Last column, we looked at author A.E. van Vogt and his efforts to adapt to changing publishing environments in the middle of the 20th century. In 1952, editor Donald A. Wollheim of Ace Books introduced a format that would prove to be immensely popular, and cemented science-fiction literature’s role in bookstores afterwards.
Between the heyday of the pulp magazines and dedicated science-fiction novels came a transition in how people consumed their science fiction. The magazine market began to wane as technological improvements made it easier to cheaply print paperback novels. As authors shifted from writing short fiction for magazines to longer fiction for books, they began to collect their shorter stories into longer narratives. The result was a “Fix-Up” novel, a term coined by van Vogt, and was merely a short-gap measure in a rapidly changing publishing environment.
In the post-war environment, paperback novels began to gain traction in the marketplace, and publishers and readers began to gravitate toward the books. In 1942, founding Futurian member Donald A. Wollheim was hired at Pocket Books and shifted gears from editing short fiction to editing paperback novels. There, he edited and published the first ever paperback science fiction anthology, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction. In 1947, he left Pocket Books for Avon Books, where he manned their entire editorial department. He spent the next five years miserable with his position, and began to look for other work, approaching publisher Aaron A. Wyn, who was starting up a company dedicated to publishing paperback novels.
Wyn got his start editing pulp magazines and hardcover novels before moving into the paperback business. He was interested in what Wollheim had to say, but failed to move quickly: A dedicated publisher of genre paperback novels was a new concept. Frustrated with the delay, Wollheim moved on to interview with Pyramid Books for another editorial position. Following his meeting, the company mistakenly called Wyn’s wife, Rose, for a reference. The call prompted Wyn to action, and he hired Wollheim immediately. Together, in 1952, they founded Ace Books.
From the start, Ace began an innovative approach to their novels by printing them Tête-bêche style. Each volume contained two short novels, with a book on each side, flipped 180 degrees from the other. A reader would pick up one book, read through it, and flip the book to read the other. Wollheim and Wyn began with publishing two double novels a month: one Western and the other a mystery.
In October 1953, Ace introduced its first science-fiction novel, pairing up two novels from A.E. van Vogt: The World of Null-A and The Universe Maker. Every other month, a new book would appear on the book rack. Van Vogt’s book was followed in December 1953 by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror and Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon. In between, the company published a single novel. Due to their popularity, Ace bumped the production schedule up to a science-fiction double a month in 1958.
At the price of $0.35 a book (the price would eventually increase to $0.95 per volume in the 21 years that the doubles would be published), Wollheim was able to introduce an incredible range of talent. In the time in which the double novels were published, Ace would publish authors such as Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Gordon R. Dickson, James E. Gunn, Andre Norton, Margaret St. Clair, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance and hundreds of other authors. Often, a well-known author would be paired up with a newcomer, such as Philip K. Dick, with his first novel The Solar Lottery, who was paired up with Leigh Brackett and her novel The Big Jump. The format helped to increase the visibility of new authors, helping to launch a number of careers in the field. In the 1960s, Ace continued to expand into the science-fiction market, hiring Terry Carr, who introduced the popular Ace Science-Fiction Specials line of novels. Ace began publishing J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1965, citing a copyright loophole, and faced a backlash when Tolkien called for a boycott of the unauthorized editions.
Still, while Ace had a successful product on their hands, authors found the publisher problematic to work with. Constrained by the limits of paper and glue, the novels were short, with the entire volume rarely breaking 100,000 words. As a result, many authors often found that the released versions of their stories were significantly edited for length. Authors such as Isaac Asimov and John Brunner noted their outrage at the unauthorized butchering of their novels, which often impacted the stories that they were trying to tell.
Ace’s fortunes had begun to decline. In 1967, A.A. Wyn passed away, and by this time the company, now owned by Charter Communications, had run into considerable financial problems after several mainstream novels failed. Authors rarely received an advance of more than $1,500 per novel, and faced delays in actually receiving their money. Now, with money running short, Wollheim found himself unable to pay for new manuscripts, and began to reissue older novels. One author, Ron Goulart, found that the royalties from one of his novels (Clockwork’s Pirates and Ghostbreaker), was greater than the other, despite both books being bound together in the same volume. Another author’s book was sent to the printer without a signed contract: He was forced into manual labor to make ends meet.
Frustrated with the turn that Ace had taken, Wollheim and Carr left Ace in 1971. Hired to replace Wollheim, Frederic Pohl left after eight months after facing the same situation as his predecessor. Free from Ace, Wollheim set up a new company, DAW Books, co-published by New American Library, which began publishing in April 1972. In August 1973, Ace discontinued the Ace Doubles brand, ending an era of science-fiction paperbacks. Ultimately, Ace was sold to Grosset & Dunlap in 1976, improving the state of the publisher and returning it to profitability. Ace Books is one of the oldest science-fiction publishers in the United States and is now an imprint of the Penguin Group alongside another genre imprint, Roc Books.
Ace’s Double Novels were a distinctive part of the science-fiction community throughout the two decades in which they were published. The line helped to launch the novel careers of a number of authors, from Philip K. Dick to Ursula K. Le Guin to Samuel R. Delany, in addition to a number of other popular authors in the field, such as A.E. van Vogt, Margaret St. Clair and Leigh Brackett. Long out of print, the books can still be found at conventions and might seem like nostalgic relics of the past. However, the books were an innovative entry in a brand-new publishing world, one that found both considerable staying power and a platform for publishing a high volume of science fiction. The huge number of stories published allowed for something great to happen: Talented authors with interesting stories to tell broke into the field, allowing for their own voices to shape the genre as they continued to find success. Like the pulp magazines that preceded them, the Ace Doubles had their own lasting impact on the future of the genre.