Today I, Robot is probably the most famous and most valuable single Gnome Press title, but in 1950, despite the Christmas-timed publication date of December 2, 1950, the mainstream papers ignored it, although all the major SF magazines did reviews in 1951. Admittedly, it wasn’t a true novel but a collection of loosely-connected previously-published stories, and short stories never had the cachet of novels.
Asimov gave some history about his relations with Marty Greenberg in I, Asimov: A Memoir:
Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press was a glib young man [two years older than Asimov, who was 30 at the time] with a mustache, quite charming, as glib young men often are, but, as I found out in the end, not quite reliable.
However, he seemed willing to publish collections of my old stories and that rather glorified him in my eyes. I put together nine of my robot stories – eight that had appeared in ASF [Astounding Science Fiction] and the first one, which I now restored to its original title of “Robbie.” He published it toward the end of 1950 under the name of I, Robot, a name that Martin himself had suggested. I pointed out that there was a well-known short story by that name by Eando Binder, but Martin shrugged that off….
Here we have another case of old memories clashing. On his The Way the Future Was blog, Frederik Pohl, who was his agent at the time, gave a wholly different version.
When I handed the manuscript over to Marty, he said, “I don’t have to read this, I’ve already read them all. I’ll write a contract. But I need a title and there isn’t one on the script.”
He was right. No new title occurred to me, but I’d admired the title on an Eando Binder robot story — “I, Robot,” borrowed from the great Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius — and it wouldn’t matter what we put in the contract, because the title could always be changed and titles aren’t copyrightable anyway. So said the contract, and the Binder title just never got changed.
Pohl drolly notes the irony that the movie titled I, Robot kept nothing at all of Asimov’s most famous books but the title and the Three Laws of Robotics, neither of which was his idea.
Anyway, back to Asimov:
Virtually all the books Martin published, including mine, have since been recognized as great classics of science fiction and it boggles the mind that Martin had them all.
However, he could not exploit them properly. He had no capital, he could not advertise, had no distribution facilities, no contacts with bookstores, and the result was that he didn’t sell many copies.
In addition, Martin had a peculiarity. He had an unalterable aversion to paying out royalties and, in point of fact, never did. At least, he never paid me. The royalties could never have been very high, but, no matter how small they were, he wouldn’t pay.
He always had excuses, enormous excuses. His partner was sick. His accountant was dying. He had been caught in a tornado. I suggested that I was willing to wait for the money but couldn’t I at least get a statement of sales and earnings so I could keep track of what he owed me? But no, that too seemed to be against his religion.
As discussed in more detail in the entry for Pattern for Conquest, covering Gnome’s activities for 1950, Asimov finished “The Evitable Solution” in early 1950 and mailed Greenberg a copy in June, after it had appeared in the June issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell had rushed the story into print and Greenberg must have felt the same way. The book, which Asimov says was published on December 2, appeared totally unexpectedly in bookstores without once being mentioned on the cover of another Gnome title even though Greenberg’s practice in those days was to announce all forthcoming books, some of whom never forthcame. The only possible guess for an answer to this Gnome Press mystery is that Greenberg felt that getting an Asimov title out immediately was more valuable than postponing it, damn the schedule and the value of building word-of-mouth.
For a general background to Gnome’s so-called Armed Forces Editions, including I, Robot, see The Thirty-First of February.
Groff Conklin reviewed I, Robot for the April 1951 Galaxy:
Here is a continuously fascinating book. … Unreservedly recommended.
CHALKER states “5000 copies printed, hardbound; 2500 additional copies were bound in 1951 as trade paperback “Armed Forces Edition.” KEMP says “Identical Armed Services edition, 1,000 copies bound sold for 35¢.” ESHBACH also gives 1,000 for the trade paperback. Well, maybe. It is much scarcer than the hardback with only single examples occasionally surfacing. For discussion of the problems behind Gnome Press trade paperbacks, see The Thirty-First of February.
The trade pb copy below is certainly imperfect, but it’s signed by Asimov, and that makes it rare indeed. For that matter, the hardback edition also is signed, and it’s in fine condition.
Contents and original publication:
• “Introduction” (original to this volume)
• “Robbie” (Super Science Stories, September 1940, as “Strange Playfellow”)
• “Runaround” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942)
• “Reason” (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941)
• “Catch That Rabbit” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1944)
• “Liar!” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1941)
• “Little Lost Robot” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1947)
• “Escape!” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1945, as “Paradoxical Escape”)
• “Evidence” (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1946)
• “The Evitable Conflict” (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1950)
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov, 1950, title #10, 253 pages, $2.50. 5000 hardbound copies printed. 2500? additional trade paperback copies bound in 1951.
Jacket design by Edd Cartier. “FIRST EDITION” stated on copyright page. No printer designated. Back cover: 2 titles. Gnome Press address given as 80 East 11th Street, New York 3, N. Y.
1) Hardback, red cloth with black lettering on spine. Robot holding gearwheel on front cover, gear only on spine.
2) Trade paperback, front cover identical to hardback, back cover blank white. I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov in black lettering on white spine. Stated “FIRST EDITION” but is later issue.