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A Novelist Who Knows His Business

March 02, 1995|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — As a struggling young novelist in the late 1960s and early '70s,Dean Koontz cranked out an average of four books a year, many of them paperback originals and most written under a variety of pen names in a variety of genres.

At only $1,500 to $2,500 a pop, the former Pennsylvania English teacher needed to be prolific.

But a funny thing happened to Koontz on the way to his multimillion-dollar manse in Newport Beach: The books he wrote two decades ago have come home to roost. Big time.

Banking on his future even when he was a poorly paid unknown, Koontz wisely retained--or bought back--the rights to his books once they went out of print.

In 1989, he sold a block of seven of his old titles to Berkley for about $3.5 million. But the big payoff came three years later, when Ballantine Books purchased the paperback rights to seven more from the '70s for about $10 million.

Ballantine, which is releasing one old Koontz title a year, last month published the latest, "Icebound," an adventure-suspense novel originally titled "Prison of Ice" when Lippincott published it in hardcover in 1976 under the Koontz pen name David Axton.

"Icebound," which was given a whopping 2 million first printing, skyrocketed directly to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times paperback bestseller list after only a week in bookstores.

Koontz's enviable position of being able to reap the financial benefits of novels he wrote two decades ago underscores his reputation as a best-selling novelist who is also a savvy businessman.

"He's managed his career well," said Clare Ferraro, editor in chief of Ballantine. "He always had his eye on the long haul because he realized if he were successful someday, those back-list titles would be worth a great deal more."

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With the help of several mentors in publishing, Koontz learned early on to take control of the business side of his writing career.

"Most writers hate the idea of having to be involved in business," said Koontz, 49. "They want to see themselves solely as artists, and they want somebody else to take care of business, usually an agent.

"The reality is there're very few really fine agents, so if you don't learn about the business of publishing and understand the economics of how it works, you become a victim, and you can't protect your art that way."

It's the very nature of Koontz's long-simmering literary career--combined with his ability to see the potential value of his early works--that has put him in the position he is in today.

Some best-selling authors, such as Scott Turow and John Grisham, sweep to the bestseller lists overnight without accumulating a large back list of out-of-print titles from their apprenticeship days.

Koontz's career, however, built slowly, his literary craft improving as he gradually built up a large body of work and more readers.

But even in the early days, Koontz said, he was always diligent about regaining the rights to his books when they went out of print.

In some cases his contract included a clause in which the rights to the book reverted to him in a certain number of years, or, when the book went out of print, all he had to do was write a letter claiming the rights.

"I would always watch that and I would always do it," he said, noting that some other writers would do the same.

What makes Koontz unique, however, is that in cases where there was no reversion clause, he would go to the publisher after the book had gone out of print and offer to pay back his advance to repurchase the rights.

Publishers, he said, "snapped at that." Sometimes they simply gave him back the rights for nothing.

"They didn't see any value in the books," he said. "It's kind of astounding because some of these books now are in their 30th printing in paperback."

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When it comes to reprinting his old books, however, Koontz is not willing to simply take the money and run.

He insists on revising many of the early books because he doesn't think they measure up to his current level of writing, and he doesn't want to disappoint his fans.

In the case of "Winter Moon"--the first Koontz novel reissued by Ballantine in January, 1994--not a single sentence remains from the original "Invasion," a Laser paperback published in 1974 under the pen name Aaron Wolfe.

In a note to readers of his latest reissued novel, "Icebound," Koontz writes that he "revised it and updated the technological and cultural references while trying not to get carried away and alter the entire story line and feel of it."

Koontz is not the first novelist unable to resist the temptation to revise his early books after achieving success. Sir Walter Scott did it. Henry James was famous for it. More recently John Fowles revised his 1965 novel "The Magus." And for a 1991 reissue of Stephen King's "The Stand," King revised it and reinstated material that had been cut out of the novel when it was originally published in 1978.

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