Hard to believe today, but before World War II not a single mainstream publisher in America would publish a genre science fiction or fantasy novel. H. G. Wells had once been so fanatically popular that publishers would pirate his works if they couldn’t get them legitimately, but the coming of the pulp magazine era destroyed the reputation of the field. Science fiction was written by subliterates for subliterates, or so went the opinion of the literary world.
The forceful introduction to the Atomic Era in 1945 may have made those crazy Buck Rogers ideas a bit more respectable, but not to publishing. Mysteries sold in the millions, westerns remained popular, and romances had steady sales but fantasy and science fiction couldn’t even get a foothold in the paperback world, let alone mainstream hardbacks of the type sold in bookstores.
A few science fiction fans saw a niche. They pooled what seems today like pitifully small amounts of money and started small presses. There was Shasta and Prime Press and the New Collector’s Group and Fantasy Press and Hadley Publishing and the Buffalo Book Company and many more.
Perhaps the most ambitious, the most professional, the most forward thinking, the most successful – all attributes that the acolytes of the other presses will forever dispute – was brought into being as The Gnome Press, Inc. Martin L. Greenberg, who must always be carefully introduced as no relation to the anthologist Martin H. Greenberg, wanted to do more than resurrect older stories from their living death in browning pulp magazines – although he did much of that, very successfully; he wanted to make modern science fiction and fantasy part of the modern world of publishing.
He brought in David A. Kyle, who had publishing experience, business connections, and artistic skills, and the two put out their very first book, The Carnelian Cube by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, in 1948. The company logo of a gnome reading a book under a toadstool was drawn by Kyle.
In its first five years, Gnome would publish Robert Heinlein’s Sixth Column, The Sands of Mars and Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and the three volumes of the Foundation trilogy, Clifford M. Simak’s award-winner City and his Cosmic Engineers, reprints of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and works by L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Williamson, C. L. Moore, A. E. van Vogt, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Hal Clement and half a dozen others. That’s Golden Age science fiction in a nutshell.
Gnome Press was eventually done in by its own success. In the 1950s, the mainstream publishers finally realized that a market for science fiction existed that demanded more and more books every year. Both hardback and paperback publishers started science fiction lines. (Science fiction was a catch-all term for science fiction and fantasy; separate fantasy lines didn’t start until the 1970s.) The big publishers had more cash with which to pay authors, already established connections to distributors and booksellers, and money for advertising. In 1953, Doubleday started a Science Fiction Book Club, which even reprinted books that Gnome had published and was still trying to sell, but at half the price. None of the small presses could compete.
Greenberg used his every wile to stay alive, and many of his authors have, shall we say, unkind memories of his strategies, like not paying or even printing books without telling them. He also was trapped by good decisions that backfired. Most of the cost of printing a book goes into setting up the type and design in the first place. The more copies that get printed from the original, the cheaper per copy each one gets. Greenberg used H. Wolff & Co. as his printer and binder, a firm used to the sometimes enormous printruns of mainstream publishers and one that could handle the smaller loads cheaply. Up to a point. They wouldn’t even bother dealing with printruns of under 5,000, so that was what Greenberg had them print for Gnome. When he sold them all, as with Heinlein, everybody won. At other times, Greenberg had so little cash at hand that he would have Wolff bind only a fraction of the printed pages, leaving the rest in storage until the need arose.
Always desperately short of money, Greenberg held out until 1962, by which point he owed Wolff over $100,000. Many thousands of printed but unbound copies of Gnome Press books being stored at the printer until Greenberg could find money to bind them were apparently destroyed.
I’ve taken this history from various editions of The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History, by Jack L. Chalker and Mark Owens. The last edition was published in 1991, pre-Internet. Their section on Gnome Press ends with this sentence:
[Gnome] also produced four issues of a newsletter edited by Wilson “Bob” Tucker and Robert Bloch, Science Fiction World, which included promos for Gnome books, interviews, art. etc. in the mid-Fifties, but these are so rare that we have never, and we mean never, seen a copy of them for sale.
There were in fact six issues, and I saw them for sale and bought them. You can find at least one on sale by someone, somewhere at almost any time. Each year that passes, in fact, seems to bring out material that not even the best experts had ever seen.
There’s so much of this new material that all the old references are obsolete, or at least incomplete. That’s what The Gnome Press Release will be about. My personal collection of Gnome Press books and associational items is pretty good. Not complete, to be sure – what would be the fun in that? – but extensive enough that figuring out what complete would mean is tantalizing. I’ll be listing all the known variants of bindings and covers, along with several that aren’t in the reference books. I’ll talk about all the items that Gnome also issued, not just the newsletters, but the paperbacks, and calendars, and catalogs, and miscellanea. What I hope is that other collectors will see this and correct my mistakes and fill in my omissions. I know I’m not aware of all the variants, because I just discovered a new one recently. There must be many others. Please let me know of unrecorded variants by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Gnome Press Release is a process. I’ll be starting with just a few pages and minimal information (and probably much weirdness until I learn more about WordPress), but I hope to make it grow. And I hope you’ll join me for the journey.
These are the major sources of information on Gnome Press variants and other basic info on the history. I’ll be referring to them regularly throughout each individual book page. Summaries of contents are available on the web for all titles; I’ll refrain from repeating those. What I will do is use standard terminology that you’ll see in any good description of a book for sale. If you’re uncertain of what some of the more arcane terms mean, The Independent Association of Booksellers maintains a page of book terminology that gives definitions for just about anything you might encounter.
CHALKER – The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History, 3rd edition, by Jack L. Chalker and Mark Owens (Mirage Press, 1991)
CURREY – Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: a Bibliography of First Printings of Their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction, by L. W. Currey (G. K. Hall, 1979)
ESHBACH – Over My Shoulder: Reflections of a Science Fiction Era, by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (Oswald Train: Publisher, 1983)
KEMP – The Anthem Series: Part V: Gnome Press, by Earl Terry Kemp (appeared in the fanzine –e*I*47– (Vol. 8 No. 6) December 2009 – no longer available online)
RAISEY – The Great Gnome Press Science Fiction Odyssey, by Aaron Raisey (http://gnomepress.me/gnomepress/)