If I were to tell you that these dozen titles were for individual science fiction magazines, many of which were published in the same years, were all owned by the same publisher, you’d probably be astonished to discover that the publisher was not a dominating force in the industry during their heyday.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the publisher, and its publications, were regarded as bottom-feeders in the field.
I refer to Ultimate Publishing, the company formed by former Avon & Galaxy editor Sol Cohen, which purchased Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories from Ziff-Davis Publishing in the late 1970s.
Amazing Stories (and its companion) had been experiencing a steady decline in readership when Cohen, and his partner Arthur Bernhard, purchased the magazine from Ziff-Davis.
Cohen acquired, or believed he had acquired, the inventory of content that had previously been published by the magazine as those stories were purchased with “Second Serial Rights”, granting him the right to reprint the stories.
And he did. Reprint a whole ton of fiction from the 30s, 40s and 50s without paying, that is. (Why should he pay when he already had the rights? Why wasn’t he paying if he didn’t have the rights?)
Those and other questions are not the subject of this article, but they do provide for a lot of interesting speculation.)
Authors complained and the relatively new writers organization, SFWA, called for a boycott of Ultimate’s publications, which included
Amazing Science Fiction Stories and Fantastic Stories. Ultimately (heh!), The Ultimate Publishing Company came to an agreement with the Science Fiction Writers of America (its official name at the time), and payed reprint fees, though reportedly not enough and not quickly enough.
But that is only a part of the story.
At the time that all of that was going on, I was just beginning to really engage with the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In fact, it was only a couple of years prior that I’d been watching Fireball XL5,
in its original run, on TV and was most likely geeking out on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Jonny Quest, Lost in Space and a good handful of surreptitiously viewed episodes of Star Trek*.
The Runaway Robot, Lost Race of Mars, A Wrinkle in Time were on my bookshelves and the discovery of Heinlein juvenovels was just around the corner (I’d purchase Starman Jones from the Bookmobile in 1968).
And then, it was off to the races as they say.
But how to support a burgeoning addiction on the allowance and occasional birthday donations of an 8 year old?
Well, one answer was the discovery of a used bookstore in Haddonfield NJ that had a very robust Science Fiction section. Another was the discovery of the Berlin (NJ) Farmer’s Market. (Which has not changed in appearance since I visited.)
My parents used to go there on the off weekend because they had an
inexpensive oyster bar there. Since I was completely uninterested in consuming snot-on-a-shell, I used to wander the aisles, often frequenting the toy and antique stalls.
The used book stall (a wrap-around counter that took up the whole middle aisle of the place) was typical for the day: stacks and stacks and stacks of books and magazines that had had their covers cut or pulled off. (Bookstores would remove the covers to return to publishers for credit and then sell the coverless copies that were supposed to be remaindered for pennies on the dollar.**)
If I remember correctly, I got 25 cents a week and shortly thereafter 50 cents a week (although, truth to tell, my mother was a softee when the begging was for book purchases). Magazines were ten cents a piece,
twelve for a dollar (books a bit more) and if I saved for a few weeks, I could come home with a brace of mags.
What you got was entirely dependent upon what the original distributor distributed. Apparently, whoever was supplying the Farmer’s Market guy carried Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow and the Ultimate titles, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories.
Amazing and its sister went for 60 cents retail at the time.
Be still my avaricious heart. I could get SIX! older issues for the same price as one new issue. And I did.
Look at those covers. Cheap, garish, attempting to push all of the buttons in the least expensive manner.
Right up my alley.
Look. I was ten years old, growing up in an era where no one thought twice about letting a ten year old wander around an indoor flea market. What did I know from marketing and advertising, or about the magazine distribution business, or even about author rights and pay?
Nothing, that’s what.
I mean, come on! “A Big New Collection!”? “A Collector’s Item”? “The MOST Thrilling…”? Stories “…from other planets”! How could anyone resist?
Obviously, I didn’t. Resist that is. No, I didn’t resist. I glommed. I spent a lot
of oyster eating time pouring over the offerings and attempting to make my small change stretch as far as possible.
By way of another comparison: new paperback editions of science fiction titles were running 60 cents for paperbacks, the magazines, 50 and 60 cents, used book stores typically charged half of the cover price (so, 25 to 30 cents per title), which mean, no matter how you sliced it, ten cents per copy was a steal.
So far, our reminisce has been almost entirely economic in nature. What about the important stuff? What about the stories?
Despite the fact that I began purchasing Ultimate reprints midway through their run, we’ll start with the very first issues, those from 1965 to 1968 – Great Science Fiction, The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told and
Science Fiction Classics.
I’m going to preface this by stating that it is probably the experience of having access to these magazines, as well as an enormous number of anthologies and author collections that were published around or shortly after this time, with “suck fairy” tolerance. In other words, I was exposed to some of the, shall we say, lowest writing standards for “professional” works at an impressionable age, an age when sense of wonder can easily over-shadow critical faculties.
The authors touted by the covers of these magazines are still names to conjure with: Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Robert Bloch, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Robert F. Young, Jack Sharkey, Henry Slesar, J. F. Bone, Cordwainer Smith, Albert Teichner, Phyllis Gotlieb, Harlan Ellison, Stanley R. Lee, Winston Marks, J. G. Ballard, James Gunn, Keith Laumer, Poul Anderson,
Hugo Gernsback, Murray Leinster, Raymond Z. Gallun, Harl Vincent, Curt Siodmak, Capt. S. P. Meek.
And that’s just the roundup from four issues (Great Science Fiction From Amazing Stories, Great Science Fiction From Fantastic, The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told, and Science Fiction Classics. (And yes, some will quibble with the “From” subtitle constituting any real kind of a title change, but since I’m the one who foot the bill to collect them, I get to arrange them any way I’d like to.)
Yes. There was (and there still remains) a lack of the kind of diversity among authors that we have come to prefer. You’ll note the lone holdout in Phyllis Gotlieb, whom you can read more about here. I can speak to the ethnicity of most of those listed, though not all, but I don’t think there is any POC representation in there. The same holds true in the LQBTQI arena.
(And no, Stanley R. Lee is not a pseudonym for Stan Lee, the comic book guy.)
I don’t think you can blame my ten year old self for being captured, beguiled, swayed, enraptured and smitten by these titles. They teased.
Note, for example, that even if the title half of the cover was sliced off, the imagery largely remained. Images of space ships and space battles, multi-tentacled aliens assaulting astronauts armed with ray guns, jetpacks, robots, strange vehicles, alien vistas…
…and then there are the titles to consider. We are most definitely not talking Little Elephant Catches Cold. Nope. We’ve got titles like – Playboy and the Slime God…The Blonde From Space…Star Mother…Noble Redman…The Thinking Disease…The Last Hero…A World To Choose…A Drink of Darkness…The Lunar Chrysalis…The Murgatroyd Experiment…
I mean, WHO was Murgatroyd? and WHAT were they experimenting with?
I’m grasping for an analogy that will convey the visceral, total-body experience of seeing these combinations of wonderment in print form and most of the analogies that spring to mind involve language more commonly associated with Tantric sex manuals. Suffice it to say that Mr. Cohen and his staff were carrying on the VERY fine tradition of being able to catch a passerby’s eye who would shortly thereafter turn a quarter over to the news vendor.
I suppose that I was very lucky in choosing the years I did to grow up in; SFWA had just gotten started and released The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology – stories that should/would have been voted a Nebula if such things had been awarded in their day; Donald Wollheim
and Terry Carr had a couple years of The World’s Best Science Fiction anthologies; Judith Merrill was doing the same with The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (begun in 1956 and continued annually through 1968); Analog, Galaxy, F&SF all had annual anthologies and paperback publishers were re-issuing all manner of older texts, from the Professor Jameson series to Edgar Rice Burrough’s pantheon.
Now it is true that the volume of SF/F/H titles published in a year nowadays far exceeds what was produced in any given five year span back in the day (Science Fiction Fandom had always produced specialty, “indy” publishers, arising from its Fanzine traditions, but nothing like things today), but nothing today matches this deliberate mining of the past like the one we experienced from the late 50s through the early 80s. At one point or another, it seemed as if anything that had been published under and SF banner in the past was finding itself in print again. Nothing was too
obscure – like Lieutenant Gulliver Jones by Edwin L. Arnold (Gulliver of Mars ACE 1964) = if it invoked Science Fiction tropes.
Samuel Moskowitz edited a number of titles that resurrected older works; Asimov produced his Before the Golden Age anthology; Conklin and Campbell, Pohl, Del Rey had their own series of anthologies and both DAW and Pocket Books released a series of individual author collections (“The Book of” from DAW, “The Best of” from Pocket.)
It was almost as if the cultural and economic imperatives had conspired to create an era in which the relative paucity of new offerings forced the reader to engage with the genre’s past. Especially the younger reader who had not yet really developed critical faculties and for whom television re-runs of Flash Gordon serials were fine Saturday morning entertainment.
And I assure you, phrases like “visited by the Suck Fairy” had not yet been invented. Some things were dated, and we recognized that they were, but we put the emPHASIS on other elements instead of harping on the disconnects. No one complained that none of the stories featured computers or advanced electronics because we still didn’t have such things ourselves. (Indeed, in the late 1960s, we were not nearly as far away from reading by candlelight in log cabins as contemporary readers are now from the pre-internet late 80s.)
Obviously, I am not complaining. The Ultimate reprint magazines were a valuable asset to any SF reader who was attempting to gain a wide and comprehensive view of the genre – knowledge I still believe is important to those in the field – and all for less than a dollar.
Of course, nowadays, these “cheap” “reprint” magazines have become collectibles in their own right, some commanding prices thousands of times greater than their original cost, and obtaining them as a way to gain access to a history of the field is far more expensive than downloading some Public Domain “megapaks”. They have themselves become a part of the genre’s history.
The featured image below displays all 30 of the Ultimate magazine titles and their title variants, from 1965 to 1975.
*Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek are probably most responsible for me learning how to be a sneaky pete. Star Trek was on after my bedtime, but I could sneak part way down the stairs and watch it over my father’s shoulder. I think this is one thing that Star Trek has not yet received due credit for and I hereby extend it.
**Why nothing was done about this on a large scale mystified me for years. Given the number of used book stores at the time, and the huge number of books and magazines on their shelves that should have been remaindered (paid for but not remaindered) must have put a serious dent in publisher’s pockets. I still wonder if this illicit but tolerated practice made a material contribution to the collapse of distribution in later years.