By Alan Prendergast
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By Melanie Asmar
Ken Fleck's former career as an oil wildcatter in Kansas was a series of risky maneuvers--where do you drill and how deep? His present career as a calendar publisher may seem much more tame, but not the way Fleck does it. He's taken the plunge into slick, specialty products like the Dead Celebs calendar, and so far, it's paid off.
Fleck's unusual career change actually was quite predictable: He got his first inspiration for a calendar while looking for places to drill. His partner in Accord Exploration, recalls Fleck, "was a complete weather freak who knew all sorts of facts and trivia." Thinking that there might be a market for a calendar highlighting unique meteorological information and events, Fleck gave up his exploration maps and started Accord Publishing in 1986.
Accord's first project, the Weather Guide Calendar, was a success thanks to its dramatic storm photography and a staggering amount of factoids. It didn't hurt that that the Weather Channel helped market the calendar. Although Accord and the Weather Channel have since parted ways, the Weather Guide Calendar is still Accord's biggest seller and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the company's other calendars as well as its line of educational children's books.
And Fleck has easily made a transition from weather to dead celebrities. While the majority of Accord's publications are scientific and educational, Fleck's wildcatter spirit has compelled him to take chances. One of them turned into Dead Celebs.
"We saw a calendar which listed a celebrity birthday for each day," recalls calendar writer Steve Platto, "and thought to ourselves 'Why not create one for celebrity death days?'" Platto says he and his co-author Stephan Pytel haven't had much difficulty coming up with at least a death a day. Using the Internet, books, and records from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as sources, the pair has come up with ten to twenty notable keel-overs for each of the year's 365 days. "We went through all the fairly obvious people like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean in the first edition," says Platto, "and now in the fourth edition we're on to character actors and bit players like Auntie Em."
Digging for fresh info is vital because the calendar market has become increasingly competitive. "This is a risky business," Platto explains. "Calendars have gotten so specific these days and there're so many of them out there. A few years ago it was just The Far Side that you had to go up against."
Other popular Accord calendars include Chris Allen's 1001 Sex Secrets Every Man Should Know and a counterpart for females. The sex calendars are based on a shrewd research maneuver: the "secrets" of anonymous volunteers who call in to Allen's 800 number and offer their own sexual techniques, fantasies and desires. "The advice comes in steadily," says Allen.
No such luck, however, with Accord's staple, the weather calendar. Fleck did the majority of the work on its first edition, but he's handed over the reins to Oklahoma City television meteorologist Vince Miller, a self-described "weather weenie" who was the meteorological consultant for the movie Twister. Miller uses the Accord project as an excuse to add to his already vast knowledge of weather trivia.
"When I'm writing the calendar I look for the most dramatic weather event that occurred on each day of the year throughout history," explains Miller. "My favorite part of the process is when I come across an anomaly like the killer tornado that landed in Sugar City [Colorado] years ago at 5:30 in the morning. It's very rare to get a tornado in the a.m., and it's hard to convince people that it really happened, but I research this calendar very carefully."
Still, that's only half the work. Accord's sales force is already pushing the company's 1998 calendars, and most of the larger bookstores, like Barnes and Noble, complete their calendar orders by early May.
"It's important in this business to have the ability to look down the road," says Allen. "And it takes a lot of guts to take a chance on some of these things. There's no immediate gratification in this business. You make the call and hope like hell that a year from now the subject is still topical and people will buy it.