Posts tagged ‘Pulps’

G-8 and his Battle Aces

As best I remember, Al Norton was in charge of:

At some time during my furlough, Astonishing Stories had breathed its last, done in by the 10¢ cover price. We didn’t have any horror or love pulps — happily, because we all would have hated them. We also didn’t have any of the titles Popular was acquiring in its purchase of the venerable Frank A. Munsey’s company.

As far as I recall, Popular kept only two of the Munsey titles alive: Argosy and the fantasy-reprint magazine edited by Mary Gnaedinger, Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Mary herself came with the deal — also happily, because I occasionally thus had somebody to talk science fiction with.

All of the titles we worked on were pretty much your basic pulp. The air-wars were the least interesting to work on, partly because every last word of them was written by a single author under contract, David Goodis, who was not without talent — he published better things elsewhere — but didn’t waste any of it on our pulps, which were uniformly one dogfight after another, with the Spitfires and the P-40s triumphing over the Messerschmitts and the Heinkels.

Possibly the pulpiest of our get was our one superhero: The Master American Flying Spy Known as G-8. Their main difference from the air-war titles was that G-8 was fighting in World War I, and his victories were even more improbable.

G-8 was written by a very nice man named Robert J. Hogan, and (like Goodis) he wrote the entire editorial contents of each issue, including the “readers’ letters” by and to himself. But he was — forgive me if you’re still around, Bob — by all odds the pulpiest writer we had the misfortune to edit, and when the G-8 mag got swept away by wartime stresses we all condoled with him.

He looked at us with mournful eyes, thought the matter over for a while and then said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to try magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. So I guess I’ll see if I can get any of those big slick checks.”

We were all too well brought up to hurt his feelings, so none of us laughed until he was out the door. We didn’t see him for about a month, until he stopped in on the way to the bank, so he could show us the check he had just received. For a short story. From — of course — The Saturday Evening Post.

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Covers were the department of Harry Steeger and Aleck Portegal, and the scene depicted almost never had anything to do with any of the issue's stories.

Covers were the department of Harry Steeger and Aleck Portegal, and the scene depicted almost never had anything to do with any of the issue's stories.

Al Norton’s principal editorial function was to read all the incoming pro submissions, and what few the three of us had considered possibilities from the slush pile, to pick out the ones he liked well enough to buy. Copy editing, proofreading, writing house ads and departments he left to us.

We also picked a few scenes from each story that seemed illustrative possibilities and handed copies over to Aleck Portegal, the art director — or more likely to his one and only assistant — to farm out to artists for the ten or twelve interior black-and-white drawings each issue had. What we got back from the Art Department was not only our suggestions for drawings, but both the original drawings themselves, as well as the zinc linecuts that went to the printer. (All our magazines were still printed on Mr. Gutenberg’s clever movable-type machines. The faster and easier offset presses were not yet in favor.)

Alden’s department was collectively charged with getting new issues of about a dozen magazine out in each two-month period. (Ours were all bi-monthlies, Harry Steeger being very attached to that two-month on-sale exposure. Each of the magazines came with six or seven deadlines, which meant that the three of us had some 72 separate deadlines to meet in each 60-day period. Since we didn’t work on Saturdays, Sundays or national holidays, that meant that every day of the week was usually the day when at least one deadline had to be met,

For, say, an issue to be dated August, the first deadline would come on about February 17th. That was the deadline for cover copy; on that day we had to give Al or his assistant a sheet of paper containing the best, or at last the titles that sounded best, of the stories that would be in that issue. That meant that we had to keep a record of what titles we had picked out, for it meant some embarrassments if, when we actually put the issue together out of the first proofs, we didn’t include the stories we’d listed.

Note that I didn’t list any deadlines for the actual cover paintings themselves. That’s because they weren’t our problem. Covers were the department of Harry Steeger and Aleck Portegal, and as the scene depicted almost never had anything to do with any of the issue’s stories, none of us, Alden included, had any idea of what would be on the cover until the actual printed copy was in our hands.

The second deadline would be a week later, say, February 24th. That was when typed descriptions, taken from the manuscripts themselves, of scenes for the black-and-white interior illustrations, were due to go to the Art Department.

Third deadline: March 17th: copy-edited copy of all material intended for that issue, along with all relevant line-cuts, to the printer.

First proofs of all that back about April 7th, proofread texts, organized into the actual contents for that issue, plus typed copy for house ads, departments, etc., back to printer April 14th.

Foundry proofs back May 1st; to printers May 5th.

August issue on sale June 1st.

That, remember, is for just one of the dozen or so in our department.

More to come. . . .

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I was not employed by Popular Publications for five or six months, during which time I didn’t look for another job. I decided to go for full-time writing instead, but when that period was over — when I got a telegram from Al Norton, asking me to come back as his assistant, at close to twice what I’d been earning as editor of my own two magazines — I said sure.

Everything I wrote in that period sold, some of it at a word rate twice as high as my highest before then, for a total income per week of work that was actually a tad higher than I had been getting from editorial salary plus my spare-time writing. Not everything sold immediately, though, and all in all that experience validated what I had long been saying for a long time: freelancing paid pretty well, but the checks came when they came, and not a minute before. It was nothing you could finance a marriage on.

And, as it happened, my girlfriend, Doris, was getting pretty tired of being a girlfriend around that time. She much preferred the honorific “wife.” But we’ll come to that a little later.

Although I had been out of the office only a few months, there had been some big changes already and more were coming. Frank A. Munsey’s magazine empire, consisting mostly of the weekly Argosy and a few other odds and ends, had been up for sale for some time, and when the price declined enough to be a bargain, Harry Steeger and Harold S. Goldsmith bought Munsey’s stable.

The one magazine that they continued pretty much unchanged was Famous Fantastic Mysteries, along with its editor, Mary Gnaedinger, a friendly and able woman a little older than I, who had settled in in what had once been my office. Steeger had big plans for Argosy. He was considering making it a men’s magazine, perhaps a little like Esquire, but he was taking his time making it happen.

My biggest surprise was that Jane Littel was gone, and a middle-aged man, salvaged from Munsey’s payroll, was editing the love pulps. I never met him but he created a minor annoyance for me. He found a poem of mine in the inventory, and not having been told that it was meant to be used under a pseudonym, went ahead and published it as by Frederik Pohl.

I do not claim that my published verse would make Frost or Eliot envious, but I didn’t want to be remembered for my sappier 25¢-a-line effusions. It turned out not to matter, since apparently none of the readers of the love pulps had ever heard of me anyway.

Rog Terrill’s monkey cage of male young editors had been depleted by the draft, and Al Norton’s helpers were gone as well, every one. I never knew any of Rog’s replacements well enough to remember their names.. Al, after losing all of his, had begun to replace them with two young women. One was named Olga Mae Quadland, friendly, able and good at the obligatory skills of spelling, grammar and punctuation. The other was a very pretty recent divorcee from San Diego, in New York for the first time of her life, and, actually, the one who turned out to be my second wife.

But that’s another story, and one that we haven’t come to yet.

To be continued. . . .

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International Observer, Jan. 1937

One of my early publishing efforts, the clubzine of the International Scientific Association, which was neither international nor scientific.

So many people were happy when I posted my piece on what it was like to work for a pulp house in the early ’40s that I decided to do the same for every publisher I worked for. That’s a fair-sized list of over a span of four decades — five if you count the fanzine publishing I started with, and I do. This is the list:

1930s Fanzine publishing
Early 1940s Popular Publications
1948–1953 Popular Science books
1953–1960 Ballantine Books
1960–1967 Galaxy
1972 Ace Books
1973–1980 Bantam Books

The list is only approximate, because that’s what some of my jobs were, approximate. I was never on the payroll at Ballantine, but in the course of delivering, let me see, 14 books to them over maybe a dozen years I might as well have been. (And by the way, don’t pay too much attention to the dates. I was actually editing Galaxy for close to ten years before I put my name on the masthead because I thought, or hoped, that Horace would recover from his medical problems and come back. And I wasn’t with Ace for a full year. It was maybe seven months before I just couldn’t stand it any longer.)

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Super Science Stories, No. 1, yours truly, Editor.

Popular Publications ’ Super Science Stories, No. 1 &mash; yours truly, Editor.

If you made a right turn at Jane Littell’s door you found yourself in the business wing of the company’s offices, where people took care of distribution, billing, advertising and all the other grubbier parts of the publishing business. At least I suppose that’s what they did. In the four years I worked for Popular Publications I never once went there. Turn to the left. though, and you were at the pulsing heart of the pulp-paper experience.

Turning that way meant you were then heading north, paralleling the adjacent East River. On your right would be an expanse of blank wall, then two sets of office doors, then another several yards of blank walls before you came to any normal-sized office. At that point you would have passed the two king-sized offices that were the private lairs of the two makers and shakers who owned and ran Popular Publications, Harold S. Goldsmith and Harry Steeger.

What, exactly, either of them did in their throne rooms each day I can’t imagine. I am quite sure that neither of them read any appreciable number of the stories their editors bought.

Goldsmith did sign checks, I knew, but that accounted for no more than twenty or thirty minutes a week. Steeger. I thought, did carry a heavier burden, mostly because he had decreed that he personally had to approve every last cover of every painting of a cover for any of the Popular magazines before it went to the photo-engraver. (“My theory,” he told me, “is that if I just okayed covers I personally liked sooner or later I would attract enough people who agreed with me for the covers to work.” Probably it did. He never changed his tastes, and over a period of some twenty years his pulps kept returning a profit.)

The other thing that I know Steeger’s office to have been used for was conferences with his editors, generally to tell them that their newsstand sales figures were unsatisfactory and to discuss what to do about it. (Which was usually to fire the editor and give the work to someone else. Or, alternatively, to give the editor under discussion a little more money, in salary or budget — or both — in the hope that that will encourage him to make the magazine better. I had all three types of meetings with him at one time or another.)

Next, heading northward from the executive offices on that arm of the T, was an office intermediate in size between the White-Pohl-Littell cubbyholes and the grand palaces of Steeger and Goldsmith. This one was the property of Rogers Terrill. Rog’s official title was Editor in Chief, Popular Publications, but actually he had little to do — in a day-to-day sense, almost nothing — with any of the publications I’ve mentioned so far.

My belief is that Rogers Terrill had at one time been much more important in shaping Harry Steeger’s policies than he had become by 1939, when I went to work for Popular Publications … and Harry Steeger had gained a little more self-confidence. (A few years later when White, too, was history, some say that Steeger edited a few manuscripts, anonymously, himself.)

Then, the office next to Terrill’s and the one at the end of the line on the south side of the corridor, belonged to Alden H. Norton, whose work was similar to Terrill’s: both of them had somewhat larger spaces than the rest of us — and needed the space, because they each had a secretary sharing the rooms.

Both of them, in fact, more or less ran their own publishing companies, with ten or fifteen magazines each to get out. They could not, of course, do that by themselves. So they each had a large nearby office packed with three or four junior editors, who did all the scut work: copy-editing the ms, proofreading the two sets of proof for each magazines, writing house ads and features … yes, and reading the slush.

Come back for the story, which we’ll publish as soon as I write it.

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Jane Littell edited Popular Publications’ line of romance pulps.

Jane Littell edited Popular Publications’ romance pulps.

The thing to remember about those pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s is that, with a few exceptions, the stories behind the lurid covers didn’t have to be any good. Not in any literary sense, at least — the average story in a pulp magazine was about as mindless as daytime television, if not more so. (Daytime TV at least provides weather reports and stock quotations.)

Curiously, however, in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, pulp editors were supposed to be almost as irreproachable as the New York Times, and actually came fairly close. Better than the average American college graduate, anyway. Even the writers, on average, were reasonably good at such matters., though the actual stories they framed in these grammatical and well spelled terms came about as close to mindless as any literature ever can.

You will remember, though, that I mentioned honorable exceptions to the rule of pure trash, and there were some. One was the crime pulp Black Mask, edited by Ken White from the cubicle next to my own.

Well, let’s slow down a moment here so I can paint you a word picture. The entire suite of Popular Publications’ offices on the top, or 20th, floor of the structure called the Bartholomew Building was in the approximate shape of a capital letter T, which someone had pushed over so it was lying on its side. The down stroke of the T, which now ran east and west, was shortened, leaving on one side just room for three small offices and on the other side the wall that kept visitors penned in the waiting room until our receptionist-switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, said they could go on in. The cross-stroke of the T, now running north and south and thus paralleling the nearby East River, housed all the rest of Popular’s employees except for the two on the (former) downstroke, which is to say Ken White, with his Black Mask, and me. (I believe a deceased pulp called Railroad Stories had once been edited from the now-vacant third of those downstroke offices.)

Although Ken White was my nearest neighbor, we seldom spoke. He was rarely in his office, apparently doing most of his work at home. He was, I believe, the magazine’s third working editor, and he was charged with keeping the magazine as outstanding for quality and innovation as it had been made by his predecessors. That was no light responsibility. Black Mask had been started by the team of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as publishers, and they had turned it over to “Cap” Joseph Shaw to edit. Shaw had done wonders, recruiting writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler to reinvent the crime story for him. Unfortunately for Ken White, those two were no longer pounding the typewriter keys to fill the pulps, so it was a tough assignment.

White and I had the only offices in use on that abbreviated leg of the lazy-T. Everything else was on the T’s crossbar. Backtracking to where the crossbar of the T sat on the stumpy vertical, there was the office of Jane Littell, who edited Popular’s love pulps.

Janie had a background she didn’t much care to talk about, including a stint — before she began to put on the pounds — as a circus performer. She would never get explicit about it but I formed the opinion that she had been an equestrienne, one of those fearless young women who circled the ring standing on the back of a galloping horse.

Continue reading ‘Popular Publications, Part 3:
The People Who Made the Pulps’ »