which has never reviewed one of his novels. Still, he concedes that "we are not creating undying literature here. We are in the entertainment field, and our product is designed to sell."
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