Carnelian Cube, The

The Carnelian Cube, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, was the first book Gnome issued. Marty Greenberg had been invited to be a partner in The New Collector’s Group (NCG) press and but broke up with them in about the time it took to read an issue of Astounding. NCG printed only four books from 1946 to 1948, and with Greenberg gone went out of business in a similarly short amount of time. Their books are scarce but not at all pricy, and so would make a good entry point for collectors.

Greenberg took, as his share of the rubble, the rights to what would have been NCG’s next book, The Carnelian Cube. The cube is about the size a golf ball, with Etruscan lettering carved into the carnelian stone. It transports its wielder to the world of his desires. I’ve always liked to think that this was the inspiration for the Cosmic Cube that Stan Lee invented a few years later for Marvel Comics, a magic cube that transformed the wielder’s thoughts into reality. David A. Kyle joined Greenberg as partner and de facto production manager. In a two-person operation, the production manager did every job imaginable. Kyle designed the text, the layout, and the cover. He worked with the printer, Adviser Press of Monticello, New York, chose the paper, proofread the pages, made corrections to the printed copies, and may very well have swept out the office and lugged boxes of the bound and unbound copies. You don’t realize how many different operations go into the publishing of a book until you are faced with the reality of it.

Kyle was learning all this on the job. I don’t blame him in the least for making a few mistakes along the way. I did exactly the same when I produced and designed my first book, Tyrannosaur Faire. The printer I worked with offered me choices of paper stock, differing in weight and color and texture. The number of pages printed would remain the same no matter what, but the thickness of the book might vary considerably. A book’s cover consists of three parts: the front cover, the rear cover, and the spine. The first two are fixed but the width of the spine depends entirely on the paper choice. So you have to make your paper choice first and then design the cover so that the spine is the correct width. Tenths of an inch make a difference at that point.

At some point in the process, Kyle goofed up. He designed the cover based on a book with the same number of pages – but didn’t allow for the difference in the paper that Adviser would be using. Result: The Carnelian Cube turned out to be much thinner than he thought and the dust jacket is noticeably off center. The spine is a tenth of an inch too large, cutting off the C in “Carnelian,” and the back cover copy is pushed all the way to the edge and a bit beyond on some copies.

That’s just a rookie mistake, though, not a variant. It’s what Kyle did next that makes the book a classic mess.

Kyle was standing by as the forms (32 pages on a large sheet that would be folded and the edges cut to create a signature) were put through the flatbed press. At some point during the printing (CHALKER says 2500; KEMP says 2000), he checked for errors. Whether he ever found any, no one says and I’ve never seen a listing of points. But whatever else he did, he changed the copyright page. Instead of reading “FIRST EDITION” (in all caps) it now said “Second Printing” (in caps lower case). But this is not in any way a second printing. It’s the second state of the first edition. Again, a rookie mistake, but not a big deal. CHALKER states that ESHBACH made the claim that none of the copies had a First Printing designation. That depends on how you read the section. He does write “there never was a first printing – something unique in book publishing!” But that’s obviously a joke. In that same paragraph we get this:

While the second forms were being run, Dave personally corrected any errors he had found in the first double one thousand so that for the second run those sheets were corrected.

That makes it pretty clear to me that he corrected only half the run. And a reference to a thousand both here and elsewhere in the section seems to make it clear than the print run was 2000. Well, maybe. Gnome Press history starts in a fog and gets murkier with every title.

What makes it a big deal is that there was an actual second printing of 1400 copies in 1949. This used different boards but kept the “Second Printing” designation. The Carnelian Cube set an unfortunate precedent. For the rest of its existence Gnome would sometimes go back to press for additional copies and sometimes print up all the copies at once but bind some of them later. In all cases, though, nobody bothered to change the “First Edition” designation on any of the copyright pages. No matter what, all later Gnome Press books are first printings, even if they aren’t. The one and only Gnome Press “Second Printing” started appearing halfway through the first printing.

Not surprisingly, this has lead to endless confusion, with The Carnelian Cube leading the parade. Both CHALKER and KEMP mention this printing. CURREY does not. As an actual second printing, it’s beyond the scope of his book. But. That the first printing has a second state equivalent to the many other second and later states of other Gnome titles he does include means that he probably should have mentioned the variant for consistency. Since he doesn’t, most sellers won’t mention any of the variants and you have to ask to know what it is you’re getting.

At this point you may want to ask yourself whether you really want to become a collector, or whether just finding a copy of each title is more than enough grief for one lifetime.

Isaac Anderson reviewed The Carnelian Cube for The New York Times Book Review in the December 5, 1948 issue. This was before they had a science fiction review column, so it improbably appeared in the Criminals at Large mystery review column.

The jacket copy describes this book as a “humorous fantasy.” It is a fantasy in a heavy-handed sort of way, but as for the humor, the less said the better.


The Carnelian Cube, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Platt, 1948, 1 Nov 48, title #1, 252 pages, $3.00. 2000 copies printed, 1948; 1400 copies printed, 1949.

Jacket design by David Kyle. Printed by Adviser Press, Monticello, NY. Title page and cover add “A Humorous Fantasy.” Back cover: Meet the Authors, text and pictures about De Camp and Platt. No other books mentioned. Gnome Press address given as 421 Claremont Parkway, New York 57.

1) Hardback, gray cloth with red spine lettering. “FIRST EDITION”
2) Hardback, gray cloth with red spine lettering. “Second Printing”
3) Hardback, gold cloth with red spine lettering. “Second Printing”

Carnelian Cube jacket cover

Carnelian Cube flaps
The Carnelian Cube first edition
The Carnelian Cube second printing
Carnelian Cube gold coverCarnelian Cube gray cover

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