205 East 42nd Street, headquarters of Popular Publications.

205 East 42nd Street, erstwhile headquarters of Popular Publications.

What a Major Pulp House Was Like in 1939

Harry Steeger didn’t take me into his confidence about his reasons for adding fifteen or twenty new half-cent-a-word titles to his existing string of twenty or thirty penny-a-word pulps, but I can see what he might have been thinking. At a penny a word, the average pulp cost about $600 an issue for stories. Cut the pay to a half cent and you’ve cut the cost of each issue by $300 — meaning, if you can keep the newsstand sales at the same figure, there will be $300 more of profit each month for each magazine.

Actually there will be more profit than that, because Steeger didn’t go to the extravagance of hiring editors for each of the new magazines. He simply told his existing editors that they would be producing a new magazine as well as the old.

In fact he went to some trouble, I really don’t know why, to conceal that fact in each new Western, air-war, sports or crime magazine. Each one came with the made-up name of an “editor” in the lists that went to the writers’ magazines. Al Norton might have been handed the new half-cent Battle Birds to produce, along with his existing air-war Fighting Aces, but the writers were informed the half-cent’s editor was someone named Archie Bentwhistle.

This made some problems when a writer came looking for, or trying to phone, the nonexistent Archie. Our receptionist/switchboard girl, Thel Klock, was instructed to tell all such troublemakers that Mr. Bentwhistle’s wife was very ill and he hadn’t been in the office for several days, and in fact she had no idea when he would be in again. However, she was instructed to tell the troublemaker, she could connect him with Bentwhistle’s trusted, associate — fill in the name of the actual editor — who was taking over some of his work while he was out, and might be able to help the visitor.

Steeger’s little deceptions were helped along by an oddity in Popular Publications’ street address. The building (of which Popular occupied most of the top floor, and indeed at a later date added on a penthouse for more office space) was located at 205 East 42nd Street in New York City. However, it was a pretty good-sized building. The entrance lobby went right through the block to a second entrance at 210 East 43rd Street, which address Steeger seized on to become the address on the new publishing company of Fictioneers, Inc., into which he swept all the new half-cent magazines.

I don’t know who was fooled by all this. Not many people, I suspect, or at least not for long. The myth of a separate company with different but real human editors was allowed to expire. And I think most of the half-cent magazines were allowed to continue, side by side with the elite penny-a-worders, returning their better profit margins to the two men, Harry Steeger (for editorial) and Harold S. Goldsmith (for business), who owned the company … at least until the grinding pressures of World War II began condemning so many of the pulps to extinction.

More on this subject soon, that is, if I find time soon to write it.
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  1. Chris says:

    This is not a comment on this blog entry but just to say I was surprised and thrilled to get my signed copy of Gateways, which I did not realise I had won. I will treasure this, as I was introduced to SF by reading If in the golden years in the early 60s under your editorship, and have many of your books. . Thank you very much

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    Heh! Two entrances, two addresses, why not?

    In the late 80s I worked for a computer mail/phone order outfit. The officers noticed that the number of calls they got increased with the number of advertising pages they crammed into the big computer magazines of the time. Obviously, there was a point of diminishing returns.

    Then they hit on the notion of creating shell companies. They ran ads for “Dollar Computer,” “Nothing But Laptops” (All we sell are laptops!) and “The Printer Store” (We specialize in printers!). There were new phone lines, and a receptionist who was trained to answer appropriately, but the sales people, warehouse people, and stock were identical.

    One week I was assigned to be technical support for “Nothing But Laptops.” I accidentally answered the phone incorrectly. (“Hello, Logicsoft Technical Support, how can I help you?”) When the caller was confused I quickly explained that I’d just switched jobs . . .

  3. Bruce Arthurs says:

    Editorial pseudonyms: When Elinor Mavor became editor of AMAZING in 1979, she initially used the nom-de-ed of “Omar Gohagen”, thinking that a male editor would be more accepted than a female. I think someone pointed out to her that Cele Goldsmith had been a previous (and well-regarded) editor of the magazine, so “Omar” vanished and Elinor continued for a few years under her own name.

    Speaking of Cele Goldsmith, any relation to the Harold Goldsmith you mention?

  4. JohnArmstrong says:

    I worked for a video company that was the Canadian wholesaler for a line of porn from California, and also the exclusive dealer for Disney product on videotape in Canada. We had to be very careful that the Mouse never found out about this double life the company led, which required some very sudden rearranging fo the shelves in the stockroom if the Disney rep happened to stop by unannounced. It was serious sitcom level subterfuge, steering him one way while someone took the framed posters of XXX starlets down and hung up Pinocchio and Snow White. The funniest thing was doing the porn company business on the 18 inch standing Mickey Mouse phone the company gave us for selling whatever-amount of some title. Taking the phone form Mickey’s white-gloved, three-fingered hand and looking right at his smilig face while reordering labels for another thousand copies of Ass Bandits 2

    Ahh – show business