The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE FUTURE PAYS WELL - SOMETIMES
This article on how early science fiction writers looked at their field first appeared in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Winter 2013, issue #200, under the title "A Good Living for Many a Shamo-Scientific Writer: The Science Fiction Marketplace Before SFWA."
The story form we today call f&sf has a long history, with various writers pushing its origin back to Lucian of Samosata, to the Bible, to Gilgamesh, and I expect someone soon to claim that Altamiran cave art depicts a graphic novel about alien hand people. The almost incomprehensibly thorough and thoroughly staggering labor of love, Science-Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler, provides summaries of “more than 3,000 science-fiction stories from earliest times to the appearance of the genre magazines in 1930.” Science could fuel any plot; science fiction as a field had to await for the mass public to be awash in technological change and innovation, something that didn’t happen until the close of the 19th century. One of those technological changes was the appearance of cheap, mass-printed and mass-distribution magazines, often on thick, brittle, brown, cheap pulp paper. Frank A. Munsey, the magazine magnate, converted an existing general interest publication called The Argosy to an all-fiction format starting with the October 1896 issue, printing it on a good grade of uncoated stock. By December he had come to his senses and converted to pulp. The pulp era began that day.
Nobody was more ready for the pulp era than a hack’s hack named William Wallace Cook. In his first year plying the trade, 1893, the 26-year-old Cook, banging away at the first of some 25 primitive typewriters he hoped would keep up with his fingers, knocked out some 800,000 words under a variety of pseudonyms. That brought in a tidy $1825, about ¼¢ a word, half again as much as he would have made at the clerk’s job he quit to write full time. Cook had no name or reputation, but he was facile and a good enough mimic to be the guy that took over series when bigger-name writers got sick of them. Editors loved him.
He said so himself. By 1912 he was a weary veteran, with the ups and downs of a freelancer’s life – changing tastes and bouts of rheumatism in his typing fingers left him near-destitute more than once – and a million stories and lessons to impart. Under the pseudonym John Milton Edwards he wrote an hagiography masquerading as a how-to book titled The Fiction Factory, a name he lovingly bestows upon himself. Every penny he made from pulping is detailed, including the many dollars he received for inventing American science fiction. Oh, yes he did. Sure, he’s not listed in the standard histories like Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree or even in the historical surveys like Pilgrims Through Time and Space by J. O. Bailey or The Pattern of Expectation: 1644-2001 by I. F. Clarke, but he wrote half a dozen major novels that were serialized in the pulps, keeping his name in tables of contents for years on end, and saw them reprinted in early-style paper covers. And here’s the thing that may be unique in all the field’s history: he saved his real name for his science fiction.
Cook’s first sf novel was A Round Trip to the Year 2000; or, A Flight Through Time, which appeared in The Argosy from July through November of 1903 and in book form in 1908. Freed from the dominant 19th century mode of expository blocks of leaden narrative – the first chapter of The War of the Worlds contains one line of dialog – Cook wrote as a modern, with breathless action, witty repartee, and cliffhanger chapter endings that relieve him of bothering with explanations for his implausibilities. Round Trip was in fact a satire on such books, especially Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and introduced the first society completely built around robots (here called muglugs), one controlled by the Air Trust, an all-pervasive monopoly which metered the air you breathed and charged you accordingly. His 1905 serial, Marooned in 1492; or, Under Fortune’s Flag may have introduced the travel-through-time-to-change-history lode which thousands have since mined. (With far better time travel mechanisms than eating special plant seeds!)
In The Fiction Factory, Cook uses fake titles for all his works, but he mentions a story called “There and Back” which is obviously Round Trip, as well as another named “Ninety, North,” a clear reference to Cast Away at the Pole, the next adventure to appear in The Argosy. He received $250 and $150 for them, respectively, fractions of a cent per word, and was happy to get that. “This story, "Ninety, North," paved the way for other fantastic yarns which made a decided hit in The Argosy and so pointed Edwards along a fresh line of endeavor which proved as congenial as it was profitable.” Profitable for The Argosy as well. “The first installment of ‘There and Back,’ [the editor] informed Edwards, had increased The Argosy's circulation seven thousand copies.” He wrote the book in twelve days. Street and Smith paid him $100 per book for republication of seven titles in paperback, although Cook was forced to add up to 30,000 words to make the novels a uniform 75,000 words. The effort was worth it, as his 1908 earnings exceeded $5,500, about ten times the average salary of the day. Writing 45 “nickel novels” – boys’ adventure novelettes – didn’t hurt. The real winner was the publisher. Munsey’s profit for The Argosy in 1904 was a nifty $237,000 and reached $300,000 by 1907.
Cook downplays his science fiction, something to him that was merely a small niche in his output without even a name to categorize it; he refers to it variously as “weird,” “fantastic,” and “imaginative” fiction. The blockbuster sales of H. G. Wells in the slick magazines carried over when the pulps reprinted him, though, and fantastic fiction in general appeared to reliably increase circulation. The pulps sought out these stories with such regularity that they became a category.
One of the most profitable fields of fiction, if the author knows how to cultivate it, is that which for lack of a better term we may call “Pseudo-Scientific.” … The public, especially in these latter days, is insatiably eager for science mingled with fiction. Given a sufficiently arresting premise, a strong imaginative sense, some skill in the distortion of facts and – of course – the essential dramatic instinct without which no fiction-writer can thrive, the literary worker should be able to reap comfortable rewards from this sort of work.
Written three years before the appearance of the first science fiction magazine, these words nail down our field with economy and grace. George Allan England penned them in an article for The Story World, dated July 1923, under the title “Facts About Fantasy.” Another name that is generally forgotten today, England was a force in his time, ranking just under Edgar Rice Burroughs among Americans. A dedicated socialist, he wrote a humorless novel about the ultimate capitalist evil, titled The Air Trust, in which people would be forced to pay for the very air they breathed. No word on what Cook thought of the novel.
England proffers no hard numbers about pay or circulation, but his depiction of good pseudo-scientific writing is utterly different from the slap-dash nonsense that was Cook’s stock in trade and so accurate that chills should cascade down your spine. [R]ight here let me remark that science-faking requires a great deal of research. One has to “bone” an immense mass of data, in order to give the requisite air of verisimilitude. Slipshod methods won’t do. It is the progressive marshaling of minutiae, the cumulative assembling of (often willfully falsified) data that convinces the reader that: “Well, it’s mighty strange but still there might be something to it, after all.” On a pinch, one can quote learned authorities which never existed, and fabricate weighty conclusions out of whole cloth. If one cannot, it proves that one has not the requisite analytical twist to make one a success at this particularly mendacious form of story-telling.
England concludes on an exhortatory note:
By no means do I confine myself to scientific fairy tales. Most of my work is legitimate enough. Only now and then do I break loose, choose an alluring theme, sand the rail, pull out the throttle and go careering on a mad run through the uplands of Science. It’s an exilerating [sic] form of sport; and what’s better, it pays.
Lawrence Block calls writing “the liar’s trade,” so take England’s upbeat words with a grain of salt. He never wrote another work of science-faking for the rest of his career. Maybe it didn’t pay.
If it didn’t, the reason had a name and that name was Hugo Gernsback. Starting with the launch of Amazing Stories in April, 1926, an all reprint issue that included a story by England, the field had a home that demanded attention from those with a like bent, as well as a name, scientifiction, coined by Gernsback in 1916 and used generally for decades. In the 1940s, e.g., George Orwell called H. G. Wells the father of Scientifiction. Somehow, though, a side comment in the January 1927 Amazing slipped by everyone, when Jules Verne was defended as “a short of Shakespeare in science fiction.” Nobody saw that first use of the term in the modern sense growing into a billion-dollar industry any more than they saw the looming Depression.
By any name, Gernsback’s Amazing was a shoestring operation. Reprints, paid for at 1/5¢ a word, filled the first few issues while Gernsback scrambled to find writers who would lower their pay rates for a sure sale. In January 1927, Gernsback plaintively wrote to Murray Leinster’s agent, Robert T. Hardy, “We are trying to create a market for fiction of this kind, but so far the magazine has not paid, and until it does we have to buy material as low as we possibly can.” (Gernsback had an income of at least $50,000 a year at this point.) Leinster had been receiving 2¢ a word at other publications and Hardy saw no reason for him to take a fraction of that. Later in 1927, a letter to Edward Hamilton said that short stories paid $15 to $30. H. P. Lovecraft fared even worse. Weird Tales, the one genre competitor to Amazing, had paid him $165 for “The Call of Cthulhu,” but he received only $25 from Gernsback for the similarly-lengthed novelette “The Colour Out of Space.” Lovecraft’s epithet was “Hugo the rat.” Could Amazing go lower? Certainly. Doc Smith’s "The Skylark of Space" brought in $125 but only after he rejected a $75 offer. That divided out as a stunning 1/7¢ a word for the 90,000 word novel, a pitiful rate of return even for a book that had sat in a drawer for seven years.
What the nascent field needed was competition to drive up rates. Gernsback’s bankruptcy in 1929 gave other pulp companies an opening. William Clayton had been seeking to put out “a pseudo-science fantasy sheet” and finally did so in January 1930 when the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science appeared. What was truly astounding was its pay, a full 2¢ a word, a bounty that meant “the pseudo-scientific field … hitherto comparatively little known, and rather unprofitable for the general fiction writer, now assumes a new and more enticing aspect.”
That comes from a seminal article, “The Pseudo-Scientific Field,” which appeared in the May 1930 issue of Author and Journalist. Despite the leaden opening line – and it gets worse – the author was a well-regarded writer for the slicks, R. Jere Black, Jr., who had even contributed three poems to Weird Tales. After dazzling would-be contributors with Astounding’s munificence, he admits that Gernsback’s post-bankruptcy return magazine Science Wonder Stories paid only 1/2¢ a word as did his other titles, while Weird Tales was 3/4¢ and up. In what were now Depression days, those rates might beckon for writers of a certain sort of story, which he proceeded to describe.
All pseudo-scientific fiction is just that. [italics in original] Fiction with a super-imposed coating of popularized, easy-to-swallow science – sometimes a rather tenuous coating. The majority of the stories used by these magazines may be grouped into four grand divisions in the order of their popularity with readers and – consequently – editors. …
I. – The Interplanetary Tale
II. – The Tale of the Future
III. – The Giant Insect Tale
IV. – The Fourth Dimension Tale
Lest you doubt that these were favorites, Black catalogues the few issues of Astounding already published and finds “two interplanetary tales, one giant insect (as serial), one fourth-dimension, one scientific detective, one scientifically resurrected corpse, one mechanical robot, one elixir of life.” Assuring the reader that “the field offers ... opportunity,” Black expounds on each type of tale at length and the temptation to quote at equal length won two of five sets. But I’ll confine myself to these brief excerpts:
Details of just how the invention is consummated are – of necessity – rather meager, though the lack of scientific parameters is often adroitly camouflaged by the use of polysyllabic scientific generalities. … So up goes our hero, up to the moon, or Mercury, or Venus, any one or all, depending of course upon the author’s preference. Once there, the writer can let his imagination run riot, restricted only by certain earth-bound tabus. While there does not absolutely have to be a girl, there generally is – one who either accompanied the scientist hero (properly chaperoned, of course) from the earth, or a maiden of the moon, a Neptune niftie, Jupiter Juno, or what have you? Then there must be a battle with the inhabitants of the visited planet, almost invariably equipped with death rays, in which combat of course the hero is triumphant, foiling their attempts to steal his spacecar or the girl, and, finally, after many fantastic adventures, returning to earth together with his sweetheart and some rare unearthly spoils.
Mind you, that was a writer championing these types of stories. The mainstream press took the field far less seriously. The Press section of Time for July 10, 1939, ran an article that dripped condescension. The date should ring bells for the most knowledgeable science fiction historians. For the three days of July 2-4, 1939, 200 fans attended what we now think of as the first Worldcon in New York City, which Time leaped upon as an excuse to discuss the field. Magazines were at their pre-war peak.
"Today the magazines in this prosperous publishing group (chiefly controlled by the big pulp firms of Street & Smith, Standard Magazines and Ziff-Davis), average about 150,000 readers apiece (sometimes much more), make a good living for many a shamo-scientific writer.” One such was “Ray Cummings, a veteran pseudo-fictioneer” who “claims to have originated in his stories the word Newscaster and the phrase The World of Tomorrow.” Pay was a brisk 1¢ to 4¢ a word for what Time announced that the pulp trade knew as "pseudo-scientifics" or "scientifiction” although, “Many a well-known author who commands higher rates in slick-paper magazines writes these stories for fun.”
The audience for these stories was probably not thought to be a regular reader of Time.
Scientifiction's fans, mostly boys of 16 to 20, are the jitterbugs of the pulp magazine field. Many keep every issue, and a copy of the magazine's first issue often fetches $25 from collectors. Publishers soon discovered another odd fact about their readers: They are exceptionally articulate. Most of these magazines have letters columns, in which readers appraise stories. Sample: "Gosh! Wow! Boyoh-boy!, and so forth and so on. Yesiree, yesiree, it's the greatest in the land and the best that's on the stand, and I do mean THRILLING WONDER STORIES, and especially that great, magnificent, glorious, most thrilling June issue of the mosta and the besta of science fiction magazines."
Most of the dozen science fiction pulp titles that Time mentions were killed off by wartime paper restrictions and the abrupt shift in popular reading to paperbacks and comic books, many of which sold in the millions, far more than any individual pulp had. Mysteries, followed by westerns and romances, dominated the paperback racks but those in the science fiction field saw a niche unexploited by mainstream publishers. Dozens of small presses sprang up, with evocative names like Visionary Press, Merlin Press, Macabre House, and the New Era Publishing Company. Gnome Press alone published Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a collection of novellas by L. Ron Hubbard, two fantasies by L. Sprague de Camp, and Simak’s Cosmic Engineers all by the end of 1950 with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot right on their heels. New magazines rushed to take advantage of the smaller digest size, piggybacking on the use of printing presses that also published over 2000 digest-sized novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many f&sf, competing with and complementing the smaller rack-sized paperbacks.
And then finally, finally, the science fiction field received the consideration as a legitimate segment of the writer’s world that it deserved. In 1953 Hermitage House, better known then and today as the publisher of Dianetics, released five volumes of a Professional Writers Library. For inexplicable reasons each of the books was released with a front cover consisting of cursive script on lined paper, implying an audience of fifth graders rather than professionals. Publishers and mysterious cover art choices are the one eternal verity. Hermitage tested the waters in 1952 with the obvious, Marie F. Rodell’s Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique, and then went for broke, issuing L. Sprague de Camp’s Science-Fiction Handbook: The Writing of Imaginative Fiction. [Note the hyphen, like the one in Spider-Man.] Celebration of the field’s coming of age is dampened only slightly by the fact that the book killed off the series. Apparently the secrets of science-fiction were one more truth that the public was not ready to know.
Surprisingly from a modern perspective, the how-to portion of this how-to book comprises less than half the pages. De Camp begins by creating a deep history and scope for a field that had lacked either. (Deep but not necessarily comprehensive. England is not mentioned; Cook gets a single line. Fantasists from Lovecraft to C. S. Lewis fill most of a chapter but fellow Inkling Tolkien is invisible.) Even the fan community receives a whole chapter. The chapter on “Markets and Editors” sprawls, with an endless stream of outlets for writers of any style or type.
Twenty-six magazines devoted to new fantasy, science fiction, or both could be found on newsstands, back when the word connoted actual newsstands, and that didn’t include four reprint mags. They carried an average of eight stories an issue, with frequency varying from monthly to annually. To the nearest order of magnitude, a thousand new imaginative stories appeared in the magazines in 1953. Yet competition for this proliferation of slots was as keen as always. De Camp estimates that only 2% to 10% of submissions saw publication. Word rates… Well, I have to correct myself. Here’s a second eternal verity. Word rates ranged across the exact same 1¢ to 4¢ a word that Time reported for the pulp world a decade earlier.
In the most exciting development, the one that would forever change the field although de Camp couldn’t know that, a host of mainstream publishers had recently begun publishing these imaginative novels. The numbers strewn through this section are the ones that seem quaintest.
A couple of the largest publishers (Doubleday and Simon and Schuster) have set up separate departments like their detective-story departments to handle imaginative fiction. …
In addition the publisher pays the author an advance against royalties, which may range from $500 to $1,000 for a large publisher or from $100 and [sic] $500 for a medium-sized or small publisher. …
While there are no accurate estimates of the average sale of science-fiction novels, it probably lies between 1,500 and 3,000 copies. Occasionally one goes over 5,000, while some oviparous ones never surpass a thousand.
Can we please bring back oviparous as the omnibus word for books (and movies, and television shows, and … ) that lay an egg? Science-Fiction Handbook is a marvelous read and unquestionably the best contemporary look at a slice of f&sf history ever done. My local main library kept a copy of it all these years and you might want to explore your card catalogues. Used copies are available at remarkably low prices. Make sure you get the original, though. A revised and much shorter edition was published in 1975 by Owlswick Press that contains mere wisps of the earlier volume.
This Magazine Age, Gold-Plated if not Golden, lasted only a few years. By the end of the decade, a series of bankruptcies among publishers and distributors decimated the field. Lester del Rey in The World of Science Fiction marks 1953 as the all-time high point, with 36 magazine titles producing 174 issues. (His definition is a bit more generous than de Camp’s.) In 1961 the comparable numbers were 6 and 60. Books took over as the repository of dollars for writers wanting to make a living at the shamo-scientific field. Novels, both hardcovers and, increasingly, paperbacks sold in record numbers. In the revised Handbook de Camp tosses out glittery figures like $35,000 to $50,000 for a big book that sold well across platforms. Book publishers were not part of the cozy and incestuous imaginative community; they needed to be dealt with at arm’s length using whatever solidarity and strength the community could muster. And so was SFWA born.
Yet not everything changed unrecognizably. The high end word rate of 4¢ in 1939 would need to be 66¢ today to keep up with inflation. Today’s bar for professional rates of 5¢ a word may not even be equal to the 1/5¢ that Gernsback sometimes paid in the 1920s. To be a weird or fantastic or imaginative writer you have to want to. But as de Camp said in 1953, admittedly stealing the line from Helen Papashvily, “You can work sitting down.”