Be prepared, Snicket series' demise is near

Unlucky 13th and final book not likely to doom the genre

October 12, 2006|By Joseph V. Amodio | Joseph V. Amodio,Newsday

CHAPTER 1: AN UNFORTUNATE END

Readers still devour Lemony Snicket's tales of the Baudelaire orphans, even though he begs them not to. It's an unusual sales tactic - that works. Anyone needing proof of this can stand back and watch the gathering hordes of kids, tweens and teens in bookstores tomorrow. It's the day The End - the 13th and last of Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events - goes on sale nationwide.

"Friday the 13th is just too good a date, isn't it?" asks Peter Glassman, owner of Books of Wonder in Manhattan.

Poor Glassman. You'd think he'd be tearing his hair out. The HarperCollins series has sold 50 million copies since The Bad Beginning debuted in 1999. Kids love the books, with clue-filled artwork and droll, didactic prose. Snicket, as narrator, often stops to explain intriguing terms: dowager, inner sanctum, dramatic irony. And the warnings to stop reading? ("Save yourself from a heapful of horror and woe," states one back cover.) Right. Keep out of the cookie jar, too.

In a world where book sales are flat, booksellers can't be pleased with his farewell. Especially given that J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter book sits gloomily on the horizon. (It may be released next year.)

But is The End really the end?

And while we're asking, who is Lemony Snicket? And why is a HarperCollins publicist racing across a city in search of an ... accordion? As Snicket himself might advise, there's still time to put down the page.

To explain ...

CHAPTER 2: THE PUZZLED PUNDITS

The Baudelaires - inventor Violet, bookworm Klaus and infant Sunny - are kid-lit stars. According to Publishers Weekly, last year's top-selling children's books were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (13.5 million copies) and Snicket's The Penultimate Peril (nearly 2 million).

Also, further down in the Top 10: Christopher Paolini's Eragon sequel, Eldest, Eoin Colfer's fourth Artemis Fowl tale, and the Wizardology and Dragonology scrapbooks.

Fantasy titles like these first took off in the late 1990s and have been booming ever since, says Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly. Industry pundits have been anticipating the trend's demise. But like Count Olaf, the orphans' arch nemesis, it just won't die.

The end of Snicket and Potter "won't kill the genre," Roback says. "Fantasy is still popular, and it'll be a long time before anything takes its place." Of the new titles poised to achieve such status, Paolini's Inheritance series seems a top contender. Combined hardcover and paperback sales of Eragon and Eldest (the first two installments of a projected trilogy) were nearly 2.8 million last year.

Thank Snicket. Harry Potter may have started the trend, but Snicket proved others could keep it going.

CHAPTER 3: THE SELF- DEPRECATING SCRIBE

Keeping Snicket going is the job of Daniel Handler, 36, the real-life writer who dreamed up this alter ego. He's a married father who lives in San Francisco. But back in the 1990s, he was an aspiring novelist and freelance writer living in Manhattan. At literary-agency parties, he'd find himself sitting in a corner with Susan Rich, his agent's assistant's girlfriend, drinking "copious amounts of free wine" instead of mingling, she recalls.

His agent, Charlotte Sheedy, insisted he'd meet an editor there, "but nobody was interested in an unpublished schlub," Handler says.

So he thought. Rich eventually joined HarperCollins and asked him to pitch some children's book ideas. Handler recalled a silly name he'd once dreamed up - and wrote a pitch for a three-book series. HarperCollins bought four.

Rich sounds like she still can't believe it. "We thought, `Wouldn't it be great if we could make it to 13?'" she says.

"That's what's so strange," says Handler, now with the 13th (and three adult novels) under his belt.

"I did what I said I was going to do. It's so unlike me. It's like a boy who says he's going to grow up to be Spider-Man - and does."

CHAPTER 4: THE ANACHRONISTIC ACCORDIONIST

Spider-Man ... or a neo Lawrence Welk. Store owners who've met Handler all agree: He's a showman. His in-store readings even include a few ditties on the accordion. He learned to play at Wesleyan University "to meet girls," he says, laughing. Now it's part of the act, which is why his publicists are in search of accordions-for-rent in each of the cities on his book tour.

"He's hilarious and puts on a great show," says series illustrator Brett Helquist, who is as quiet as Handler is outgoing.

Both men are dads (Otto Handler is nearly 3; Frances Helquist, 10 months) and acknowledge fatherhood gave them new perspective - and ideas. "You constantly brainstorm the way your child will perish," Handler says, imitating: "I can't believe we had this electrical plug lying around the house!"

Handler is working on an adult novel now, but "we'll see more of Snicket," he says.

Rich hopes other writers follow Handler's lead. Not that she wants more tortured orphans. If Snicket has any legacy, it's to encourage more tales as unlike Snicket as possible: "There's room for the unexpected and groundbreaking."

That's the upside to seeing a popular series end, Glassman says: "It makes room for the next great thing."

Which is ... ?

Graphic novels or Japanese comics? "No one knows," Roback says. But she's not worried.

"The kids will know it first," she says. "Everyone is waiting for that."

Joseph V. Amodio is a special contributor to Newsday.

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