Last week, we talked about the rise of paperback publishing as it impacted the science-fiction genre. This week, we're going to continue to look at the next half of that story: how changes in the publishing industry prompted other major changes for genre writers. We've looked at how authors adapted in the middle of the century as genre publishing shifted from magazines to paperback books. From the 1970s to the 1980s, publishing began to shift again as the ways books were sold began to drastically change.

The changes in publishing and bookselling went hand in hand: Before the 1960s, according to Laura J. Miller in her book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, the distribution system that brought books to bookstores was “inefficient, the book industry remained impervious to attempts to rationalize its distribution sector. Related to this, for most of the country’s history, book retailing was extremely decentralized, with books sold primarily by small merchants who had little communication with one another.”

Paperback novels, largely denied a place in “proper” bookstores, had found their ways into consumers’ hands by going through magazine channels, which distributed books to department and grocery stores, as well as newsstands. In 1961, the first bookstore opened that sold paperback novels and bookstobookselling 1res slowly began to stock them on their shelves. Miller notes the stark differences between buyers and the stores they frequented: “The drugstores, the discount stores, and the newsstands were the outlets geared toward the growing mass of working-class readers. Bookstores, on the other hand, cultivated the “carriage trade”—a more affluent, educated group of patrons. Thus, bookshop owners did little to counter their growing reputation among the public for being intimidating figures with minimal patience for customers who were not appropriately bookish.”

While this was happening, genre paperback publishing hit its stride. David G. Hartwell noted that when he entered the science-fiction publishing industry as a young editor at Signet Books in 1971, the genre publishing field became "unknowable: the total number of books published per month was 32 in hardcover and paperback," a number that exceeded what anyone could realistically read, between the books and magazines. Throughout the 1960s, Hartwell noted, "the biggest money you could make in SF was a serial to the major could make more money serializing your story in Analog" than one could by selling the rights to a paperback publisher. By the 1970s, that point had tipped, and paperback publishers began to pay above the serialization rate that the magazines paid.

Continue reading >


This is owed in part to the number of science-fiction paperback publishing lines out there: 12 in all. Competition between the various paperback lines increased, and science fiction authors found themselves in more demand. An author could typically expect an advance of around $5,000 (just under $30,000 in 2014 dollars) for a three-book contract with a paperback publisher, with some advances going as high as $100,000 (almost $600,000 now).

Betsy Wollheim, of DAW books, noted that the increase in pay helped to bring out higher quality fiction as well, with bestsellers helping support others: "DAW was at the forefront of the earliest sexual and cultural diversity in our genre," led by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany, both of whom had been pushing the boundaries of the genre by exploring new cultural diversities in their stories. Hartwell likewise noted with pride that he took a particular pleasure in publishing books from feminists, and purchased novels that might not have been easy to sell earlier, from authors such as Delaney and Joanna Russ. Editors had considerable liberty in acquiring new and different types of science fiction, afforded to them by the general success of the market, which allowed them to take risks on titles that might not sell as well as traditional offerings. The result was an influx of new authors who were able to experiment and expand what was considered “science fiction.”

As paperback publishing reached new heights, bookstores began to change. The shopping habits of the American consumer began to shift in the post-war United States, and one such innovation was the shopping mall, which was becoming popular by the mid-1950s. Furthermore, so-called variety stores, many of which carried paperback novels, began to fall out of fashion, in favor of businesses that focused on a narrower grouping of goods. This didn’t go unnoticed in the book world.Bookselling 2

In 1932, former Simon and Schuster sales manager Lawrence Hoyt opened a lending library in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and as the publishing industry grew in the post-war period, so did his library. Eventually, he branched into bookselling, and by 1962, he opened a new bookstore: Walden Books in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His obituary in the New York Times noted that his chain of bookstores, “which concentrated its stores in suburban shopping centers and malls nationwide, grew rapidly,” with sales numbering in the hundreds of millions by the end of the 1970s.

The success of Waldenbooks wasn’t overlooked by others: the first B. Dalton bookstore was opened in 1966, which was likewise focused on capturing shopping mall customers. Each chain of bookstores grew, eventually containing hundreds of stores each, providing, for the first time, a bookstore within easy reach of Americans across the country. The scale of each chain also meant that each would be a major customer for publishers.

By the end of the 1970s, the publishing industry found itself in a bubble, and the considerable demand for paperback novels and rising advances simply couldn’t continue unabated. Advances for other authors dropped as the publishing bubble popped: while bestsellers were receiving record advances, advances for other authors dropped as the paperback market contracted and demand fizzled. Hartwell recounted that science-fiction paperback lines were cut back or abandoned altogether. The early 1980s marked a major recession across the world, while a boom in romance novels tied up paper and space in distribution systems. According to Hartwell, numerous careers were impacted or even cut short as sci-fi publishing began to contract.

However, advances for major authors continued to reach dizzying heights as the nature of bookselling changed how major bookstores began to sell their wares. According to John B. Thompson in his book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, chain bookstores, “situated in the high-traffic retail space of the shopping mall…had to organize their stores in ways that would maximize stock turnover. Table displays and dump bins were used to stimulate impulse buying and multiple purchases.” Furthermore, the large chains began to computerize their inventory systems to track sales and determine exactly what they should be selling. Thompson noted that the competitive nature of the retail environment at this time, which pushed booksellers to cut costs wherever possible. Books that could move off shelves quickly were preferred.Bookselling 3

Authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert found themselves persuaded to pen new installments of their best-known works to fill demand from readers and booksellers who wanted new but familiar material. The authors had, over the course of their careers, proved they were reliable sellers, producing a high-demand product that booksellers in the new chain bookstores knew would move from bookshelves to buyers rapidly.

One byproduct of this demand was the continuation of the major works from these authors for which they initially had little inclination to continue: In 1975, Clarke sold the paperback rights to his novel Imperial Earth to Ballantine Books, for $200,000 ($800,000 in 2014). Just a few short years later, his agent, Scott Meredith, approached Clarke with a proposition: write the sequel to his best-known novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. At first, Clarke was unwilling. According to Meredith, “When it came time to force Arthur to write 2010—and that’s exactly what it amounted to—I had told Arthur that I was going to go to Sri Lanka to see him.” In the end, he convinced him: “The fact that this was only a book contract and did not involve Clarke in a movie obligation in any way helped him keep his angst to a minimum. Just a novel to write—no film, no Kubrick, and none of the big problems of 2001.And the advance was encouraging, to understate the truth. Within a few months, Meredith had negotiated a one-book contract for 2010 with the del Reys of Ballantine Books for one million dollars.” The book was a major success even before it was published, garnering a major promotional effort and sale of the movie rights and debuting at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for a further 24 weeks, and would become one of the bestselling novels of any genre in 1982.

Asimov found himself in a similar situation: on January 15th, 1981, Betty Prashker, an editor at Doubleday, got in touch with him: “Isaac, we want you to write a novel for us.” Like Clarke, Asimov was at first reluctant, noting in his memoir that “I couldn’t make myself take it seriously. I had written only one science fiction novel in twenty-two years, and I had not written a word of any Foundation story for thirty-two years. I don’t even remember the content of the Foundation stories in any detail.” Furthermore, he recognized the differences that had occurred in that time: his editor of the original stories, John W. Campbell was long dead, and he worried about the critical reception if the book didn’t live up to the expectations of fans. Doubleday promised him a major advance: $50,000, “which was exactly ten times as much as the usual advance I received for a Doubleday book.” Asimov gave in and returned to his old trilogy, and set to work, finishing the new book, Foundations’ Edge, in nine months. By September, “Doubleday was reporting large preliminary orders,” and the book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at #12, and remained on the list for another 25 weeks, peaking at #3 and crossing paths with Clarke’s 2010.

Finally, Frank Herbert had written a new addition to his Dune series and was serialized in Analog in 1976, to overwhelming success. The popularity of the story prompted Hartwell, his editor at Putnam, to encourage a higher print run of the novel: “seventy-five thousand copies (instead of seventy-five hundred), more than any other science fiction hardcover printing in history.” The book was a massive success upon its publication, becomingBookselling 4 the first sci-fi bestseller, eventually selling millions of copies. In 1981, he followed up with God Emperor of Dune; in 1984, Heretics of Dune; and in 1985, Chapterhouse: Dune, all of which reached new heights of popularity and sales figures.

Other authors, such as Robert Heinlein, saw a huge amount of success with their books in the early 1980s, in no small part due to bookstore chains, according to his biography: “When it was released in August [1980], the Fawcett edition of The Number of the Beast was on three bestseller lists—Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times Book Review and B. Dalton’s bookstore list, where it had debuted at #10 and jumped up to #3 in its first week. By August 17, it was in its third printing, with 145,000 copies…two weeks later, the count was up to fifth printing and 193,000 copies.” Joe Haldeman had also found success with mainstream audiences by this point with his novel The Forever War.

The publishing field contracted around this time. Publishing houses, and specifically science-fiction publishers, found themselves bought up by larger publishers, for whom acquiring an existing house allowed them access to the stories and personnel required to meet a market demand. To be clear, unique, interesting and innovative science-fiction novels continued to find their way to readers, but it’s easy to see that the innovative and experimental melting pot of the 1970s had largely ended: books like Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, which already had a difficult time finding its way into print, found the road much harder to continue down, while major, blockbuster novels already familiar with audiences sold in the millions of copies. The changes in the buying habits of major bookstores helped to change the metrics of the publishing pipeline all the way down to the authors. Experienced editors found new talent, which could be brought out cheaply in paperback lines such as the Ace Science Fiction Specials, edited by Terry Carr for their parent company Grosset & Dunlap.

Publishing and bookselling consolidated into industries run by a smaller number of more efficiently run companies, which in turn had an impact on the production of science-fiction and fantasy novels by the late 1980s. The success of one particular author’s books helped to shape the buying expectations of a much larger audience of readers, who had by this point been exposed to science-fiction properties outside of traditional science fiction fandom. As such, authors found themselves reaching heights unthinkable just years before, or mired in an industry that had drastically changed in the same amount of time. 

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter @andrewliptak.