In the Hall of the Mountain King

I was asked by Sol Cohen in April 1968 to succeed Harry Harrison as Editor of Amazing Stories. One hundred dollars a month, a limitless supply of letterhead stationary and full reimbursement of postage. “We’ll see how that works out” Sol said, “And if you do well I’ll give you a raise.”

Amazing Stories 11/68. Note the featured authors. Image:
Amazing Stories 11/68. Note the featured authors.

Sol, who had taken over the failed magazine from Ziff-Davis lived in Ozone Park and had turned over his large basement to the magazine: a printer of mailing labels, hundreds of cartons to hold freshly printed magazines, a stamp meter. In the center of this clutter, Harry Harrison told me, was entrapped Sol’s wife, a small helpless woman who affixed labels and carried the magazines, tottering, to the cellar steps where strong men would lift and carry them to the post office. The editorial work would be done at my garden apartment at 216 West 78th Street in Manhattan. The assembled manuscripts comprising issues would be mailed to Ozone Park. The magazines* were bi-monthlies and alternated but other than the title logotypes they were fully interchangeable. Circulation, more than three quarters newstand, was about 25,000. In 1968 that was disastrous even for the science fiction market: forty-five years later of course it is a figure surpassing the individual circulation of the three surviving “mass market” magazines.

Becoming editor of our genre’s oldest and originating magazine was impressive for about ten minutes. I paced the width of that garden apartment in that early period, very much impressed by myself. Here I was, 28 years old, just beginning to publish, and I was the successor to Gernsback, Sloane, Ray Palmer, Paul Fairman, Cele Goldsmith, all those worthies. Amazing had been eclipsed early by Astounding and Ray Palmer had pretty well Shaverized the magazine into the contempt of the community (see my previous column) but it was still our own tradition-bound-present-at-the-creation periodical and I was much self-inflated for those ten minutes. Then the reality of the situation came upon me – eighty percent of the contents were reprints from past decades, most of them selected randomly by Sol Cohen for the “name value” of their authors and mostly at the bottom of the authors’ abilities. The editorial budget including cover, reprints and originals was about $500 an issue. The magazines were printed on the crummiest paper Ozone Park’s suppliers could produce. And I had the anxiety – and guilt-ridden Sol calling me two or three times a day. “I need names! I must have name writers on the cover! Why is the Science Fiction Writers organization persecuting me? If there are no return envelopes with the manuscripts, I won’t pay for their return.” Like most of us in the sf community then and now (and everywhere else) Sol Cohen felt he was a victim…a victim of avaricious writers, indifferent readers, negligible subscribers, enemies of science fiction through all levels of society. Here was a publisher who regarded his work as an affliction.

Fantastic 12/68. Note the featured authors. Image:
Fantastic 12/68. Note the featured authors.

Well, good enough, maybe he was a victim, Sol could make a convincing case, but where exactly did that leave me? “Here you are,” my father said, “A college graduate, making a hundred dollars a month! How can you possibly accept that?” Like Mark Twain’s lynched man I wanted to say, “Think of the honor of it” but had reduced the full quote which was “If it weren’t for the honor of it I would just as soon not have the opportunity.” Sol at my request came in one day with bags and bags of unsolicited manuscripts (“Sol, I want to see everything“) which were soon stacked in every corner of a small apartment and I went through two years’ accumulation with desperately solemn rapidity. (PG Wyal and Edward Y. Breese stories were in the stack and I made use of them.) More or less established figures like Jack Wodhams and R.A. Lafferty also had manuscripts in the pile and my initial, unprofessional reaction was amazement that they were forced to submit their work to a market as debased as this. (My inexperience was obvious.) There was no problem in finding two or three previously unpublished manuscripts for every issue to join Sol’s randomly assembled reprints on the contents page. Another measure of my inexperience was writing Lafferty on his story “This Grand Carcass Yet”: “Are you sure that you want to offer a story this good to a market like this?” Lafferty responded that he was very pleased to do so.

I lasted six months with Sol. We had a dispute on cover art. I asked a friend to take a $50 assignment for Fritz Leiber’s Poe story in the February 1969 Fantastic and Sol thought the work was terrible but let it go through. (“I don’t know anything about writing but I know about pictures.”) A second cover for David R. Bunch’s “A Saucer Down on D-Day” had no tolerance left in Sol’s reservoir and he refused it. I felt obligated to my friend, it having been a commission and said I had to quit if Sol rejected the cover. He beat me to this by firing me. (The cover was terrible.) Ted White succeeded me, coaxed Sol into ending the reprints and over a ten year editorship became the best magazine editor extant.

The best advice I felt I could offer any successor would have been “Don’t do this at home” but of course Sol Cohen’s Amazing was by definition a homebound operation. Like a Kentucky still.

– February 2013: New Jersey

*Sol Cohen’s Ultimate Publishing acquired both Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories

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  1. Fascinating glimpse into the realities of publishing an sf magazine.

    Saddest part of it:

    "Circulation, more than three quarters newstand, was about 25,000. In 1968 that was disastrous even for the science fiction market: forty-five years later of course it is a figure surpassing the individual circulation of the three surviving “mass market” magazines."

    John M. Whalen

  2. Thank you so much for the insight into the "familial" roots of Amazing. The nostalgia is delicious. And I can't help but feel a comparison to Doctor Who, with each successive Amazing editor being a new incarnation of a brave and slightly twisted galactic word wizard.

    With Gratitude,

    Fran Friel

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