Monday 22 February 2010

Mushroom publishers from Mars

Today's Blog posting is from none other than the writer of "Cloud 109"; David Orme. David's appetite for trash culture is as you will discover as rapacious as mine.

If you like bad science fiction – and I mean really, really bad – you needed to be living in the UK in the early fifties. It was post war, and paper was still rationed, so reading material was at a premium. Small, fly-by-night publishers knew they could sell anything, as long as they could get the paper, and this was usually available on the black market. So bottom end of the market publishing mushroomed, and publishers like Scion and John Spencer and Curtis Warren started to pour out cheap paperback novels, generally priced around one shilling and sixpence (7.5 pence) . Science fiction was only one of their lines – sleazy gangster fiction was the most popular. This inevitably let to problems. What could be sold in bookshops or shown on the cinema was decided by local watch committees, and more than one publisher ended up in court, and some printers ended up in prison. By today’s standards, it was all pretty harmless stuff, but this was the nineteen-fifties.

An essential part of this publishing was getting cheap material. Illustrators would be paid no more than a fiver for a cover, and writers were on rates such as ten shillings (50p) per thousand words or 20 – 25 pounds flat fee for an entire novel. Needless to say, writers and illustrators didn’t spend much time crafting their work. It was, frankly, mostly awful, which is perhaps why this material has charm as collectors items today. Not all awful though – there were a few talented artists such as Denis McLoughlin and Ron Turner – here are some great Turner covers written for ‘Vargo Statten’ stories, 1950 – 52. Some really good writers such as John Brunner started their careers writing this stuff.

To find out more about this extraordinary era you’ll need to get hold of ‘Vultures of the Void A History of British Science Fiction 1946-1956’ by Philip Harbottle and Steve Holland – out of print and pretty expensive these days. Here’s a quote from the book to give a flavour of the publishing industry sixty years ago. It’s a reminiscence of Gordon Landsborough, an editor with Hamilton and Co who published Authentic Science fiction magazine.

‘I met a publisher who kept a writer in a cellar. It was a dark and chilly place, one of a warren of cellars along an echoing stone passage. The writer sat on a stiff kitchen chair at a small kitchen table, centred under a naked electric lamp suspended from the ceiling. A low-wattage lamp, I remember; the room never seemed more than half-lit. Against a wall was a hospital-type metal bed, and on it was a disorder of army blankets, brown and uninviting, and overcoats and clothes to keep out the night’s seeping cold.
 The writer was a thin and wasted creature, wan and blinking behind his glasses. I never knew his name. He sat at that table from morning till night, tapping timidly away at an old typewriter. I never saw him eat, though he must have. He was said to work all day and far into the night, and kept working at weekends too.

He was supposed to write two books a week!
 They were short books, of course, but 70,000 words a week, 10,000 words a day!

The publisher paid him seven pounds ten shillings a week for his work. But first he deducted two pound ten shillings because the boy slept on the premises.

I saw the boy one day, a washed-out ghost of a creature in daylight, feebly leaning against the publisher’s office door, both hands beating gently against it. He was like a moth fluttering there, crying yet still afraid to draw attention to himself. “I want some money,” he was saying. “I am hungry.”

The publisher, safely locked in his office, (he locked himself in any time he thought there was going to be trouble) shouted brutally for him to go away and work and then he would not starve.

So the writer went timidly back to his cellar, and we fed him on some cake that a typist wouldn’t eat because of her figure.’

Speaking of Authentic Science Fiction, I couldn’t resist including a scan of Authentic issue 1 – Mushroom Men from Mars! Cover definitely not up to the standard of Turner, but what more do you want for one and six?


  1. Gordon Landsborough's story about the writer in the cellar is a marvellous bit of writing - much better, I'm sure, than the standard of prose in most of the magazines! I'm pretty sure it can't be true (well, I hope it's not) but it did have me laughing, albeit uncomfortably, because in another sense it reveals the precise attitude of publishers to writers which endures to this day. Plus ├ža change...

  2. These are great and just the kind of thing that inspired "Last night a monster saved my life" Great stuff Peter.

  3. "Last Night A Monster Saved My Life", one of my favorite happenings out there in Blogsville. Love the two colour vibe that you've got going there James, that and the visceral weirdness of the whole thing are pure Scion meets T.V. Boardman.