Collecting Vintage Science Fiction Paperbacks
by Gary Lovisi
(Note: web links in this article take you to Amazon.com to check prices on
contemporary versions of these classics.)
The years before 1952 were a pioneering time for the science fiction paperback. Little
science fiction was published in the early days. It was thought an unviable paperback
category, as was the mystery and western. Most early science fiction books, anthologies,
and novels were experiments. Some saw publication only through the hard work of a
persistent fan and editor like Donald Wollheim, whose impact on paperback science fiction
has been sadly neglected. Books such as H. G. Wells' titles were already classics, but not
considered science fiction. They were imaginative novels of their day. Science fiction was
not a separate marketing genre for paperbacks.
Science fiction's home in those years was in the pulps. But that was soon to change.
The science fiction boom of the early and mid-'50s, soon transformed itself into a science
fiction paperback boom as the pulps died their last gasp. The genre giants Ace Books and
Ballantine Books rose to take their place.
The first paperback to use the term science fiction was The Pocket Book of
Science Fiction (Pocket #214, 1943). Edited by Donald A. Wollheim, this anthology was the
ground-breaker of the genre. This historic book is still readily available to collectors,
usually at a reasonable price.
The first science fiction paperback novel was likely Rebirth by Thomas Calvert McClary
(Bart House #6, 1944). A first edition novel in paperback, it was reprinted from
Astounding. The cover blurb reads: "When machinery ran wild when order became
chaos bedlam uncontrolled. The greatest escape story of the decade. You'll
have to work to locate a copy of Rebirth. It can set you back from $15 to $25.
During World War II, Armed Service Editions (ASEs) were published and distributed free
to our troops around the world. These were read in foxholes, barracks, and on ship.
Published from 1943 to 1946, early ASEs were bound sideways, at the short end. Later
editions featured the regular mass-market paperback format. One of the earliest ASE
editions was Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak (ASE #0-8); others were
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (ASE #T-2);
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (ASE #698);
The War of the Worlds - Literary Touchstone edition
by H. G. Wells (ASE #745, reprinted as ASE #1091);
When Worlds Collide (Bison Frontiers of Imagination)
by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (ASE
#801, later reprinted as Dell #627); and The Food of the Gods by H. G. Wells (ASE #958). Marginal
science fiction ASE titles include two Tarzans and Lovecraft. The scarcest and most
collectible ASE is The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther (ASE #656), a
first and only paperback appearance.The Superman is rare in fine shape and could go for as
much as $300 to $500.
By the late 1940s Avon Books claimed the SF publishing mantle with their A. Merritt
reprints. In 1949 Avon published in all its sense of wonder The Girl with
the Hungry Eyes (Avon #184), a fine anthology edited by Don Wollheim. This beauty
could go from $20 to $50 depending on condition.
In 1949 Avon also published its first two science fiction novels: Out of
the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (Avon #195) and
by Philip Wylie (Avon #216). In 1950 and '51 Avon
published many gorgeous science fiction paperbacks including Into Plutonian Depths
by Stanton A. Coblentz (Avon #281) and C. S. Lewis'
Perelandra (sequel to Out of the Silent Planet).
Both feature incredibly weird cover art right out of a pulp magazine dream. These trade
for $20 to $40 in nice shape.
A classically beautiful edition of An Earthman on Venus by Ralph M. Farley
(Avon #285) was next (valued today at $75) along with two great books in the short-lived
Avon Fantasy Novels series. The Fantasy series included Green Girl by Jack
Williamson (AFN #2) and The Princess of the Atom by Ray Cummings (AFN #1). Both
are very collectible. In 1951 Avon also came out with the Avon Science Fiction Reader #1
in digest format. Number 2 and 3, published in the following year, ended this short
Once a market was established, other publishers got into the science fiction act. In
1947 Dell Books released a nice edition of
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (Dell #201) with
cover art by Earl Sherman. In 1951 Dell Books published the first paperback of one of
science fiction's greatest writers: Universe by Robert A. Heinlein (#36 in the Dell Ten-Cent
Series). This first edition sported a two-headed mutant cover by Robert Stanley. In nice
shape, this keeper sells from $50 to $100. This is a must for any serious science fiction
paperback collector or Heinlein fan.
Not to be outdone by Avon and Dell, tiny Century Books published a few highly
collectible SF titles. Significant for this short study is Century Book #104, The
Green Man by Harold M. Sherman, 1946, a paperback original (PBO). Not only an early
SF paperback novel printed at a time when less than a dozen existed more
importantly, it is the first science fiction novel published as a paperback original.
Printed in digest format, some fans and scholars quibble about this being the true first.
Nevertheless, it holds historic significance. Scarce in fine shape, a copy can set you
back $60 to $100.
Century Books continued their noble experiment with two novels by Rog Phillips: the
earliest is Time Trap (Century #116, another PBO from 1947). This one is in
mass-market rack size so some fans consider this as the true first science fiction PBO
novel. It sports an incredible and sexy good-girl-with-three-eyes cover. She holds some
kind of raygun that looks resembles a flashlight. A fun cover and a real beauty. In fine
shape it runs about $75. In 1950, Century published its second Rog Phillips book Worlds
Within (Century #124, PBO 1950), this time with a sexy girl in space suit cover.
Malcolm Smith designed both covers. The latter in fine condition might cost $40.
1952 brought a big change in paperback science fiction. Ace Books and Ballantine Books
began their massive output, specializing in science fiction as still more publishers got
on the SF bandwagon. More anthologies came out from many publishers, such as Perma Books' Beyond
the End of Time, edited by Frederik Pohl (Perma #P145). Other novels, such as
When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (Dell
Books #627) also came out in 1952, a reprint of the ASE edition with a nice Robert Stanley
cover. Avon released more reprints of their A. Merritt titles, both in the regular Avon
series and the Avon T Series. Earle Bergey's gorgeous cover art helped sell Popular
Library's Dragon's Island by Jack Williamson (PL #447, 1952) and Revolt
of the Triffids by John Wyndham (PL #411, 1952). These two exquisite editions are
still readily available in nice shape, running about $20 each.
I am sure I have overlooked some items in this short listing. There is often a blurring
between what is science fiction and other genres. I have tried to stick with basic science
Pre-1952 vintage paperbacks are the pioneers of the SF paperback world. They were the
explorers the innovators and the innovations. They formed the beginnings of the
modern science fiction paperback that we all enjoy today. Plus, they're fun to collect.
From such humble and inauspicious beginnings, a great industry arose.
(Gary Lovisi is the publisher of Gryphon Books He is a noted author of essays,
articles, interviews, bibliographic work, and books on subjects or authors that he has
collected. He hosts the Annual NYC Pulp Fiction and Paperback Expo. Visit his Gryphon Books