I’m sure that a lot of young people today are beginning to discover written science fiction, as opposed to movie and TV SF, much as I did when I was a teenager. They may not be aware of an interesting and endearing phenomenon people my age experienced in the 1950s and ’60s, that of the specialty press publisher of science fiction.
I started buying Astounding SF in 1957, and before long I was seeing ads for books from Gnome Press, Shasta Publishers, Fantasy Press, etc. I think the names themselves clued me in to the fact that they were uniquely oriented to the SF field, but I had no idea that most of them were one or two-man operations.
No idea, that is, until I ordered something that was out of print, and got a postcard about it, hastily typed and signed by Martin M. Greenberg, publisher of Gnome Press! Imagine ordering something from Doubleday and Co. and the chairman of the board drops you a line, “Gee, Billy, I don’t think we have any more of those, we’ll have to give your four dollars back. How’s your folks?”
It seems certain that the first and longest lasting of these publishers was Arkham House, founded as a venue to present the work of H. P. Lovecraft in a more permanent form than the pulp magazines in which he first appeared. Arkham went on to publish other Weird Tales authors like August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Block, Greye La Spina, etc., but they also made infrequent forays into the world of science fiction with outstanding books like A. E. van Vogt’s Slan.
Fantasy Press did as much for Edward E. Smith Ph.D. as Arkham did for Lovecraft, and Smith was still alive to appreciate quality hardcover publication. They issued books from his classic Skylark and Lensman series, and Spacehounds of IPC, in very interesting and attractive volumes with a small illustration embellishing the initial letter in each chapter. Even when the major publishers began science fiction programs, they weren’t doing anything like this.
Probably most of the major serials from Astounding during John W. Campbell’s tenure as editor achieved hardcover publication. In addition, many of the better serials and short stories from other publications were collected, as well as a number or originals which had never seen print in the magazines.
And unlike the major publishers who obtained jacket art and design from the same agencies that provided it for the other fiction in their line, the specialty publishers built their list of artists for their illustrated books from names the fans were used to seeing in the pulp magazines and amateur journals.
Hannes Bok provided excellent painted covers for Skull Face And Others and the House on the Borderland, both issued by Arkham House, The Titan from Fantasy Press, and for John Campbell’s Who Goes There? from Shasta.
Edd Cartier had the covers for I, Robot, Foundation and Empire and Cosmic Engineers from Gnome Press, and a sinister Dr. Lell with an hourglass for Masters of Time from Fantasy Press.
Ric Binkley, not the biggest fan favorite, nevertheless turned in a very satisfactory series of covers and chapter headings for the Doc Smith books about Kimball Kinnison and for others such as John Campbell’s The Black Star Passes.
And every Avalon book I’ve ever seen has a cover by Ed Emshwiller.
Fiction wasn’t the only thing produced by the specialty publishers. Advent, for example, was primarily known for its books about science fiction: critiques, memoirs, concordances, SF history, etc. This has served a valuable function in helping fans, old and new, to keep in touch with the field and to appreciate its history.
The era of the science fiction specialty publisher has pretty much passed. Fantasy Press, Shasta Publishers, Gnome Press, FPCI, Prime Press, these are all gone. But limited editions are still being produced, and will continue to be issued by enthusiasts who decry the fact that wonderful pieces of imaginative fiction and art are lying ignored by businesses whose prime motivation must always be determined by the bottom line.