Arthur C. Clarke wrote Prelude to Space in 1947 and sat back to welcome the acclaim it would bring him. His nickname was not “Ego” for nothing. Despite his rousing start with short stories in Astounding, the leading magazine, nothing happened. Nobody wanted the novel. Scott Meredith, Clarke’s agent, properly kept the manuscript in play, running it by every new line that popped up in an era that resembled a popcorn cooker. He finally sent it to Horace Gold. Gold was a veteran f&sf author who had made the bombshell announcement that he was starting the first paperback line devoted to f&sf, the digest-sized Galaxy Science Fiction Novels, to be introduced at the same time he was launching his big-money backed science fiction magazine, also called Galaxy and also in digest format.
In November 1950, Clarke boasted that his book had been acquired for $750, anticipating a 150,000 copy print run. Gold later said that he paid the same $500 flat fee (no royalties) that he paid for all his other acquisitions, mostly reprints rather than originals. Whichever account is right, Prelude to Space appeared as Galaxy Novel #3 in early 1951.
The Galaxy Novels line faded quickly into oblivion for many reasons, including that it was digest-sized in a mass-market-sized world and that it mostly reprinted older works rather than the groundbreaking brilliance of stories in Galaxy magazine. One telling fact: not a single serialized novel from the magazine ever got its first incarnation as a standalone novel in a digest-sized Galaxy Novel. Collectors are the only ones who won in the end. They can pick up a true first of Clarke’s very first novel in good condition for less than $5.00.
Clarke’s career took off so rapidly that by the time Gnome published Prelude to Space in 1954 it listed seven other titles on the Books By page. Clarke’s English publisher, Sidgwick & Jackson, put out the first hardback edition in 1953 and an Italian digest magazine, I Romanzi di Urania, had published it in July of that year. Not only that, but a mass-market paperback appeared in the U.S. earlier in 1954, issued by Ballantine Books, a force that was the rising star of the genre. No matter. Everybody wanted Clarke and Greenberg put out three bindings in the next year, presumably using up the full printing of 5000 copies. The ISFDB notes “textual revisions” from the Galaxy Novel original.
Villiers Gerson reviewed it in the March 28, 1954, New York Times Book Review:
Here is extrapolation based upon such careful research, written so skillfully and lucidly, as to become extraordinarily real.
FJK reviewed it for the March 21, 1954, Hutchinson [KS] News Herald:
The cover is futuristic and the contents are simply out of this world.
Groff Conklin reviewed it for the July 1954 Galaxy:
For my money, Prelude to Space is the most real, most gripping and most unforgettable story of the making and launching of the first manned Moon rocket ever written – and a good many have been.
Prelude to Space, by Arthur C. Clarke, 1954, title #45, 191 pages, $2.50. 5000 copies printed, 1954.
Hardback. Jacket design by Emsh. “First Edition” stated on copyright page. Printed by H. Wolff. Back cover: 31 titles. Gnome Press address given as 80 East 11th St., N. Y. 3
1) CURREY (A) mottled blue and black boards, spine lettered in yellow
2) CURREY (B) black boards, spine lettered in red
3) CURREY (C) 1955 binding of gray cloth, spine lettered in yellow