Arguably, the pulps would never have succeeded as well as they did were it not for the business and artistic genius of several key publishers. Included here are some of the most influential individuals and publishing enterprises that helped shape the pulp publishing landscape in the first half of the 20th century.
Hugo Gernsback (1884 - 1967) immigrated to America from Luxemburg in 1905. A natural scientific experimenter and inventor, he started his first magazine. Modern Electronics, in 1908. Three years later, he penned his first science fiction story, and his second was only published in 1978, long after his death. It was Gernsback’s contribution to science fiction publishing in the years between 1910 and 1950, that earned him lasting recognition.
In 1913, he started The Electrical Experimenter (later – in 1920 – it changed its name to Science and Invention). In both of these early magazines, Gernsback included stories of fiction relating to scientific concepts. In 1926, he founded the first magazine exclusively dedicated to what he termed “scientifiction” – Amazing Stories. “Scientifiction” soon became “Science Fiction” in the popular usage, and Gernsback encouraged community awareness by sharing names and addresses of avid readers among the fan base. In this way, the sci-fi fandom became both self-aware and active in supporting future sci-fi projects and magazines.
Gernsback lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929, but went on to found two new magazines – Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories, which he subsequently sold in 1936.
Gernsback is generally credited - along with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne – as the “Father of Science Fiction.” In Gernsback’s case, he earned the title by promoting the new science fiction genre through his various publications. Today, the Hugo Awards for Science Fiction are, today, named in his honor – the Hugos.
Frank Munsey (1854 - 1925) was a newspaper and magazine publisher, as well as author. He started an adventure magazine for boys, entitled The Golden Argosy, after he moved to New York in 1882. Soon, however, he sought to attract an older readership, changing the name to The Argosy in 1888, when it became the first true pulp magazine.
Munsey was the first to employ the high-speed presses of the day to create a mass-produced, and cost-efficient popular reading magazine. He had experience with the cheap dime novel format that he had used with The Golden Argosy - the idea was to use cheap, untrimmed pulp paper stock, thereby lowering printing costs.
He also published Munsey’s Weekly starting in 1889, and, in 1906, undertook publishing Railroad Man’s Magazine. This latter publication, was the first genre-specific title among the pulps, in that it featured stories dealing with railroad themes.
Munsey’s numerous pulp titles were aimed at the working classes. Additionally, he owned as many as 17 newspapers, before beginning the process of consolidating these. Before his death in 1925, he had created an extensive publishing empire. The Frank A. Munsey Company continued publishing these and other pulp titles after his death.
Street & Smith was an early publisher of inexpensive dime novels, and later – in the early 20th century – pulp magazines. In 1933, the company purchased several titles from Clayton Magazines, most notably Astounding Stories. But within 4 years, S&S dropped several titles, and began a long period in which there were fewer and fewer titles printed. Before discontinuing its pulp line completely in 1949, Street & Smith had also been publishing comic books and cheap paperbacks, some of which – like The Shadow – were based on their pulp titles. Street & Smith’s stable of titles was purchased by Popular Publications in 1949.
John W. Campbell (1910 – 1971) was one of the most influential figures in shaping science fiction as we understand it today. Issac Asimov has said that Campbell – as editor of pulp science fiction magazines – single-handedly brought science fiction writing out of the “penny dreadful” mold and demanded writers who understood both science and people.
Educated at M.I.T., Campbell wrote his first story when he was only 19 (in 1930). Throughout the 1930s, he wrote mostly space adventures under both his own name, as well as a pseudonym. One of his stories (”Who Goes There?”) has been made into a major motion picture on three occasions: The Thing, in 1951, 1982, and 2011.
In 1937, he was hired as editor of Astounding and quickly began a series of changes that ushered in “The Golden Age of Science Fiction,” publishing stories by a new cadre of young writers who, today, read like a pantheon of science fiction: Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, and A.E. van Vogt. Campbell even changed the name to Astounding Stories of Science Fiction to better emphasize his new focus on well-informed science with believable plot lines.
Campbell was also known for his wild editorials, in which he would posit wild ideas, with the aim of piquing the readers’ – and his writers’ – imaginations.
Popular Publications was founded in the depths of the Great Depression by Henry Steeger, who recognized the popular market for escapist fiction. He let his imagination run wild, it seems, for he boasted, at one point, that he had created over 300 pulp magazine titles! The genres ran the gamut from adventure to detective, Western fiction to romance, including many “pulp hero” titles. His creativity even extended to his founding a “backdoor” publishing group (The Fictioneers) that could offer authors much less money for their work by maintaining the pretense of being a different organization altogether! This latter group – The Fictioneers – ran Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories (both titles are represented in the CSUEB pulp collection).