Fiction by the ton

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TOGETHER, THEY FOUNDED THE RAN AN EMPIRE THE LIKES OF WHICH THE WORLD HAD NEVER SEEN Lyle Kenyon Engel -- the patriarch, a weathered veteran of New York's publishing wars, who pulled up stakes and found riches with a daring new venture.

Marla Engel -- the beautiful former radio actress who became Lyle's second wife and helped guide, the family fortunes.

George Engel -- Lyle's son, a likeable man who was neither wild nor impulsive and didn't mind working for his father.

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PROUD, TALENTED MEN AND WOMEN CAUGHT UP IN THE SWEEPING SAGA OF BOOK CREATIONS INC., AMERICA'S FOREMOST FICTION FACTORY.

:It was not a dark and stormy night when I visited Twin Streams, a rambling estate tucked in the unforebonding Berkshire foothills. There weren't any frightened women in Victorian gowns racing down the lawn. I was certain no evil men with wolfhounds lurked in the distant forest, and coming up the drive I was seized by no eerie premonitions. But would I come back alive? And what be served for lunch?

Dodging mudholes, I pulled up inside a compound of low buildings, constructed of half-timbers and plaster in the Tudor style. My host's son, George Engel, was waiting to greet me. A large man, he smiled benignly and led the way through an open door. There, in the half-dark of an entranceway cluttered with boots and umbrellas, I came face to face with the thing I had driven hundreds of miles to find: a stack of paperback books.

Or rather, many stacks of paperback books, fresh from the printers, their bindings unwrinkled and their covers gleaming with eye-catching action. Mass-market reading.The kind of book found in supermarkets, between the double- edge razors and the panty hose display.

"Well, yes," said George, "those are our latest offerings." He gestured toward an inner room, where more novels were strewn about the floor like piles of gold in a king's treasury. "Come on in and I'll show you around."

So began my day at Book Creations Inc., a fiction factory surrounded by the peace of the New York State countryside. There, in the midst of chirping birds and hopping bunnies, founder Lyle Kenyon Engel, his son, george, his wife, Maria , and his staff dream up sagas of thrashing action and torrid romance.

Historical fiction like The Kent Family Chronicles. Espionage thriller like Nick Carter spy novels. The Southern Gothics of The Windhaven series. Balzan of the Cat People and his exciting adventures. Pulp novels of the type sold in airports, drugstores, and hotel newsstands.

Lyle Engel himself does none of the writing, acting instead as a book's producer. He hatches an idea, expands it into an outline, sells the outline to a publisher, and then assigns one of the 80 writers he keeps under contract to write the book.

The result, in Mr. Engel's own words, is not "undying literature." But it is an uncanny measure of popular taste. Over the past 15 years, Book Creations has produced more than 5,000 books, which have sold a total of 300 million copies.

Author John Jake's Kent Family Chronicles, a seven-volume saga tracing United States history throught the eyes of a single family, has alone sold 26 million copies -- one for every 10 people in America.

Over an elegant lunch, Lyle Engel taps his finger tips together and explains how, in the age of television, he can make a best seller sell and sell and sell. His eyes dream with the fire, The love of the chase common to self-made men.

"The books have to be interesting. They have to suck the reader right into the story and make him feel he's a part of it. In bygone eras, before TV, people had the patience to read long books that developed slowly. If you start reading Dickens or Balzac sometimes it takes a third of the book before you learn all the characters. Today, books are read and digested at a much faster pace."

The problem is, I don't think the TV industry has taken into Consideration the amount of time an individual needs to adjust mentally to something that's thrown in front of him. It becomes confusing at times. The mind has to keep switching back and forth. And This is why a book is the greatest entertainment available to the public today. You're not forced to read as fast as TV would have you watch. When you come to the characters, you can mentally typecast your own hero or herione. On a battle scene, for instance, a TV producer might have only half a million dollars to spend. Mentally, you can spend 20 billion if you reading."

His tapping finger tips stop. The the hard-nosed promoter, the man contemplating a $20 billion scene of carnage, grabs my arm and points out the window.

"Look," he says, "look out there. See the cardinal?" A dusty red bird is hopping from one plant to another, and Engel watches it with keen pleasure. "Isn't he beautiful?"

Before spectacular success gave Lyle Kenyon Engel the means to live in the countryside and let others come to him, he lived the tension-packed life of a New York City hype man. His father was a magazine entrepreneur who invented the Life magazine format, calling it Roto (short for rotogravure) and selling out to Henry R. Luce after six issues. The family business then became publishing a journal of popular lyrics called Song Hits, which the younger Engel ran until 1949. Lyle drifted into general producing, creating everything from The Good Housekeeping Library of Recorded Classics to a TV show called "The Fine of Art of Eating," starring Vincent Price.

In 1962, Engel bought the rights to the Nick Carter detective series from the Conde Nast company. At the time, Carter was a genteel turn-of-the-century policeman, the sort of fellow who said, "Hold fast, or I'll fire!" Engel renamed him Nick Carter -- Killmaster, and changed the character into an American James Bond. Before the dust settled, Engel had produced 73 volumes of Carter's adventures, using a dozen writers and selling 15 million copies. The saga of Book Creations had begun leading to success, riches, and a move in 1972 from New York City to the calm of Twin Streams.

"You see, in the old days paperback publishers were almost paper converters. What they did was license books from the hard-cover houses and publish them in paperback from. However, in today's market, when publishers are finding top hard-cover books costing up to $4 million in advance, paperback publishers are now aware they have to generate their own original publications. And that is where Book Creations comes into the picture."

When one of his authors submits a book, Engel and his editors go over the manuscript by line. They check facts, clean up typos, and tighten the plot. When the book is finally submitted to a publisher, it is virtually ready for printing.

"Lyle Engel and his staff do a substanial amount of editing work for us," says Louis Wolfe, chairman of the board of Bantam Books. "But it goes beyond that. He also inudates you with promotional ideas, proposed cover art, that sort of thing."

Engel's activities cover the whole paperback distribution system. One of his lates gimmicks "buckmark," a bookmark printed to resemble a dollar bill. Stores stack such bookmarks on their counters as giveaways, and Engel claims the customer will reach for the "buckmark" every time, because they can't resist something that looks like money. And on the flip side, they'll find a promo for one of Engel's latest series -- Wagons West!, a narrative of America's westward movement.

Our salesmen get pens printed with the title of the book," says Sandi Gelles-Cole, a senior editor at dell. "They love stuff like that."

though his wife and son are heavily involved in the business, Book Creation is still pretty much all lyle Kenyon Engel. He estimates 95 percent of the ideas are his. He is a charming man, with the good promoter's gift for easy conversation.

As a child he spent much time confined to bed, devouring the literature of adventure -- Dickens, Balzar, Tom Swiff, The Rover Boys, and Dick and Frank Merriwell -- and from this foundation he has developed a knack for twining action- packed plots. The first volume of The Ken Family Chronicles, for instance, is set in pre-American revolutionary times. In a few hundred pages the novel's hero, Phillipe Charboneau, lives on three continents; dallies with a French peasant girl, his brother's fiancee, and an American lawyer's daughter; save the Marquis de Lafayette from certain death; insults the prime minister of England; survives three attempts on his life; and is counseled by Benjamin Franklin. then comes the last two-thirds of the book.

I know what interest me, and I have the ability to spot a good read. By no means does it have to be junk to be entertaining bacause we will not produce junk. We only want to produce good, sound books. But they must be entertaining."

In the past Book Creations would churn out as many as one hundred volumes of these "good, sound books" a year. But with the success of The Kent Family Chronicles, they are concentrating more and more on the lucrative field of historical series and limiting production to 10 or 15 books annually. currently , among others, they are in the midst of The Australians, a six-book saga that does for Down Under what the Kent Family did for America; The Colonization of America series; and The Hawk, A Saga of the Southwest. The books are a mix of accurate history and two-dimensional, almost mythical characters.

I began The Ken Family Chronicles one day on the beach, expecting, at best to be mildly interested. I became so engrossed that the incoming tide nearly swallowed my towel before I noticed. Phillipe Charboneau never becomes quite a believable person, and he has adventures that confound logic and the laws of probability. Yet somehow he manages to be a sort of Everyman whose behavior reflects the values most Americans think their country was founded on. He is neither shamelessly virtuous nor completely patriotic, but he is undeniably moral. And boy, is his life exciting.

"Lyle Engel's works speak to things that are basic to all of us," says Bantam Books' Mr. Wolfe. "He has the ability to produce what the public wants."

Engel, raised on swashbucklers and adventure tales, believes the popularity of the Kent Family books says something about the state of the country. "I think that patriotism is very strong today, and I think that people sort of seeking each other's company mentally, if they're Americans. They're thingking more of a Americans and the American way, almost as a defense against the rest of the world, because the rest of the world seems to be pretty much against us."

He pauses. He ruffles the neck of the dog lying at his feet, and here, in the breezeway of a home in the country, surrounded by the good taste money can buy a far from the concrete canyons where he learned his trade, Lyle Engel looks happy. He has found peace amid the squash plants and cardinals.

In this moment of domestic reflection, he begins explaining how he landed Roberta Gellis, one of his most popular authors.

"I got a letter in the mail from Roberta, who hadn't been published in 12 years, along with two books she had written. Well, I read the books, and I became so excited I called her rights up. I said, 'we're starting immediately, we're going to do two single books, and by then I'll think of a series for you, and we'll do that, too. I think you're absolutely tremendous!' So we did The Sword and The Swan, then The Dragon and the Rose." The hand patting the dog becomes absent-minded and the voice switches into a businesslike tone. "We sold millions of those, and I came up with a series Called The Roselynde Chronicles and we sold millions of that, and today her work. . . ." He shrugs and his voice trails off, as if he finds describing Roberta's success useless, like trying to measure the artistry of Shakespeare.

Country squire and Madison Avenue. Dollar signs and home-grown tomatoes.

He rises, impatient to return to work. In the fall he will begin his most ambitious undertaking: publishing a series named Children of the Lion, based on the historical events of the Bible.

Considering Engel's track record, the new books will probably sell millions. But then again, so did the original.

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