This article was originally written on July 15, 2020, but never published. In light of Curt Vendel’s untimely death on August 30, 2020, I thought I would honor Curt’s memory and release this so everyone would know about a book that we had once planned to write together. For those who don’t know who Curt was, he was undeniably one of the greatest experts regarding Atari history. He also had an Atari collection that made up the bulk of his online Atari Museum. Finally he was an engineer who worked with Atari on a variety of projects including the Flashback. His passing was a momentous blow to all fans and students of not only Atari, but of all videogame history. Curt had heart problems for many years and was ineligible for life insurance because of that. A GoFundMe was set up to help his daughter Madison attend college. Please consider donating.
In late 1999, my friend and curator of The Atari Museum website, Curt Vendel, contacted me with an idea for a book that he wanted to collaborate with me on. Naturally the book would be about Atari, but it wouldn’t be a conventional history book about the company. Instead, the approach that Curt wanted to take was one that author Owen W. Linzmayer used in his book Apple Confidential. Instead of being a chronological history of Apple, this book would be divided into multiple subchapters that covered an assortment of different subjects.
I liked the idea and the two of us went to work. Curt was going to do the research and I was going to do the writing. We quickly came up with a working title: Innovative Leisure, which was an early tagline of Atari, and next compiled our list of subjects. We wound up with 46 chapters.
While Curt and I were preparing our book about Atari, another friend of mine was calling me about his own Atari history book that he was writing. This friend would call me with questions and I felt I was misleading him because I didn’t tell him I was co-writing my own Atari book. In the end I decided not to tell him because I reasoned that our books would be vastly different and there wouldn’t be any problem if both books existed together in the marketplace. The name of this friend was Marty Goldberg.
Apple Confidential had been published by a San Francisco-based publisher called No Starch Press. Curt decided to see if they would be interested in our book. He downloaded their proposal criteria and then answered their questions, which he then returned to them. Curt received an email from the publisher on January 27, 2000 that they were interested in hearing more.
I was on top of the world! Although I had published two editions of Phoenix, they were through my own publishing company, Rolenta Press. In actuality they had been self-published. It would be nice to have a book published by a commercial publisher.
And then of course I had to put my foot in my mouth.
I had a friend, Jayson Hill, who worked for Hasbro Interactive, the then-current owner of the Atari brand. Jayson was hosting a party at his home in Massachusetts for many of his coworkers and he invited me and a few of my friends. One of them was Robert Smithton (his name has been changed to protect the guilty). Robert was an avid Atari collector and we had been friends for approximately five years. During our drive to Massachusetts Robert innocently asked me how my friend Curt was. I told him Curt was good. I should have stopped there but I was so naïve. “We’re writing a book together,” I added.
“Oh?” asked an extremely interested Robert. “What kind of book?”
“A book about Atari!” And of course I couldn’t stop there. “And we have a publisher interested in it?”
“Oh really? What publisher?”
“A publisher called No Starch Press.”
Robert may have congratulated me at that point and then the subject of conversation went on to something else. I completely forgot about it.
A few weeks later Curt called me to tell me that No Starch Press was no longer interested in the book. Apparently Robert had contacted them and told them that he was writing a book about Atari. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes but apparently Robert did something to piss off No Starch Press and cancel their interest in our book. And naturally Curt was pissed off with me for opening my mouth and I couldn’t blame him.
Later I approached Robert on the subject. Apparently there was a big feud between Robert and Curt. They hated each other. Robert didn’t deny that he sabotaged our book. “Sorry Len,” he told me. “It was nothing against you but I’ll do anything to screw Curt.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here was an adult who had the respect of many Atari collectors, sabotaging our work because he didn’t like Curt. And the fact that we were friends obviously didn’t mean anything to him.
Several years later I found our files for the book and I sent them to Curt with the interest of hoping to revive it. I still thought it would be a great book but Curt wasn’t interested. In 2012 he published his collaboration with Marty Goldberg, Atari Inc.: Business is Fun. I wasn’t upset when their book came out. It wasn’t the book that Curt and I had planned. Instead, it was closer to the one that Marty had been planning when he used to call me.
The same year Curt published his book, I was looking for a publisher for the fourth edition of my book, Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames. One night I ran into Robert who began muttering “No Starch Press…No Starch Press” under his breath.
“What the hell are you saying?” I asked this adult who was behaving like an overgrown child.
“No Starch Press,” he replied.
“What is No Starch Press?” I asked.
“That was the publisher who was interested in yours and Curt’s book.” He had a big smile on his face. He was very proud of himself. He then proceeded to tell me that he had sent a proposal to No Starch Press regarding an Atari book that he was writing. He said they even flew him to San Francisco to work out a deal but when they realized that his book was bogus, they decided they didn’t want to play any more games and bother with any Atari books.
I had completely forgotten who the publisher was but it gave me an idea. The next day I sent a proposal to them about Phoenix 4. They responded back quickly. They were very interested and I signed a contract with them.
But looking back to what Robert had told me he had done. In hindsight I’m having trouble believing some of it. Why would No Starch Press fly him to San Francisco but not Curt and I? And if they did fly him there for some reason, why didn’t they do the same for me when I actually signed a contract with them?
Today Robert is very much involved in the field of videogame history. I can’t help but wonder how much lying and cheating he has done to get to where he is today. And I can only imagine what he had actually told No Starch Press to get them disinterested in our book when they learned that his was bogus.
The fact that a person I considered a good friend treated me this way still haunts and angers me twenty years later. I will never forgive him for the loss that he caused to Curt and myself. But it wasn’t just us who lost out. I still think it would have been a great book and so all fans of Atari lost out because of this. But a piece of it does exist. Although Curt and I never actually started writing Innovative Leisure, apparently I had written a preliminary Foreword to the book that has survived.
Copyright © 2020 Leonard Herman