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Small Presses and Limited Editions

Entry updated 10 July 2023. Tagged: Theme.

1. The USA

Any firm founded to release work of personal interest to the publisher, and which distributes that work to readers whose interest can also be assumed, may be called a small press. Four years before Hugo Gernsback began Amazing Stories in 1926, The Lunar Publishing Company of Providence, Kentucky, was founded by friends of the author of the book it had been created in order to publish – and then folded. To the Moon and Back in Ninety Days: A Thrilling Narrative of Blended Science and Adventure (1922) by John Young Brown (1858-1921) was a genuine exercise in Gernsbackian sf, featuring a ship driven by Antigravity plus lessons in Astronomy and other sciences. It may have been the first Genre-SF novel to reach book form in the USA; it was certainly the first such novel to be published for an affinity readership.

Several years passed, however, before the Lunar example was followed for sf publications; for more than a decade, the only small-press activity of genre interest took place in the fields of Fantasy and Horror. The writers who formed a circle around H P Lovecraft – they included Robert E Howard, Frank Belknap Long, Edgar Hoffman Price, Clark Ashton Smith and Donald Wandrei – all found it difficult to publish with conventional houses, and when W Paul Cook (1881-1948), a friend of Lovecraft's and editor of some influential early APAS, decided in 1925 to move into Publishing they were happy to contemplate having material released by his Recluse Press. In the event, its sole publications of interest were Long's first book, A Man from Genoa (coll 1926 chap), Wandrei's first book, Ecstasy (coll 1928 chap), and Lovecraft's The Shunned House (1928 chap), only a very few copies of which were bound. Another start-and-stop small press, The ARRA Printers run by Conrad H Ruppert, released four pamphlets in the early 1930s as a sidebar to Fantasy Magazine, including Allen Glasser's The Cavemen of Venus (1932 chap), which seems to have been the first independent work of fiction produced from within fandom.

The most important figure in this first flowering of the small press – although the quality of his work aroused controversy in the field – may have been William L Crawford (whom see for details of his long career), who began in imitation of Ruppert as a magazine producer, and who similarly moved into books; operating as Fantasy Pubs, his first release was Men of Avalon/The White Sybil (anth 1935 chap), which featured a story each by David H Keller and Clark Ashton Smith, and he continued with Mars Mountain (1935) by Eugene George Key. More importantly, operating as Visionary Publishing Company, he then released The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936) by Lovecraft. It is worth noting that Crawford, like his predecessors, clearly found it easier to publish fantasy than sf; it was not until after World War Two that any significant sf, with one exception, reached book form via the small presses; that exception was Dawn of Flame and Other Stories (coll 1936) by Stanley G Weinbaum, a memorial volume put together by The Milwaukee Fictioneers, a fan group whose members included, among others, Robert Bloch, Ralph Milne Farley and Raymond A Palmer, and which would soon be seen as of great importance. But when in 1939 August Derleth and Wandrei founded Arkham House – which soon became and which remains the most famous of all small presses – they were inspired by Crawford's publication of the Lovecraft title. The reasons for this dominance of fantasy are not entirely clear, but probably come down to accidents of personality and opportunity: the early small presses could be described as close-knit "family" endeavours, and their publications were released to an extremely narrow group of buyers; and the Lovecraft circle, active through the 1920s and 1930s, was exactly the sort of "family" required for primitive small-press activities. It was only after sf Fandom became properly organized at the end of the 1930s that sf itself was able to give birth to the "family" firms that multiplied after World War Two.

It all changed after 1945. Crawford himself began to publish sf with real frequency in 1947, when he founded Fantasy Publishing Company Inc (better known as FPCI), but by then he found himself sharing the sf world with several other new houses, including Fantasy Press, founded by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach in 1946, Gnome Press, founded by David A Kyle and Martin Greenberg in 1948, the Hadley Publishing Company, founded by Donald M Grant and Thomas G Hadley in 1946, Prime Press, founded by Oswald Train and others in 1947, The Avalon Company, founded in 1947 by Will Sykora (1913-1994), which published only one title, Life Everlasting and Other Tales of Science, Fantasy and Horror (coll 1947) by David H Keller, and Shasta Publishers, founded by T E Dikty (whom see for details of his long career), Erle Korshak and Mark Reinsberg in 1947. For almost a decade from 1946 these small presses – along with a few even smaller enterprises – dominated sf publishing. Various factors came together to explain this dominance: general-list firms had not yet discovered the field, while at the same time an influx of young men, all potential readers and book-buyers, had been released from military service; a large backlog of Genre SF had built up in the magazines, including work by several prominent authors who were eager to see their material in book form; the genre was now old enough to have a past worthy of celebration, and had gained through the workings of fandom a singularly loyal readership; and the men (no women were importantly involved) who wished to celebrate the genre by publishing its works were now, most of them, mature and experienced enough to operate small publishing firms with some chance of success. For almost a decade from 1946, the fans and writers of sf seemed to be in control of their own house. For many still alive, those years were the true Golden Age of SF.

By the middle of the 1950s, however, almost all the small presses were moribund or dead, crushed by the rise of the paperback (see Ace Books; Ballantine Books; Bantam Books) and the incursion of general publishers (like Doubleday and Scribners) into what had become a profitable market; in 1995, limited editions remain comparatively difficult to market. Arkham House survived, and some small presses devoted in the main to nonfiction – like Advent: Publishers from 1956, Jack L Chalker's Mirage Press from 1961, NESFA Press from 1967, Lloyd C Currey's and David G Hartwell's Dragon Press from 1971, and Dikty's FAX Collector's Editions and Starmont House from 1972 – continued to produce work. But genre sf, it seemed, had outgrown its familial dependence on fans; it had entered the commercial world, and what small presses remained could hope only to service the fringes of the genre, supplying readers with books of criticism (until the academic houses began to sense that sf might be a growth subject), fan Bibliographies and indexes, and memoirs. Or so it seemed.

There is no doubt that in the 1990s general publishers still dominate commercial sf; but from the early 1970s small presses began to reappear, for reasons which are not entirely understood. FAX Collector's Editions was founded by T E Dikty with Darrell C Richardson in 1972; NESFA Press branched out into fiction in 1972 and would become a substantial publisher of classic sf; Carcosa was founded by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994) in 1973 and continued to 1981; Owlswick Press was founded by George Scithers in 1973; Robert Weinberg Publications by Robert E Weinberg in 1974; the Borgo Press by Robert Reginald in 1975; Underwood-Miller Inc by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller in 1976; Phantasia Press by Sid Altus and Alex Berman in 1978; Locus Press (see Locus) by Charles N Brown in 1981 (with an emphasis on reference material); Mark V Ziesing by Ziesing in 1982, and Dark Harvest by Paul Mikol and Mark Stadalsky in 1983 (with an emphasis on fantasy). Many more followed, including Pulphouse Publishing, founded by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith and others in 1988; and Tachyon Publications, founded in 1995 by Jacob Weisman. Two fine presses (see below) were also active: Roy A Squires, founded by Squires (1920-1988) in 1960, and Cheap Street, founded by Jan and George O'Nale in 1980.

Though nothing can be certain in a field which has expanded so very much, three broad sets of explanations for the small-press renaissance can be suggested: a desire on the part of new generations of sf aficionados to re-occupy the "family" territory, which had for so many years been spoken for by ever-huger publishing firms whose interest in sf was (understandably) merely commercial; a sense that the large general-list firms tended to ignore some writers whose sales potential was limited, and who might profitably be published by a press with an affinity for the author or the material; and a more general sense that small presses might profitably occupy niches left vacant by the commercial houses.

There are several such niches. Because paperback houses became the dominant form of sf publishing after the early 1950s, the work of many significant post-World War Two authors appeared only in the form of paperback originals, and by the 1970s a second pool of publishable work – larger in fact than the pool of material available just after World War Two – had accumulated. Many of the small presses, therefore, concentrated on republishing, in hardback, novels from the previous two decades, thus putting some of the best sf into permanent form, generating library sales for their authors, and making their oeuvres available – a mixed blessing, perhaps – to academics. A second important niche was the collectors' market, which could itself be divided into three sectors: first editions, limited editions, and fine-press productions.

For many sf collectors – whose rationality on the subject is a matter of dispute – the publication of a book as a paperback original does not constitute its first edition as a collectable item, which status is reserved for the first hardback publication. Small-press publishers were very quick to understand and to profit from this bias, and the entirely responsible republication in hardback form of fragile paperback originals soon became somewhat tainted by fetishism, especially when limited editions became popular.

Limited editions are generally thought to be independently created books, identifiable by some statement of limitation, which usually gives the total number of copies produced along with a handwritten or hand-stamped number indicating which precise copy is in the collector's hands. They are often signed. Many collectors assume that limited editions by definition boast at least subtle differences in typesetting, binding or paper quality from the trade issue; unfortunately, this is not always the case, and many are distinguishable from the trade issue by no more than a tipped-in label designating them as special. This practice – added to the extraordinary proliferation of limited editions of unremarkable work, plus the quite astonishing ugliness of many small-press releases – has not unsurprisingly led to a 1990s glut in the limited-edition market; in 1995, limited editions remain comparatively difficult to market.

In distinction to this crassness, publishers of fine-press books like Roy A Squires and Cheap Street have concentrated on the individual crafting of extremely small editions of books produced on the premises by letterpress (a technique of printing directly from movable metal type, an expensive and slow typesetting process otherwise rarely encountered in book-production today). However, because such items are relatively expensive and are purchased by a very particular kind of book collector, it cannot be argued that fine presses represent a return to the roots of the fantasy and sf small press. Those roots continue to be watered, though intermittently, by the small presses cited above, and by dozens of other similar houses. Refreshingly opinionated, though occasionally inaccurate, The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History (3rd, hugely expanded edition 1991; various revs whose presence must be discovered, as copyright data do not reflect them) by Jack L Chalker and Mark Owings provides a comprehensive analysis of about 150 firms.

Since then, many more US small presses have come and gone. Those that have endured include Wildside Press (which see) and Subterranean Press (based in Burton, Michigan), founded in 1989 and 1995 respectively and both still highly active. Also notable in its day was Night Shade Books of San Francisco, California, founded in 1997; this encountered various difficulties in the 2010s and was bought out by the commercial Skyhorse Publishing in 2013. L Timmel Duchamp's Aqueduct Press, founded in 2004 and based in Seattle, Washington, focuses specifically on Feminist fiction and nonfiction.

Today, with the increased accessibility of print-on-demand services (capital outlay on book stocks and warehouse storage space both being problematic for very small publishers), the general decline of midlist titles from traditional publishing firms (it is here that NESFA Press in particular has made its mark), and the growing ease of publishing in Ebook form, the twenty-first century's explosion of small-press production both in the US and elsewhere seems sure to continue.

2. Other countries

There was little to say about specialist sf small-press activity in other English-speaking countries before the 1970s.

The Australian Futurian Press, founded in Sydney in 1950 by Vol Molesworth and others, operated for a few years; and Donald H Tuck formed Donald H Tuck in 1954 to publish the first versions of what became the essential Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1968 (3 vols 1974, 1978 and 1982, all US, from Advent). Two decades later, however, with the founding of two houses – Norstrilia Press in 1975 by Bruce Gillespie and Void Publications (see Void) by Paul Collins in 1978 – small presses finally became a visible component of Australia's sf scene. Later imprints include Graham Stone from 1989, Aphelion Publications (see Aphelion) from 1990 and Dreamstone from 1991. However, Norstrilia and Void stopped publishing in 1984 and the other firms are frail.

Canada saw even less activity than Australia, perhaps because Canadian sf fans had readily available to them the formidable output of US small presses. Occasional imprints appeared – like the Kakabeka Publishing Company, which published Judith Merril's Survival Ship (coll 1973) and some non-sf books. More recently, the Press Porcépic issued an anthology of Canadian sf, Tesseracts (anth 1985) edited by Merril, the first in a series, and subsequently calved a second small press, The Books Collective whose sole imprint was Tesseract Books, in 1988. And United Mythologies Press was founded in 1990 essentially to print unpublished works by R A Lafferty, though it soon began to look further afield. In the new century, the Toronto-based ChiZine Publications (associated with the Online Magazine of the same name) has published much notable weird fiction since about 2009.

In the UK, small-press publishing did not awake sustained interest among the sf community until the 1980s, the only example of an interest from earlier being Ferret Fantasy, founded by George Locke in 1972 mainly to publish bibliographical work plus occasional reprints. Philip Stephensen-Payne's and Gordon Benson Jr's Galactic Central, founded in the early 1980s, was focused on bibliographical checklists which continued to appear regularly until 2006. Roger Robinson's Beccon Publications likewise began (in 1981) with bibliographies plus Filk compilations, though this imprint was to publish significant critical collections by John Clute, Gary K Wolfe and others in the twenty-first century. Though never a major player, the Birmingham Science Fiction Group has since 1979 published a long sequence of chapbooks – some now sought-after – showcasing short work by guests of honour at the group's Novacon (which see).

However, with the founding of Kerosina Publications in 1986 by James Goddard and several colleagues, a small fictional flowering occurred. Morrigan Publications was founded in 1987 by Jim and Les Escott, Kinnell Publications in 1987 by A E Cunningham and Richard G Lewis, and Drunken Dragon Press in 1988 by Rod Milner and Rog Peyton; by 1995, however, all these firms had either formally given up the ghost, or were inactive. Slightly earlier, Titan Books, an arm of the Forbidden Planet/Titan bookselling and distribution complex, was brought into existence as a small press, but by 1990 (after 3 books) it had moved into general publishing. However, none of these firms – with the exception of Kerosina for a year or so – published original UK work with enough frequency to make a significant impact.

Most notable in terms of UK fiction publishing in the new century were the founding of PS Publishing by Peter Crowther in 1998 and of NewCon Press by Ian Whates in 2006; both have endured and both have produced many Anthologies. Other, lower-output small presses associated with particular UK authors include Storm Constantine's Immanion Press (from 2003), with an emphasis on Fantasy, and David Langford's Ansible Editions (from 2003, initially in partnership with Christopher Priest), mostly reprints and nonfiction. There are many more. [JC/DRL]

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