Lyle K. Engel; Force Behind ‘Novel Factory’

Times Staff Writer

Lyle Kenyon Engel, who produced books the way film producers turn out motion pictures, employing dozens of writers in a fiction factory that churned out dozens of novels designed for mass appeal, is dead of leukemia.

He was 71 when he died Sunday at a Miami, Fla., hospital.

Engel was an anomaly in the publishing world--a visionary with a firm grasp of popular taste who did not want to himself put on paper the ideas he conceived.

In 1973 he formed Book Creations Inc., a “novel factory” in his home in Canaan, N.Y., and there concocted plot lines designed for the lucrative paperback market. Perhaps his most popular series was the “Kent Family Chronicles,” an eight-volume saga written by John Jakes. It was a project designed to tie in with the nation’s Bicentennial and began with “The Bastard” in 1974, the tale of an illegitimate Briton who comes to the United States during pre-Revolutionary days. The stories concluded with “The Americans,” set at the turn of this century with a theme of Western migration.


$1 Million in Royalties

Jakes reportedly earned nearly $1 million in royalties from Engel.

Engel was both agent and editor for his stable of writers and maintained exclusive contracts with about 40 on a regular basis--many of them frustrated after turning out years of quality fiction for scant pay.

Other Engel-inspired series included the “Australians,” “White Indian Series,” “Wagons West” and “Stagecoach.” More than 100 million copies from his Book Creations Inc. are believed to be still in print.

Engel was drawn to the printed word, he said in a 1979 interview with the Washington Post, by his father, who was a magazine distributor in their native New York. The boy suffered a football injury at age 12, necessitating years of recuperation in which he read incessantly.

‘Nick Carter’ Series

He stayed in the magazine business with “Song Hits,” a publication he inherited from his father, and then produced the successful “Nick Carter” spy novels. He also was a film and music promoter, retitling the theme from the motion picture “Moulin Rouge” to “The Song From Moulin Rouge.” Producers of that 1952 picture were ecstatic to have the name of their picture plugged every time the highly successful record was played on the air.

He also was a friend of Pearl S. Buck and produced a series of nonfiction books by the Nobel Prize-winning author that included “Tales of the Orient,” “People of the Orient,” an Oriental cookbook and Bible and Christmas books.

At the height of his publishing career, Engel was employing 12 editors, plus typists and clerical assistants, at Book Creations, paying his writers more than $1 million each year in royalties.