Throughout this column, we've talked about the origins of modern science fiction, usually through the stories that appeared in pulp magazines in the early-20th century. With few exceptions, science fiction authors made their living from stories placed in the cheap, disposable magazines sold across the country. However, in the 1950s, the publishing landscape began to change as magazines folded and book publishers rose to take their place. One such publisher that emerged during this time and would prove to be an influential and telling example of the sci-fi novel industry was Gnome Press.
Following the end of World War II, soldiers began to return home, among them a number of authors who had left the sci-fi community to go off to war. It was 1947, and the community was beginning to coalesce once more. Two recent Futurian returnees, David Kyle and Frederik Pohl, boarded a train for Philadelphia on August 30th and headed out to the 5th World Science Fiction Convention at the Penn-Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia. The pair, along with several other sci-fi fans, opted to form a new group, one more professionally oriented.
One member was Martin Greenberg, who had likewise returned home to the U.S. following his service overseas, only to find that his mother had donated his entire collection of SF magazines to a war drive; he was finding that rebuilding his collection was expensive. He had also recently split from a fan collective, The New Collector's Group, with rights to L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's novel, The Carnelian Cube in hand and a desire to publish it. David Kyle came from a family that owned a printing press in upstate New York in Monticello.
After their meeting in 1948, the pair decided to pool their resources and jump into the publishing business, each with equal stake in their new company, which they named Gnome Press. In the post-War country, the sci-fi magazine industry was doing well, but much of the genre's stories were locked away in magazine issues displayed on store racks for only a short time. The pair reasoned that there would be some demand for books in addition to magazines. Initially, Kyle handled Gnome’s production and artwork, while Greenberg was in charge of the business and editorial ends of the company.
The Carnelian Cube: A Humorous Fantasy emerged with a print run of 2500 copies, following an archaeologist who finds a stone which transports him to parallel worlds. Gnome Press’ next book was a fantasy titled The Porcelain Magician: A Collection of Oriental Fantasies by Frank Owen, a collection of stories which largely appeared in Weird Tales between 1923 and 1930, in addition to some new material. Where The Carnelian Cube was a decent seller, Gnome's second offering had a hard time finding readers. It was becoming clear that science fiction was the better seller, and in 1949 they released Pattern for Conquest: An Interplanetary Adventure by George O. Smith. The book originally appeared in John W. Campbell Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction in the March, April and May 1946 issues. Gnome printed 5000 copies, with 2000 copies later bound in a special Armed Forces edition. As they started to publish new books, Greenberg and Kyle set up the Fantasy Book Club, a subscription service designed to sell Gnome publications and books from other publishers at a discount. Ultimately, they weren't able to expand the service, constrained by limited funds at their disposal. The service was soon imitated by a major publisher, Doubleday, with the Science Fiction Book Club, and it quickly became popular with readers.
In 1949, Robert Heinlein, one of Gnome’s most reliable sellers, came out with his novel Sixth Column: A Science Fiction Novel of Strange Intrigue, originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in January, February and March 1941, under the name Anson MacDonald. Gnome’s fifth book, a collection of stories from Nelson Bond titled The Thirty-First of February came later in 1949. With business picking up, Greenberg began working at Gnome full time, operating out of his home in Claremont Parkway in the Bronx.
In 1950, Isaac Asimov began looking for a new home for some of his short stories. As the book market began to grow, a number of authors started looking into carrying their earlier publications to a new platform. Rebuffed by his current publisher, Doubleday (who wanted new material, rather than repackaged short stories), Asimov approached Greenberg, who was eager to publish his stories. Asimov pulled together nine of his robot stories: "Robbie"; "Runaround"; "Reason"; "Catch that Rabbit"; "Liar!"; "Little Lost Robot"; "Escape!"; "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict" into a single volume called I, Robot. Gnome released the collection at the end of 1950, with some of the stories reworked to include his character, Susan Calvin, telling a larger story of the evolution of robotics. The collection was a successful one, and Asimov brought Greenberg another series of books for which he would be well known: Foundation. First serialized in magazines, Gnome brought Asimov's Foundation trilogy to hardcover between 1951 and 1953. Gnome began bringing on other well-known authors to their stable, including works from Robert E. Howard.The first Howard novel, Conan the Conqueror, appeared in 1950, and was followed by several others over the coming years.
The press continued to turn a healthy number of books during this time: 1950 brought not only works from Asimov and Howard, but also Clifford Simak's Cosmic Engineers, William Beyer's Minions of the Moon and L. Sprague de Camp's Castle of Iron. Greenberg also turned his hand to a new style of anthology with his own Men Against the Stars, considered the genre’s first “themed” anthology, linking 12 short stories together with a common topic. The anthology featured stories from Isaac Asimov, Manly Wade Wellman, Lewis Padgett, A. E. van Vogt, Murray Leinster, L. Ron Hubbard and other notable authors. Other authors became excited about joining the press: According to Robert Silverberg, “I was delighted to be joining a list that included Asimov, Robert E. Howard, ‘Lewis Padgett,’ and all the rest of those people.” It’s easy to see why: The press had begun to attract a wealth of talent.
While Gnome continued to snatch up-and-coming authors, Kyle and Greenberg incorporated the press in order to expand their offerings and moved from the Bronx to 80 East 11th St in New York City, which allowed them some additional office and storage space for their growing backlist. The move to the center of the science fiction publishing world was extremely helpful: It allowed for quick and personal access for the agents and authors living in the area. It didn't come without costs, and Greenberg arranged for a loan of $10,000, which ultimately proved to be a disastrous move. Gnome eventually repaid the loan, but ended up paying exorbitant interest that put a huge financial strain on the company.
By this time, Kyle began to step back from the day to day work of the press: He started at Columbia University, where took courses in publishing and graduated in 1951. Greenberg, always at the forefront of the company, brought on several assistants starting in 1952 to handle some of the editorial and production load, including Algis Budrys, Joe Wrzos, Ruth Landis (whom Kyle eventually married) and Andre Norton.
As Gnome's financial problems mounted, they faced growing problems with their authors. Asimov's relationship with Gnome deteriorated quickly: "Martin had a peculiarity. He had the unalterable aversion to paying out royalties and, in point of fact, never did. At least, he never paid me. The royalties would have never been very high, but however small they were, he wouldn't pay...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."
Not all authors had such an experience with Gnome: Robert Heinlein, according to The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History, was paid on time, due to his own healthy sales and reputation. Despite the problems, Greenberg maintained a charismatic and upbeat attitude, and was described by Asimov as someone you’d go to a convention to beat up, only to talk and end up buying him a drink. Robert Silverberg noted that even as he had trouble getting paid, he “remained on amiable terms with [Greenberg],” but that he also had to retrieve the rights to his books in order to sell them elsewhere. Greenberg’s attitude, despite his issues, was a deciding factor in Gnome Press’s longevity in the face of its financial issues.
1951 saw books from Jack Williamson, C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner, L. Ron Hubbard, Raymond F. Jones, Isaac Asimov and two further themed anthologies from Greenberg. 1952 saw 10 new books, including stories from Simak, van Vogt, Kuttner & Moore, Howard, Leigh Brackett and Arthur C. Clarke's first published novel, The Sands of Mars. Over the coming years, they would publish such authors as Hal Clement, Frederik Pohl, Murray Leinster, L. Sprague de Camp, Andrew North (Andre Norton), James E. Gunn, Judith Merril, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, and Tom Godwin, among others.
By 1954, Kyle had largely left his operations at Gnome, moving to Potsdam to take over a radio station, but he continued to work from a distance. 1955 saw new problems for the press as the magazine industry began to fold. New York's major publishing houses starting taking notice of the new demand for science fiction, and they had the ability to sign major authors with better and more reliable terms. Just three years earlier, in 1952, Donald Wollheim at Ace Books introduced the Ace Double Novels series, a line of inexpensive paperback books. Ian Ballantine at Ballantine Books began doing the same.
Greenberg’s habits ultimately proved to be the company’s downfall: Faced with increasingly hostile authors who had not been paid, Gnome began to lose its prominent stable of titles. Asimov noted the irony here: Had Greenberg been prompt with payment, Gnome would have likely benefited from their mainstream rise. Instead, they began to jump ship. Facing years of unpaid royalties, L. Sprague de Camp resold the rights to Conan the Conqueror to Wollheim at Ace Books, and others to paperback publisher Lancer books in 1964. Greenberg sued to block the sale, but the courts sided with de Camp, whose Conan titles were republished under a new flag. Asimov brought legal pressure to Gnome, and was able to extract the rights for I, Robot and his three Foundation novels, all of which ended up at Doubleday.
Faced with a cash shortage and printers that couldn’t afford to lose Gnome as a customer, Greenberg resorted to reducing costs wherever he could, including the materials he used for his books. He began to order print runs on the cheapest paper he could find, which publisher Lloyd Arthur Eshbach noted forced them to clean their printers halfway through the run, and that the pages deteriorated quickly. The quality of the product certainly impacted their sales and overall reputation. The end was near:In 1959, Gnome published only six novels, and half that in 1960. 1961 brought only two novels, one from ‘Doc’ Smith and the other from John W. Campbell Jr. Gnome's final book was The Philosophical Corps by Everett B. Cole. After a protracted fall, the press went out of business in 1962, 14 years after its founding, leaving Greenberg and Gnome with $100,000 in debt.
Despite its ultimate failure, Gnome occupies an important part of the science fiction publishing world. Initially, it was an innovative, forward-looking business, recognizing the potential in the sci-fi market beyond monthly periodicals. In doing so, it helped to introduce a number of major authors to American readers, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert E. Howard and C.L. Moore, preserving their serialized stories in a longer lasting format. The press helped to introduce science fiction to the novel format, which in and of itself introduced major changes to the ways in which science fiction was written and read, not to mention how authors supported themselves. They also introduced a subscription model that was later imitated by other booksellers. Frederik Pohl later commented on the vast potential which Gnome had collected: “But if you look at one of Gnome Press’s old catalogs, you find you are staring at a million dollars. The authors they had! Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke. They had them all. They had the rights to books that have collectively sold tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of copies since, and they had acquired them at prices that would make a cat weep.”
Gnome’s eventual failure was a combination of factors: personal and practical. The key difference between Gnome and its larger relatives was infrastructure: Gnome simply lacked people to promote, sell and distribute their astounding portfolio. Instead, they sold directly to a small number of fans, often by mail. Mismanaged and overextended by Greenberg, Gnome was unable to recognize a much bigger picture in bookselling to capitalize on their available resources. Greenberg and Kyle were unable to fully expand the company quickly enough and sell their books wholesale, frequently running into cash shortages that lost them their authors and eventually their business.
Despite their flaws, Gnome Press was a highly influential business at a key point in the genre’s history. It was a major opportunity missed. Instead, their influence lingers in the actions taken by others afterward. Major publishers began to pick up and develop their own lines of science fiction, fantasy and horror novels, and started buy and sell their own anthologies, ultimately creating the genre publishing landscape that we have today. Martin Greenberg died in the fall of 2013, with little attention paid to his death, or the contributions his efforts had on the genre. David Kyle has since remained active in fandom, appearing at last year’s World Science Fiction convention.