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How to Make Writers Rarefied

Seeing a 'rip-off' in limited-edition books, a passionate small publisher sets out to do better and succeeds with name authors.


T. Jefferson Parker's latest Orange County mystery, "Red Light," hit bookstores in April, but most of the best-selling author's fans probably aren't aware he had another book published the same month.

It's "Easy Street," Parker's first published short story since gaining fame two decades ago with "Laguna Heat" and his first limited-edition book.

The slim, 44-page book was released by ASAP Publishing, a Mission Viejo home-based company owned by Jim Seels, a former data processing company supervisor and a longtime book collector who has been quietly publishing three or four limited-edition books a year since 1991.

The books, which Seels sells through specialty bookstores and individual orders from a growing mailing list, typically number only 250 limited-edition copies and 26 collector-edition copies, with prices of $35 to $50 for the limited editions and $75 to $125 for the collector editions.

As a publisher, Seels is known for using high-quality materials (black patent leather for one cover) and his unique presentations (one collector edition came displayed in an oak book press).

With a heavy emphasis on best-selling mystery writers, Seels has published original short stories by such authors as Lawrence Block, Jonathan Kellerman, Jan Burke, Margaret Coel and James Crumley. He's also landed best-selling authors such as Dean Koontz, James Ellroy and Michael Connelly to write forewords and afterwords.

Parker's Orange County-set "Easy Street"--a bank robbery tale about two brothers; one's an FBI agent, the other's a Laguna cop--has a green moire cover with original cover art by award-winning illustrator Phil Parks. Parks, who has illustrated many of Koontz's best-selling thrillers, is Seels' partner and does all the cover art and inside illustrations for ASAP Publishing.

"Easy Street" is printed on cream-colored, heavy bond paper and includes two interior color illustrations by Parks and a color photograph of the author. (Each plate has been "hand-tipped," or individually glued in by hand.)

The Parker book also boasts an introduction by best-selling mystery author Elizabeth George, an afterword by fellow mystery writer Robert Crais, and a limitation page bearing autographs by Parker, George, Crais and Parks.

At the suggestion of veteran mystery writer Edward Hoch and others who have read the story, Seels submitted "Easy Street" to the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award nomination for best short story. But don't plan on running out and buying a copy.

Sorry, sold out

As much a tribute to Parker's evocative and crisply written prose as to Seels' stylish presentation, all 26 collector's copies ($75 each) sold out within three days, and the 250-copy limited edition ($37 each) sold out within two weeks.

"The quality of the books is top-rate," said Ed Thomas, owner of Book Carnival in Orange, a specialty bookshop that carries Seels' books. "Seventy percent of my [customer] base is collectors, so Jim's books fit well in our store and they do well."

Says Elizabeth George, who plans to write a short story for Seels' publishing house: "I think the books are just really something very special that people can collect. And the fact that it's a group effort, I think, is what makes them so special. You have not only the writer of the story, but in the case of Jeff's book, the writer of the foreword and the afterword, and you've got the artist. People in effect are collecting something from four creative artists instead of just one, so it really isn't like anything else I've seen on the market."

At this point, ASAP Publishing is more a labor of love than a moneymaker for Seels and Parks, with whom Seels contracts for illustrations and equally splits the profits.

Seels considers himself lucky to earn back his costs and make a few hundred dollars' profit on each book.

"You don't open a small press to get rich, but it's the satisfaction of creating a book for somebody to read, plus somebody that enjoys collecting or just buys it as a piece of art," said Seels, 56.

An Illustrator Too

He met Parks in 1988 at the Book Carnival, where the Michigan illustrator was doing a signing with Koontz for "Oddkins," the Newport Beach author's debut in children's literature, which Parks illustrated.

Teaming up with Parks, Seels founded ASAP Publishing in 1991 while working as a computer operator at Allergan Pharmaceuticals in Irvine. (ASAP stands for Airtight-Seels Allied Production; Park's company is called Airtight Graphics.)

At the time, Seels also was working part time at the Book Baron, an Anaheim shop for used, rare and collectible books. He had noticed limited-edition books coming into the shop; they were nothing more than regular trade books with "a cheap $15 slipcase and they were selling them for $125 apiece. I thought, 'This is a rip-off.' "

His goal was to "do high-quality work, be inventive and give the customers something for their money." Indeed, to induce people to buy his books, nearly every book has what Seels calls a "gimmick":

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