Entry updated 26 June 2018. Tagged: Theme.
The history of sf publishing is, in its widest sense, the History of SF itself; this entry, however, is concerned with a much more recent phenomenon, the emergence of Genre SF as an identifiable and distinctive category of publishing, and therefore concentrates on US firms. A great amount of sf was published in the UK 1900-1950, but, although some transplanted US genre sf appeared, until about 1950 most UK firms published sf without any clear generic tagging, whether issued by prestige houses or by firms specializing in the library market.
It was the first US sf magazines which, from 1926 onwards, established Scientifiction (for a few years) and then "science fiction" as a generic term. The original material which they featured was viewed, outside an immediate circle of enthusiasts, as debased and trivial pulp literature. The term became synonymous with ill written space adventure, while Mainstream authors from outside the Pulp magazines, who in retrospect have become identified as sf writers, pursued their careers and published their books without being tarred with the sf brush. This entry concentrates on sf book publishing; for magazine publishing see SF Magazines.
Before 1945 only a small handful of stories from the sf and fantasy pulp magazines found their way into general publishers' lists; these included J M Walsh's Vandals of the Void (1931), Edmond Hamilton's The Horror on the Asteroid (coll 1936), L Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939 Unknown; exp 1941; rev 1949) and two of De Camp's collaborations with Fletcher Pratt, and a number of UK anthologies partly or wholly drawn from the pages of Weird Tales. Meanwhile authors who sold their sf and fantasy to the better-paying and less-despised general-fiction pulps like The Argosy (Ray Cummings, Otis Adelbert Kline, A Merritt and others) regularly had their magazine serials issued in book form.
In the absence of interest from established publishers, it fell to sf enthusiasts themselves to publish in book form the stories they admired (see Small Presses and Limited Editions). The first such project of real importance was the memorial volume of Stanley G Weinbaum's stories, The Dawn of Flame and Other Stories (coll 1936); the first enterprise to launch itself as a proper publishing imprint was Arkham House, founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to preserve the memory of H P Lovecraft, beginning with their first title, The Outsider (coll 1939).
World War Two postponed the establishment of any rival ventures. It also saw the publication of the first significant sf Anthologies: Phil Stong's The Other Worlds (anth 1941) and Donald A Wollheim's Pocket Book of Science Fiction (anth 1943) and The Portable Novels of Science (anth/omni 1945). The immediate post-World War Two years saw a boom in sf anthology publishing from respectable imprints, epitomized by Adventures in Time and Space (anth 1946), a mammoth compilation edited by Raymond J Healy and J Francis McComas and published by the prestigious Random House. Other anthologists, notably Groff Conklin and Derleth, mined the sf magazines extensively. Successful as these books were, they did not immediately lead to an interest in publishing novels or single-author collections written by magazine-sf writers, and a rash of specialist publishers appeared to fill the gap. Some of these, such as the Buffalo Book Company, New Era and Polaris Press, vanished rapidly; others, such as Hadley Publishing Company and Prime Press, though short-lived, were more significant; and four imprints, Fantasy Press, Fantasy Publishing Company Inc, Gnome Press and Shasta, proved more enduring. There was no shortage of material to draw on, and a plentiful readership of sf enthusiasts who did not have access to the old magazines in which many of the stories were confined. To a significant degree it was the specialist publishers who determined the form in which future readers would perceive the stories of the stable of contributors to Astounding Science Fiction who formed the core of their lists. For example, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was merely a long string of magazine stories until Gnome Press's packaging turned it into a trilogy of Fixups; similarly, Shasta determined the shape of Robert A Heinlein's Future History series.
By the early 1950s, however, a number of established US publishers had become aware of the commercial potential of sf, and they began sf lists. Doubleday was the most significant and enduring of these, though Scribners had begun a few years earlier with Heinlein juveniles; others included Grossett and Dunlap, and Simon and Schuster. In the UK a similar boom occurred. Many of the giant US anthologies were republished, generally heavily cut, and such publishers as Grayson & Grayson and Weidenfeld and Nicolson started sf lists. Michael Joseph Ltd attempted in the mid-1950s the first sf list to try to establish the category as worthwhile literature; its series, under the umbrella title "Novels of the Future", was edited by the romantic novelist Clemence Dane and included work by C M Kornbluth, Wilson Tucker and others, but rode on the considerable reputation already established by John Wyndham, whose career with Michael Joseph had begun with The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952); John Christopher shortly followed a similar path. UK publishers like Michael Joseph found it easy to treat sf, with some confidence, as an unstigmatized kind of literature. At the same time, however, some of the worst sf ever published – assembly-line books from such publishers as Curtis Warren, Scion, Badger Books, Hamilton (who later became Panther Books) and the Tit-bits SF Library – appeared in the UK during these years.
Where paperback sf remained, with certain exceptions, largely worthless ephemera in the UK until the late 1950s, in the USA it more quickly became an established part of publishers' lists. From their inception, publishers such as Ace Books and Ballantine Books relied heavily, and successfully, on sf; other publishers had a less considerable but nevertheless significant involvement. Ace, in particular, gave much encouragement to newer writers, using their Ace Double format (see Dos-à-Dos) to couple them with more established names. Competition from paperback publishers was already, by the 1960s, causing the magazine publishers severe difficulties, and from this time on it is fair to say that books became the dominant form of sf publishing, with work that had not previously been printed in magazine form often appearing in paperback originals. Through the 1960s and 1970s sf continued to grow in strength as a publisher's category. The last of the important specialist sf publishers, Gnome Press, died in the early 1960s, although FPCI continued into the 1970s on a semiprofessional basis; both had been squeezed out by the larger firms, whose resources they could not match. Arkham House, however, continued successfully to publish weird material, chiefly collections of macabre stories and Lovecraftiana. Harper & Row and Berkley/Putnam joined Doubleday as the leading US hardcover publishers of sf (though Doubleday continued to produce the largest volume of titles); in the UK Gollancz books, in their distinctive yellow jackets, dominated the market, although Faber and Faber, Sidgwick and Jackson, Dennis Dobson and Robert Hale Limited (in descending order of discrimination and ascending order of volume) also made significant contributions. In the paperback field Ace Books faded in importance following the departure of editor Donald A Wollheim; his new imprint, DAW Books, begun 1972, took over Ace's place in the market with renewed success. In 1977 Ballantine retitled its sf imprint Del Rey Books after its editor, Judy-Lynn del Rey. From the late 1970s Bantam Books became a major rather than a minor player in sf publishing, especially after joining forces with Doubleday in 1986. In the UK, Panther Books was for many years the leading sf imprint, though this supremacy was challenged in the early 1960s by Penguin Books and in the 1970s by Sphere Books, Pan Books and the specialist imprint Orbit. By 1978 virtually every significant paperback publisher on both sides of the Atlantic included sf as an integral part of its list, and a high proportion of paperback editors were themselves sf enthusiasts.
The 1970s also saw a revival of small specialist publishers, but, whereas in the 1940s they had been largely animated by a wish to bring unobtainable novels back into print, in the 1970s they were to a great degree feeding the demand of the growing market of sf and fantasy collectors, publishing obscure items by "collectable" authors (such as Lovecraft or, most particularly, Robert E Howard) or lavishly produced illustrated editions of favourite works. FAX Collector's Editions was one of these, followed in the 1980s by Mark V Ziesing, Underwood-Miller and others. Another phenomenon of the 1970s, attesting to the academic respectability which sf was achieving in some quarters, was the establishment of scholarly reprint series, bringing classic sf works back into print in special durable editions. Such series have been published by Arno Press, Garland, Hyperion Press and, most notably, Gregg Press. Thus sf novels first published in obscure and garish pulp magazines, later reprinted in hardcovers by loving enthusiasts when no commercial publisher would look at them, later still issued in equally garish paperback editions, were now made safe for posterity.
By the 1980s, especially in the USA, sf publishing had begun to be weighted, more heavily than previously, towards lower-end-of-the-market series books, books derived from Games, film Ties and so forth, a rather disturbing phenomenon noted and discussed in several of this encyclopedia's entries (e.g., History of SF, Series, Sharecrop and Shared Worlds). Many serious sf writers became disturbed at what they perceived as the shrinking of the middle-of-the-road part of publisher's lists, the "midlist", to which much of their work had previously belonged, as it was crowded out by formulaic "product". Nonetheless, serious sf publishing continued, and new companies arrived. Two brave, short-lived experiments were Timescape Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books which lasted only 1981-1983 but was prestigious and influential while it did, and Bluejay Books (1983-1986), a quixotic attempt by a small press to enter mass-market publishing. Much more successful was Tor Books, initially a mostly paperback house, founded in 1981 and brought under the umbrella of St Martin's Press, which came from nowhere to be for a time the leading sf publisher (in terms of number of titles, but also very competitive in terms of quality) in the USA. By the beginning of the 1990s, US sf publishing was dominated by Putnam/Berkley/Ace, Bantam/Doubleday/Dell, Tor/St Martin's and Random House/Ballantine/Del Rey, with firms like Warner Books edging towards a full involvement. Specialist sf publishers like DAW and Baen Books, while not exactly languishing, are a good way down the list, publishing much less sf/fantasy/horror than the big four groups.
Sf publishing in the UK is on a much smaller scale, and is perhaps quirkier and more individualistic for that reason, though many titles published in the UK are reprints of US titles (a traffic that does not flow so efficiently in the other direction). Of those publishers mentioned above, Gollancz has survived more than one change of ownership in the 1990s, Pan no longer publishes a large amount of sf, the Sphere sf list has been absorbed into Orbit, and Penguin is less and less important as an sf publisher. Panther is long gone, having been transmuted into Granada and then Grafton, as such becoming a division of HarperCollins, which in 1992 is perhaps the major player in UK publishing. It has, however, received strong competition from Legend (a division of Random Century), from New English Library (a division of Hodder and Stoughton), from Gollancz, which now publishes paperbacks as well as hardcovers, from Orbit (from early 1992 a division of Little, Brown UK), from Headline (mostly fantasy and horror), and from Millennium (a division of the new-founded Orion Books). One interesting UK company has been The Women's Press, whose sf list has specialized in sf by women.
A recession in book publishing generally in the late 1980s and early 1990s was predicted to affect sf particularly adversely, but it is surviving well to date, though the overall number of sf books published per year shrank a little from its 1988 peak, but then reached – in the USA at least – a new record, with Locus magazine counting 1990 separate sf/fantasy/horror titles (including reprints) published there in 1991, an average of over five per day. A further 1980s development in sf publishing has been the rise in popularity of the large-format trade paperback, which has the same page size as the hardcover edition, and is often printed and published simultaneously with it; in fact, in such instances it is usually more accurate to say that the trade-paperback version is the true first edition, the hardcover version representing a small run-on in a special binding for the institutional and gift markets. [MJE/PN]
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