Friday, September 3, 2010


Legendary editor Jim Frenkel: How I helped save ILLUMINATUS!

While the main credit for the ongoing success of ILLUMINATUS!, still in print more than 30 years after it was published, must go to authors Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, credit also is due to editors at Dell who fought for the work.

One of those editors is prominent editor Jim Frenkel, who worked at Dell for several years, starting in 1976. He later founded a Bluejay Books, a science fiction publishing house that reprinted "The Earth Will Shake" and then published the second book of Robert Anton Wilson's Historical Illuminatus trilogy, "The Widow's Son," which Wilson later described as his favorite book. (Frenkel did not play a role in the third published novel, "Nature's God." Wilson never completed the projected fourth book, "The World Turned Upside Down.")

Frenkel has worked with many famous science fiction writers including Philip K. Dick, Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Spider Robinson and so on. Note that in my interview with Frenkel, he discusses ILLUMINATUS! as a work of science fiction, and says that some of the book's difficulties at Dell stemmed from the fact that many of its editors did not understand the publishing realities of dealing with science fiction novels.

Frenkel was born in the Borough of Queens, in New York City. He has devoted his career to editing quality fiction of all sorts, but he is best known for, and confesses that his first love was science fiction books. He currently is a Senior Editor for Tom Doherty Associates. Their Tor Books imprint is a prominent publisher of science fiction and fantasy. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin., and is married to science fiction author Joan Vinge, author of the Hugo Award-winning novel, THE SNOW QUEEN.

I interviewed Frenkel on the telephone for about an hour on August 5. My transcription here is a small part of that interview, which also will be quoted in subsequent articles. Frenkel answered all of my questions and spoke very rapidly, at times answering me before I could finish the question. He knew Wilson fairly well, and the interview turned out to be a gold mine of information and observations.

Veteran science fiction book editor and Robert Anton Wilson fan Jim Frenkel helped keep the ILLUMINATUS! trilogy in print and later published THE WIDOW'S SON, which Wilson has described as his favorite book.


When I wrote to Frenkel via e-mail and asked him for an interview, Frenkel wrote back and explained that he was not the editor at Dell who made the decision to publish ILLUMINATUS. "What I _did_ do was help save the series," he wrote. "After it was published, it was constantly in danger of being abandoned, because of the fitful way in which it was distributed. There is little question in my mind that if it hadn't been for my stubbornness, Dell would have dropped the trilogy before they finally did the smart thing and put it into a single volume."

This seemed like an interesting statement, so I began by asking Frenkel to explain it.


Q. What did you mean in your e-mail when you said that you saved the [Illuminatus!] series, and if it hadn’t been for your stubbornness, Dell would have dropped the trilogy?

A. Basically, what happened was, they published it in three separate volumes. One of the three would go out of stock, and they wouldn’t reprint it. When that happened, the other two volumes would start being returned by booksellers, because without all three available, demand for the ones that were still available would slacken. When booksellers started sending them back, the sales would start to look worse, because of all those books being returned. After a few months at Dell, I could see the pattern that was developing, and and by showing them that the books, when all available, had sold a fair number of copies, I was able to say, ‘Look, when they are all available, it sells just fine. Why don’t you just reprint the ones that are unavailable?’ So they would do that, and it would sell fine for another few months or a year, and then one of them would go out of stock again, and they wouldn't put it back in print again, and it would start to take heavier returns again.

And so I would have to remind them that when they are all available -- you know, the same drill; after two or three years of this, they were losing patience with the series, and I was losing patience a little with their inability to understand that this was not your run-of-the-mill book or series.

Al Zuckerman was a great advocate for the books. He was the agent on the books, and he was also the agent for the collaborators as a team and for each of them separately. He and I talked about the trilogy, and the problems Dell had with it, and if I remember correctly, he and I agreed that it might make sense for him to actually come in and meet with the sales and marketing people at Dell, with me there, too.

So we had a meeting with other people at Dell. Al, knowing even more about Bob Wilson's books than I knew, was basically was saying what I was saying.

But the sales management that was really running Dell at that time -- they are all long gone from Dell now -- didn't really care what Al -- or any agent -- wanted to say or do. Dell, in the late 1970s was a very confrontational kind of place. We would have print-and-bind meetings which sometimes seemed like battles of will between the sales department and the editorial department, with the advertising and promotion manager often being a mediator between what were sometimes two hostile camps.

Publishing was changing at that point, as it is still changing. And the sales management was very old school. The people at the top of sales remembered the good old days when the wholesale marketplace was king; when Dell could command enormous attention for a book they wanted to make a bestseller, put a million copies or sometimes several millions into stores, sell all but perhaps three or four percent of them, and then not worry about books coming back, or backlist sales.

But those days were long gone by 1976, when I got to Dell, and I'm sure that is part of why there was so much friction between sales and editorial. The people in editorial were trying to compete with other publishers that were changing the model of how to sell mass-market paperbacks. It was difficult in that atmosphere, and a lot of very good people worked very hard to make that go well ... editors, people in sales and marketing, the promotion people, publicity ... there were a lot of extremely talented people at Dell, both before I was there, during my time there, and after. But this problem of THE ILLUMINATUS! trilogy was different, because it wasn't a series that had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, yet there was demonstrable demand.

When we had the meeting was about the time that I started thinking that maybe the best thing to do would be -- and I cannot remember whether it was my idea originally or Al Zuckerman's, but I know he and I completely agreed -- to put the trilogy into an omnibus volume in Dell's then trade paperback imprint, Delta. It just seemed like a good idea.

It would be easier to keep in print. You wouldn't have to worry about one of them going out of stock, and the others starting to take heavier returns.

But the powers that be didn't really know what to do about Delta. For years, they would look at other publishers' trade paperback imprints and think--aha! That's a smart idea ... but Delta had been neglected for a long while, and though they had some very good books that sold very well and for a long time, the upper management in sales was not ready to treat Delta like the independent imprint it should have been, with its own distinct editorial identity. It may have had one before this time, but by 1976, Delta was a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And there was always the question of who would sell Delta books. The wholesale sales force felt they should be the ones to sell it. After all, they had been there the longest, and they dealt with all sorts of booksellers. But there was also a trade sales force -- not fully developed, with some fulltime sales people, but also some who worked for us and for a lot of other companies. So upper management didn't trust these people to devote enough energy to Delta.

The general response from management about putting the trilogy into a single trade paperback volume was, "We'll think about it, we'll think about it,we'll think about it."

People came and went. Different editors at Delta thought it was a good idea, a bad idea. Editors came and went at Delta. I was there for five years. I can't swear it, but I think it was Chris Kuppig who was the editor at Delta who was there, when we finally convinced them to put the trilogy into a one-volume omnibus.

That’s why I say I helped to save it from being dropped by Dell. Because they kept on saying, 'Ahhhhhhh, I don't know, it sold pretty well, but look at all those returns." [I have truncated Frenkel's answer here, but he explains that some key people in Dell's management did not understand that science fiction books can sell steadily and for a long time if the publisher keeps a backlist available. "This is why they don't do science fiction anymore at Dell, because they just never understood," Frenkel said.]

Q. Do you think if you hadn't been stubborn, and kept insisting on getting the individual volumes reprinted and pushing for the trade paperback, do you think that the book would have gone out of print?

A. It would have gone out of print from Dell. Sooner or later, I think somebody would have picked it up, but it would have been gone for sure from Dell, I have no doubt. They wanted to get rid of it. They really did. It was, to the old-school people, more trouble than it was worth. They just didn't understand the kind of book it was. They just didn't understand it.

Q. Why did you fight so hard to save the book?

A. Because I could see what was happening. I didn't have their tunnel vision about well, a book either works the way we want our mass market books to work, or it doesn't work at all. There are other possibilities ... I've always been a science fiction reader and fan, and I knew that science ficition was not like everything else.It was not like big thrillers or big historical novels. You could have a science fiction book that sold a million copies over a period of 25 years, because it would be kept in print for a long time,even though it never sold an enormous number of copies to begin with. There was no such thing as a science fiction best seller until the mid-1970s. Dell didn't have one for awhile

Q. But what I meant was, were you a fan of the book?

A. Oh, yeah, I thought it was really cool. Gee whiz!

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