Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading through the more than seventy questionnaire responses that make up the bulk of Earl Kemp’s 1960 fan publication, Who Killed Science Fiction? In the wake of the 1958 implosion of the American News Company, then the primary distribution source for magazines, and the dramatic and severe contraction in science fiction magazines that quickly followed (part of a general contraction in the publication of fiction magazines of all types), Kemp drew up a simple questionnaire comprising five questions:
1) Do you feel that magazine science fiction is dead?
2) Do you feel that any single person, action, incident, etc., is responsible for the present situation?
3) What can we do to correct it?
4) Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation?
5) What additional remarks, pertinent to the study, would you like to contribute?
Kemp mailed his questionnaires to 108 authors, editors, publishers, and fans who were prominent in the science fiction field, essentially the entire professional and semi-professional community. He received 71 responses back, an impressive percentage. Marty Halpern, in his blog More Red Ink, has written a fine account of Kemp’s efforts and shares some of the highlights from the materials Kemp received. The Compleat and Unexpurgated Who Killed Science Fiction?, including follow-on materials collected in the decades following the work’s original publication in 1960, is available as a free download and is also newly available in hard copy from Merry Blacksmith Press. Whoever is interested in the history of popular fiction publishing, the current evolution of and turmoil in publishing, science fiction writers talking shop and speaking their minds, or jumping into the world of professional fiction writing or publishing should pick up a copy, both for the surprisingly candid and oftentimes catty views on display and for the invaluable historical perspective the book provides.
Between the birth of Amazing Stories in March of 1926 and the late 1950s demise of the American News Company, science fiction had been primarily a magazine field. All of the seminal short fiction and nearly all of the important novels had originally been published in pulp magazines or digest-sized magazines such as Astounding Stories, Galaxy, Fantastic Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Having their previously serialized novels republished in hardback or, following WW2, mass market paperback brought in a little side income for writers such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. van Vogt. They, and several dozen less well-known writers, earned the bulk of their writing incomes from magazine sales. Science fiction experienced one of its periodic booms in 1953, and the number of monthly or bimonthly magazines published in the field mushroomed from about a dozen to more than sixty. Suddenly, writers who were capable of being both prolific and at least moderately competent (such as the very young Robert Silverberg) were able to make a handsome living writing science fiction for the magazines. But when the magazine field contracted following 1958 and the numbers of monthly and bimonthly titles fell to a little more than half a dozen, many writers pulled out of science fiction entirely or (like Asimov and Alfred Bester) opted to devote the bulk of their energies to other, ancillary careers. A few, like Silverberg, took an extended hiatus from writing science fiction; Silverberg himself would not return to the field for another five years.
The gloom in the science fiction community circa 1960 is palpable in the pages of Who Killed Science Fiction? The majority of respondents to Kemp’s questionnaire did not expect the magazine field to ever rebound. Opinions varied widely on primary culprits — the editors and publishers blamed the disruption of the distribution system, the fans tended to blame a perceived recycling of science fictional ideas in the stories and novels, and the writers blasted some editors for editorial rigidity, some fellow writers for churning out crap, some readers for only buying the same old crap, and Sputnik, the latter being blamed for shifting readers’ interest in space travel from the pages of the science fiction magazines to the pages of the newspapers.
Perhaps most relevant to current publishing trends and events, respondents were also divided on whether the burgeoning field of paperback originals would prove to be the salvation of written science fiction. Some saw paperback originals as a ray of light, primarily due to their ability to stay on shelves and spinner racks longer than the few weeks afforded magazines. But many felt that paperback originals could never effectively replace what had been lost with the death of so many magazines. They felt that the editors who controlled the content of paperback originals had little familiarity with the science fiction field, certainly much, much less than the longstanding magazine editors, and that they generally tended to publish dreck, generic adventure fiction disguised as science fiction by the addition of a few spaceships and green, tentacled aliens. The sense of condescension expressed by a few of the responding writers and editors towards the producers of paperback originals is visceral and, in retrospect, a little stunning. Some expressed fears that whatever economic promise paperback originals seemed to offer would be squandered by the then-current flood of low quality books, which would drive off readers and permanently sully the (already low) reputation of science fiction.
Paperback originals were the insurgent, disruptive publishing technology of 1960, just as ebooks are today’s. The collapse of the American News Company and its piecemeal, inadequate replacement by a patchwork quilt of local and regional magazine distributors has its modern counterpart in the Borders Books bankruptcy, the massive contraction that has occurred in the numbers of independent bookstores, and the looming Armageddon that many professionals in traditional publishing fear will soon devastate their industry, a technological and economic counterpoint to the recent dismal fate of the recording industry.
What has been the bread-and-butter for most professional writers of popular fiction since 1960? Paperback originals. What publishing platform is currently undergoing the quickest and most severe shrinkage in sales? Mass market paperbacks. (Hardbacks and trade paperbacks are either declining much more gradually or are maintaining their sales levels.) The format which represented the swift, clever mammals eating the eggs of the lumbering dinosaurs in 1960 is now itself the endangered dinosaur, sliding into extinction.
Ebooks are now about where paperback originals were in 1960. Many professional writers and observers of the industry throw up their hands in horror and moan, “Ebooks will be the death of fiction! They are a flood of dreck! There’s no quality control, no gatekeepers! The hordes of the bad will drive out the few that are worthwhile!” Yet ebooks, including some ebook originals, are on an opposite sales trajectory from that of mass market paperbacks.
If I have to make a prediction, it is that new ranks of gatekeepers will arise, critics and reviewers, some amateur, some paid, who will help us sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s already happening. An exponentially increasing “tyranny of choice” will call forth a solution, and I don’t believe the solution will be a widespread turning away from the pleasure of reading a good book. I believe a wider range of stories and novels will be made available to readers, and many writers who have found themselves walled off from traditional publishing by less-than-stellar sales records will take advantage of new avenues through which to reach those readers.
I’ll close with what I hope is a comforting thought in the midst of the present chaos. Who Killed Science Fiction? appeared in 1960. By 1965, five years later, science fiction had embarked upon one of the biggest booms and most creatively fertile periods in its history.
Fun links of the day: