Three years ago, I wrote in the paper version of Unfair Park about Glenn Yeffeth, a business consultant of some 15 years who one day chucked his profitable career to begin a new one as book publisher. I must admit at this late date that I didn't give Yeffeth's endeavor, BenBella Books, much of a shot--not because I didn't like the guy or think him smart enough to make a go of it (far from it, in fact), but because trying to operate as a publishing house out of offices at North Central Expressway and University Avenue seemed like business suicide. And the kinds of books in which BenBella was specializing--a collection of essays about the science and religion in the movie The Matrix, a locally penned bio of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon and a vampire story by a writer of Star Trek paperbacks--seemed to cater to a very niche market, the well-read dork, as though there's any other kind.
So much for the initial skepticism: Yesterday, I spoke with senior editor Leah Wilson, who says Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix actually sold some 25,000 copies, and last year's cumbersomely titled Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly "surpassed that and continues to go strong." Turns out BenBella hit on a winning formula: books filled with essays about things over which dorks obsess, such as superheroes, Star Trek, Harry Potter and such hit TV shows as Desperate Housewives and Lost. And the fact many of them feature prominent science-fiction, fantasy and comic book writers as contributors doesn't hurt. The recent The Unauthorized X-Men: SF and Comic Writers on Mutants, Prejudice and Adamantium was edited by Wolverine's co-creator Len Wein, while the forthcoming Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, to be published in August to coincide with Trek's 40th anniversary, features essays by "The Trouble with Tribbles" writer David Gerrold and original Trek story editor and staff writer Dorothy Fontana. Nerds are nothing if not sticklers for cred, especially if it bears pointy ears and a tricorder.
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"Our publisher Glenn is a real smart, persuasive guy," Wilson says of BenBella's ability to attract significant authors to a small publishing house that offers little publicity and even less money. "At first he did a lot of impressive talking to get David Gerrold involved [in 2003], but we're getting more recognized, and that does make it a little easier. But what pulls in a lot of them is love of the property. We're hooked up with Jennifer Crusie, who's a New York Times best-seller. She adored Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. We're doing all these properties people love so much, so even though we're unknown and small and don't pay as much as New York publishers, the love for it's enough for them to take a chance, and once they work with us once they want to do it again."
In fact, BenBella's pop-culture library has proven so successful Yeffeth's company has launched an imprint called Smart Pop, which includes some 30 books ranging in subject from King Kong to Star Wars to The Simpsons; if something's got its own DVD boxed set, BenBella has a book to go with it. But, I gotta say, these books aren't just dork-lit: "They're very accessible," says David Hopkins, the Arlington-based comic book writer who does in fact have a wife and a very adorable daughter. Hopkins and illustrator Brock Rizy have a new book, the astounding Emily Edison, due in stores June 28 (but more about that in coming weeks). Hopkins also contributed an essay to BenBella's new book The Man from Krypton: A Closer Look at Superman; his is titled "A History of Violence," and it reads like a smart-ass National Public Radio commentary in which he chronicles Superman's murderous early days with his later tendencies to punch out...uh, snowmen wearing top hats.
"It's not super-academeic, but it's not talking down to you," Hopkins says of the publishing house's titles. "Most people with a decent college education would get what's going on in the books... They have this really nice niche. There may be other publishers doing it, but I haven't seen it. My wife was big into the Pride and Prejudice book they did [Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, published last September]. She read it cover to cover and loved it." Hopkins is also finishing an essay for an upcoming Spider-man book of essays; I'd call him a dork, but I think he's just about the coolest guy in the whole wide world. --Robert Wilonsky