EARLY F&SF BOOK CLUBS

Has any young and poor f&sf book lover not joined the Science Fiction Book Club? Nothing was more ubiquitous when I first got involved in organized fandom than seeing Isaac Asimov's one-volume Foundation Trilogy and Harlan Ellison's mammoth Dangerous Visions anthology in their SFBC editions. You got them as one of three initial selections for $1 and then didn't much care whether you ordered more from the monthly catalog. You'd already gotten your money's worth. Of course, everybody did get more because the titles were too tempting.

The SFBC was run by a subsidiary of the mainstream giant Doubleday, part of their constellation of book clubs on every conceivable subject. Doubleday had all the money in the world, and therefore the heft to publicize their clubs in newspapers and magazines, the dominant media of the mid 20th century. The SFBC debuted in late 1952 with full-page advertisements in newspapers.

Chicago Tribune Nov. 9, 1952 4-24 SFBC ad

And in soon in science fiction magazines.

SFBC ad Galaxy October 1953
SFBC ad Galaxy October 1953

Those two pages are the back cover and the inside book cover from the October 1953 Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. A bizarre oddity I can't explain is that none of the books mention an author. Were Doubleday's marketers assuming that core sf readers already knew who the books were by? Or the reverse, that hardcore fans would buy the books no matter whom they were by?

Either way, the ads worked. The SFBC flooded the audience with cheap versions of the original hardbacks. Only a giant publisher could afford to sell books so inexpensively, partly because the titles were advertisements for itself. Four of the five novels in the Galaxy ad had all been published by Doubleday, as had all the novels in the newspaper ad.

The exception was Sands of Mars, an Arthur C. Clarke title first published in the U.S. by Gnome Press, a small specialty f&sf publisher. A. E. van Vogt's The Mixed Men and Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation, also 1953 selections, both originated with Gnome as well. A tiny outfit like Gnome, without the advertising budget or sales staff that Doubleday possessed had enough trouble trying to compete with equal pricing. Doubleday stopped poaching books from them but the basic concept was enough of a death blow to Gnome and the other surviving small f&sf presses all by itself. Only Gnome survived more than a couple of years and all Gnome did in those years was add to its unpayable debt.

Yet a book club for f&sf fans was a great idea. So great that everybody jumped on that bandwagon. Fans started them. Publishers started them. Bookstores started them. Imagine. Hardcore readers might have access to every f&sf book published that year. Every one a certifiable collectible classic, though they had no way of knowing that at the time. Best of all, the book clubs offered the original hardback, not a cheap reprint. The price was right, too. Individual books were original price but the special offers made long-term buying a good investment.

First to get started was Ken Krueger, a Buffalo fan, with a never-scratchable itch to be a publisher, progenitor of a long list of presses and magazines. In early 1949, Bob Tucker wrote that "About three years ago, Kenneth Kreuger of Buffalo advanced the idea of a fantasy book club, briefly advertised it, and was swallowed up by the army." (Note that Tucker misspelled Ken's name. Lots of people did that, but Krueger is correct.) While still in the army, Krueger joined with Donald M. Grant and Thomas P. Hadley to form Buffalo Book Co., in Providence, RI, where they were stationed. (Buffalo was Krueger's idea.) They managed to bring out two books in 1946, John Taine's The Time Stream and Doc Smith's The Skylark of Space and lo and behold, the postwar boom in small presses was born. The press was long gone by 1949, but Tucker wrote in September that:

Another book club due soon from Ken Krueger ... to be named "Personal Book Association". Will handle science-fiction, fantasy and other tomes at $1 per book, on a "buy three, get one free" basis.

Note that Tucker got the name spelled right this time. And that science-fiction was hyphenated, not a mistake but the common way to present the term, still used by the SFBC three years later.

I can't find any evidence of either of the book clubs elsewhere, likely because they were advertised in fanzines that haven't yet been digitized. Buffalo Book Co. didn't last either. Krueger wasn't the right person to be an entrepreneur.

1948-05 Astounding, Fantasy Guild ad

The Fantasy Guild therefore gets the honor of the being the first to advertise a book club in a professional publication, with the above ad appearing in Astounding Science Fiction (not hyphenated: the switch occurred with the October 1946 issue) in May 1948. Fancyclopedia II says that the van Vogt was the second selection of the club, the first being The Lost Cavern and Others Tales of the Fantastic by H. F. Heard. That collection was published by Vanguard Books, a small but very distinguished mainstream press. The World of Ā (or The World of Null-A for the font-deprived) was published was the giant and very distinguished mainstream press Simon & Schuster. The mainstream publishers were very cautiously dipping their toes into f&sf after the war, but not sufficiently to even slightly slake the appetites of fans. Book clubs and specialty book services were urgently needed to filter the pitifully few genre titles from the hundreds of books published each year, and doubly valued when they provided discounts like "a free dividend book for every three selections" purchased. The Fantasy Guild didn't last long, disappearing by August 1948, although it sent its few loyal patrons ... And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey as a dividend. That was the second book by an actual small press, Prime Press.

1948-06 Astounding, Reader's Service Book Club ad

The June issue of Astounding saw the debut of another California-based book club, started by a San Jose bookstore, offering subscribers ... A. E. van Vogt's The World of Ā. The Reader's Service Book Club had a lure, though: an autographed edition. Van Vogt is not a huge name in the modern world but he was a star in the 1940s and his magazine serializations turned into some of the first postwar hardback offerings. The World of Ā was Simon & Schuster's first true science fiction publication, 1946's Slan was the only sf release from the seminal small press Arkham House, better known for its fantasy and horror, in its first 40 years of operation, Hadley published The Weapon Makers in 1947, the same year that Fantasy Press published The Book of Ptath; and Fantasy Publishing Company, Inc. put out a collection of short stories written with his wife, E. Mayne Hull, Out of the Unknown, in 1948. Everybody wanted him.

Besides, what were the alternatives? Check out these two ads, from the July and December 1948 Astoundings.

1948-07 Astounding, Reader's Service Book Club ad

Consider yourself a connoisseur if you recognize any of the titles in the first ad. The Vicarion was a 1926 novel published by the Unity School of Christianity; Strange Superstitions and Magical Practices covered the occult for The Blakiston Company; Alfred G. Bennett easily got Pharos Books to publish Whom the Gods Destroy because he was its founder; Howard Browne was a semi-recognizable name then as managing editor of Amazing Stories, to which he contributed a handful of stories under pseudonyms and, under his own name, Warrior of the Dawn, published by Reilly & Lee, which otherwise did only Oz books; and the very long anthology of old fantasy stories, Pause to Wonder, published by the mainstream house Julian Messner.

Yet who am I to judge, since only that last title was listed as "still available" in the December ad. Some readers out there apparently appreciated scraping the bottom of the barrel. Even historians of the genre might not recognize the headliner, Ray Cummings' Shadow Girl, a 1929 serial from the pages of Argosy All-Story Weekly, put into hardcovers by British publisher Gerald G. Swan in 1945. Better known was and is M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, a classic from 1901. Does its number of 163 mean that Reader's Service had 163 titles on its list, presumably in other genres? A good question, but I can't find a trace of its existence outside of ads in the f&sf magazines.

And check this out, from the March 1950 Astounding:

1950-03 Astounding, Reader's Service Book Club ad

Both the Shiel and the Bennett, but with different numbers. The club stopped using numbers in its ads after 1951 so further tracing is impossible. Whatever marketing tricks they used worked: it was the longest-lasting f&sf book club until the SFBC surpassed it. I find ads from it in magazines through September 1955.

 

The fanclub called The National Fantasy Fan lists a Donald Cheney at the 119 E. San Fernando St., San Jose, CA address in 1950. Unfortunately, no other hits for that name pop up in fan records.

While we're pondering mysteries, here's a good one. Was the Reader's Service even a Book Club? The SFBC and its ilk have conditioned us that a book club offers cheap books as an introductory come on, and then commands us to buy a certain number more to ensure their profitability, while offering a continuing stream of new titles to tempt members into buying as many books as possible. Reader's Service never followed this model. Any bookstore could list titles and sell them at cost, and in the early 1950s several other stores did exactly that, recognizing just like the small presses that a niche had emerged that panted for product. Reader's Service often seemed like a poor quality bookstore - and there are hints that's exactly what it was. Perhaps the Reader's Service was merely a clever way of cleaning its shelves out of old stock. I mean, even its free come-ons were odd stuff.

1949-07 Astounding, Reader's Service Book Club ad

A somewhat better promotion started just two months later, in the November 1949 Astounding. A year's subscription cost $2.50 in 1949, same as a hardcover book but with 12 times the content. That was a major reason why magazines sold 100,000 copies and books were lucky to hit 2,000.

 

Sure sign of an amateur: an ad that breaks up the copy in the worst possible spot. "Here is an offer you can't afford" is a laugh line, no matter that it's followed by "to miss! Satisfaction guaranteed!"

1949-11 Astounding, Reader's Service Book Club ad

Weird Tales readers got the same treatment the same month, but with a lesser offer since their subscriptions ran only $1.50. Cheney microtargeted them with a different set of books. The complete run of Reader's Service ads make me think that its core audience was more fantasy, horror, and occult readers than science fiction fans, but that there simply weren't that many magazines that catered to them.

Perhaps that's why Reader's Service was the most ecumenical of advertisers, putting its ads in virtually every genre magazine of the day, Astounding, Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, Galaxy, F&SF, Other Worlds, Imagination, Weird Tales, and Amazing editor Ray Palmer's looney tunes - but purportedly nonfiction! - Mystic Magazine ("Venusians Walk Our Streets!") Cheney, if it was him, slanted his ads differently for different magazines, in ways that would be fascinating to talk with him about.

1953-08 F&SF, Reader's Service Book Club ad
1953-08 Astounding, Reader's Service Book Club ad

Both of these ads appeared in August 1953 magazines, the top one in F&SF, the bottom one in Astounding. The offer is exactly the same in each, yet they might be for totally different products. The F&SF ad is for three books, seemingly a good deal for 25¢. Readers who stopped and thought for a moment might wonder about anthologies having only six stories in them, even ones that were "paper-bound." Such books were unheard of at the time. Astounding readers got the full story. The 18 stories weren't in books of any kind, but three issues of the 1948 semi-pro magazine Fantasy Book. The magazine had some big names, true, but hardly their best work. Only its rarity because of limited distribution might be a lure. Why one ad had its catalog featured in a large text block and the other relegated it to fine print is another design choice that must mean something.

1955-07 Galaxy, Reader's Service Book Club ad

By 1955, Reader's Service was advertising solely in Galaxy. (Weird Tales had folded in 1954.) The last ads mentioned no book titles at all, more resembling the offers of a big bag of miscellaneous stamps in the back of comic books. The entry point rose to 35¢ from 25¢ reflecting the similar rise in price of the magazines themselves. How "Three full-length science fiction novels!" could total to only 50,000 words is a mystery. Even the three Fantasy Books would have had 50,000 words of fiction in each and they were smaller than an issue of Galaxy. Cheney was trapped in the same bubble of diminishing returns that affected so many others in the relatively tiny genre field. Small rewards brought in fewer new customers, but huge giveaways ate away at whatever profits were to come. Cheney outlasted the rest but fell to the same market pressures that killed so many of his competitors.

Interesting and forgotten side note. The f&sf field was generically known as fantasy until the early 1950s. None of the early book clubs had science fiction in their titles, while the majority used fantasy. Not one of the small presses that sprang up after the war had science fiction in their names either, but many of them used fantasy or some word connoting fantasy. Nevertheless, the book world was busily switching over the emphasis in f&sf to the science fiction side. The SFBC took advantage of this by forthrightly putting Science Fiction in the title, forever calling dibs on the most important two words in the field and thereby dooming what few competitors remained.

Two other bookstores started their competing book clubs in 1949 and 1950. Julius Unger was the 800-gorilla of f&sf bookstores in the era, taking out full-page ads in many magazines to list his seemingly infinite and yet ever-growing stock. Lucky readers of that November 1949 Weird Tales saw his introductory ad for The Fantasy Fiction Field Book Club.

Unger's marketing plan was true book club: a free introductory book with another free book for every additional three you bought. The "free items" weren't top notch but the selection including all the small presses and many mainstream offerings. Maybe that's why Reader's Service featured so many oddball titles that would-be buyers didn't see elsewhere.

1949-11 Weird Tales, Fantasy Fiction Field Book Club ad

The smaller Werewolf Bookstore - another fantasy image - followed in the February 1950 Astounding with the Fantasy Fan's Book Club. They had, as the ad said, been advertising in Astounding since February 1948, but just as a regular bookstore. Presumably, they had to add on the book club model to stay competitive.

1950-02 Astounding, Fantasy Fan's Book Club ad

For the completists out there, I need to reference one more entry in Fancyclopedia II:

 

A more fannish attempt at a book club was the Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Club -- no relation to the prozine or bookshop of this name -- hatched by Ron Rentz in 1952 which was supposed to be non-profit and doubtless was.  Its first (and only) selection was Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano

Rentz put out one issue of a fanzine to publicize the club, and it got a long mention in the February 1953 Amazing Stories, as well as call-outs in half a dozen other pofessional magazines in early 1953.

1953-02 Amazing, Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Club

Rentz's timing was spectacularly unfortunate, as he coincided with the debut of the SFBC. He vanished as fast as a meteor streaking across the sky.

Although poor forgotten Ken Krueger may deserve the honor of being first, all these other book clubs had been overshadowed from the beginning. Only one outfit could name itself the Fantasy Book Club, and that prize had been snagged way back in 1947.

Fantasy Review, Aug-Sep 1947 Fantasy Book Club

Everything here is different. The proprietor is a publisher rather than a dealer. The books would be the publisher's, not aggregated from a variety of houses. No discounts, free books, or dividends are mentioned. The Fantasy Book Club (FBC) isn't a book club at all by normal definitions.

So why even mention it other than for the name? Because both book clubs and the small presses that sprang up after the war acted like any set of start-ups, forming, splitting, reforming, rebranding, rethinking, until some workable commercial model emerged.

The New Collectors' Group never released another book after the two Bok-finished Merrit titles. When the dust settled amidst much acrimony, a partner in the operation, Martin Greenberg, walked off with the spoils, an original novel by the at-the-time phenomenally popular duo of Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp.  That book, The Carnelian Cube, became the first book published by Greenberg's Gnome Press (yep, another fantasy reference). Greenberg took on Dave Kyle as a partner. Greenberg was a fabulous idea man and grew Gnome into the premier small press. Kyle, who had been in fandom for more than a decade and knew everybody, had plenty of good ideas of his own. One of them was taking the mess of a non-book club that O'Connor envisioned and straightening it out.

The result can be seen at the top of this page. The Carnelian Cube wound up not appearing until the end of 1948 but that just gave them time to prepare for a huge running start, with that ad appearing in a December 1948 fanzine. Gnome books dominated, but the FBC also featured books by Gnome's three largest competitors, Fantasy Press, Prime Press, and Shasta Publishers. The book club model we know today was adhered to, given in an early 1949 fanzine.

[T]he purchase of any two volumes at the regular price brings you a free premium; first two premiums available to members are THE PORCELAIN MAGICIAN by Frank Owen, and George O. Smith’s PATTERN FOR CONQUEST, each from Gnome Press. Forthcoming selection is THE 31st OF FEBRUARY, by Nelson Bond.

Published every other month for members is the club bulletin, detailing all club books and allied fantasy material. The bulletin buys short stories of 2000 worlds for $25 (slanted fantasy-wise), and is conducting a contest to name the paper. Free copies may be had for the asking.

The Fantasy Book Club Bulletin is today one of the rarest items in the field. I found an image in a university library's archives of the vast fanzine collection donated to them by Rusty Hevelin.

Fantasy Book Club Bulletin

Charter members also got a chance to purchase another of Greenberg's big ideas - a Fantasy Calendar, with artwork by Hannes Bok, Edd Cartier, and Frank R. Paul, another collector's item today.

1949-02 Astounding Fantasy Book Club ad

And then, poof. The FBC vanished before the end of 1949. The only clue I've been able to dredge up is a squib in the September 1949 Operation Fantast, another fanzine. "Dave Kyle ... had a program set-back, and had to swing in two old books, to make up the three-for-six-bucks scheme." No mention of which books were out and which replaced them. No more ads ever appeared either. Gnome was having the normal growing pains at the time - the squib immediately following mentioned printing problems with the Frank Owen book listed as a premium in the ad at top - and the challenge of a two-person operation handling the endless grunt work of customer fulfillment along with the endless work of starting a new business was undoubtedly one endless too many.

And so they failed, one by one. Cheap reprints triumphed every time. Like a book example of Gresham's Law, bad books drove out good books, or perhaps, cheap books drove the publishers of the originals out of business. Look at the difference between the Gnome cover for A. E. van Vogt's The Mixed Men and the shoddy reprint the SFBC peddled.

SFBC Mixed Men jacket cover

That's not a scanner distortion: the paper used for the SFBC cover was practically construction paper and it has darkened on all such copies I've seen. Admittedly, Doubleday quickly learned better and issued all its books after this and Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars in copies of the original jacket. Other aspects of quality never improved. Never had to.

Before Barnes & Noble and Amazon decimated the small, independent bookstores, the SFBC destroyed the small f&sf genre presses and book clubs. Yet, just as the chains and the e-tailers put infinite options into our greedy hands, the SFBC undoubtedly expanded the market for science fiction by at least an order of magnitude. That made it possible for the field to survive the genre's near-collapse in the late 1950s and get to the revival of the 1960s that hasn't yet let up. No more three books for $1.00, though. Today you get two books for $9.99. Cheap books never go out of style.

December 6, 2020

EK

Comments, questions, corrections, and words of praise can be sent via the Contact page.

    © 2023 by EK. Proudly created with Wix.com