On the Newsstand

Adversity always inflames the enthusiast.

It’s 1955, Elvis Presley is on the radio, Dragnet is on the TV, and last but not least Astounding Science Fiction is on the magazine racks. So here is Joe Fan pushing open the door to his neighbourhood drugstore in Anytown, USA. It’s the start of of a new month and Joe is eager to begin searching for the latest instalment of his favourite form of fiction.

He pauses briefly in the doorway to take in the magnificent sight before his eyes. Row upon row of bright coloured covers hint at the wealth of wonders waiting just behind them. Everything sort of fiction magazine a keen reader could want is laid out in serried rows, detectives, westerns, sports, air war, jungle adventures, true romance, the choices seem endless.

But what is this, where is Joe Fan’s favourite form of reading? He can see everything but the science fiction he so desperately craves! How could this be he thinks to himself and turns towards the counter to inquire into the availability of current SF magazines. But before Joe can utter a single word the druggist has turned and scurried to the rear of the store. Joe sighs upon seeing the elderly gentleman’s retreating back and girding his loins strides to the nearest rack in order to begin pawing through the literature on display.

Eventually, in a corner assailable only by climbing three towering stacks of hot rod magazines and crawling over a dusty mound of fading newspapers does Joe at last find what he has been looking for. Scrambling back into into the afternoon sunlight he takes another look at the contents of his hand, only to discover what he holds are nothing but almost mint copies of Stirring Science Stories. He drops them with disgust.

Joe frowns and resignedly crouches behind the stacked magazines. Tearing the cover off a copy of Hot Rod’s he pokes out Jack Webb’s eyes and stares through the small holes as he lays in wait for the druggist. Eventually that elderly gentleman comes shuffling back from the shadowy and mysterious recesses of the store. Joe Fan leaps up, the Hot Rod’s cover held before him, “Hold it right there friend! I’d like to ask you some questions!”

The druggist recoils in surprise, staggering back against the counter, “Please Mr Webb! I ain’t done nothing wrong. You can’t take me in, I have a business to run!”

Joe waggled the magazine cover menacingly, “Now none of that. I just want the facts doc, just the facts. Where are you hiding Astounding and the other science fiction mags?”

The druggist frowned, “You’re not Jack Webb. An upstanding detective like him would never be interested in perverse trash like that. The science fiction is out the back where it belongs young fellow me lad and there it will stay. I only sell science fiction to customers who can prove they’re over 21. So unless you have some proof of identity be on your way!”

Joe Fan knew a losing battle when he saw one. The whole business with Ray Palmer and the Shaver Mystery had aged him beyond his tender years. Without another word he turned and strolled out of the drugstore as casually as possible. However if the druggist had but seen Joe Fan’s face lost in thought he would know that this was not the end of the matter, not by a long shot.

Drugstore Magazine Rack

Poor Joe Fan! All he wants is to buy the latest issues of Astounding, Galaxy, and if he’s feeling particularly sophisticated, F&SF. Unfortunately for Joe the delivery of his favourite reading material was a cooperative effort. In order for Joe to set eyes upon any magazine the delivery process required not just a publisher but a printer, distributor, and retailer as well. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that none these businesses cared about Joe’s reading preferences. In particular Joe’s druggist had little incentive to sell that one extra copy of any title. Even today the average retailer of magazines has hundreds of magazines in stock, and really, so long as all these titles as a group sell a decent number between them each month what does it matter to the business if a particular title sells 6 copies or only 5?

Luckily for Joe he had somebody looking out for him. Well to be honest that somebody was actually paid by certain publishers to look out for them but if the end result allowed Joe to buy his favourite magazines who are we to quibble?

Time for me to introduce Dave Mason. I doubt you’re familiar with the name because while he did sell a few stories over the years he was hardly prolific. While writing wasn’t the primary means by which Dave Mason earned a living he still knew something about the magazine business. According to an article by Mason published in the November 1955 issue of Ron Smith’s fanzine, Inside & Science Fiction Advertiser #12, he was as involved with the publishing business as most authors. In this article Mason put his two cents into the debate various authors had been having in the pages of Inside about why the science fiction field had recently gone from boom to bust. I’m sharing a slightly pruned down version of this article here because Mason goes into a lot of fascinating detail about how things worked at the coalface of the of the magazine trade in his day. (And are things so very different today? I suspect not.) He also offers a good many opinions that I found amusing and which will hopefully amuse you too.

But before you dive right in a couple of points. First of all Mason uses a couple of slang terms that have left me slightly confused as to their meaning. I included them in for that authentic fifties feel but don’t expect me to be able to explain what they mean. Secondly, I’d be curious to know if anybody can make an educated guess as to which magazine Mr Mason was referring to when he wrote about the situation with ‘Exasperating Tales‘. My first thought was that ‘Exasperating Tales‘ was really Imagination as published by William Hamling but I’m not sure if that guess makes sense or not.

Mason

I am getting awfully tired of this whole silly argument, chums. And I do mean the argument about what’s with the boom/bust/bwah of poor old science fiction. Look, I ain’t no lit’ry type, see? I wrote a story, and it got published by a fella named Shaw in a magazine called Infinity, but nobody invites me to pro parties, and H.L. Gold doesn’t know me from Hubbard.

But there’s one phase of this silly business I do know about. And it’s the one thing that all of the brilliant editors, publishers, authors, such who’ve been belaboring each other appear to know very, very little about, and care less. And that is a thing coarsely known as distribution.

I get paid for knowing something about it. Not as much as Horace gets for editing Galaxy, not even as much as an apprentice printer gets for running his fingers across the web to create that interesting smudged effect Beyond used to go for, before Beyond went annual. But for the mysteries whereof I am adept, I get a small purse of gold which may or may not prove that my services are worth something to somebody.

The firm for which I slave is a poor one, and one of many such; it’s generally called, before ladies, a publisher’s representative. This means that magazine publishers, on being confronted with the dark jungle that lies between the printer’s shipping room and the customer’s cash, cry aloud for a white hunter to guide them through, defend and preserve them, and lend them comfort when the drums beat loud. That’s us. We bedevil, pursue, and harry newsdealers; we ceaselessly shove excess copies about the highways and byways; we stick up posters, enchant with smiles and soap, make endless statistics, and perform similar mantic arts to the end that nowhere in the civilized world may any man, woman or fan step into a newsstand and be confronted with the absence of a magazine we represent.

Now, these arts are a dark mystery to nearly all editors and publishers. When they are handed the plain and simple results of a great deal of legwork, and those results fail to correspond with some airy theory they have may have about their publications, the genii simply ignore them. Therefore follows trouble, such as now, and for quite a while, has beset science fiction.

To cite an example: There is, upon the lists of my firm, a Certain Magazine, which we shall call Exasperating Tales. The publisher of ET pays us for our services, but apparently is not sufficiently interested to find out exactly what those services are. The editor, nobody’s fool otherwise, does not even know we exist. I know, because I met him once and mentioned that I worked for the firm that represented his publication. He appeared to think we had something to do with printing it.

Now, Exasperating is slipping. It’s slipping so badly that it’s a mystery as to how it keeps going. On the other hand, earnest efforts by us help keep it going (no, we don’t want gratitude – we get paid).

It doesn’t take much research to find out why. There is a strictly limited market for the magazine in question and too many copies are going out. But it wouldn’t be quite such a limited market if a few touches were added; the covers could be better, for instance, and certain other things might help. And, although we don’t advise on editorial policy, if enough newsstand buyers are saying the stories stink, we hear about it and report the fact. Mind you, we don’t say we think they stink, but that newsstand buyers do.

And this, together with other information such as the way the magazine sells, where, and during what part of the on-sale period, is reported to the publisher. If he does anything about it at all – and he often doesn’t – he seldom if ever mentions anything to the editor. The editor works in a vacuum, with only a few letters to tell him anything: and those letters are usually from rabid fans, who aren’t representative of the general reading public.

But now, just how does this whole set-up I’m speaking of work? What be these mysteries of which editors are blissfully ignorant? How is it that the vintner sells? Well…

You have thirty thousand nicely printed copies of Frenetic Fiction, Volume One, Number One. You are a publisher.

You aren’t going to wait around until enough people mail you subscriptions. You’re a publisher, but you have some sanity left. What you need is a distributor who will put copies on newsstands and in stores. You take a look at what’s available.

There are a few small time distributors who carry a few very popular magazines to routes in various areas. Those we don’t even think about. Then there are a couple of so-called Independents (since one man’s family owns ’em all, the term ‘Independent’ is by courtesy) and there is the Big ‘Un, American News. Your decision on which to use is based on the kind of magazine, the number of copies to be sold, its expected popularity, whether you can afford American News’ rates for national distribution, etc. Once you’ve made up your mind, the favored outfit gets your 30,000 hunks of deathless literature and proceeds to wreak.

The distributor’s method is usually to examine your mag and, after uffish thought, to decide that Frenetic Fiction is very like The Quarterly Fetishist, on the basis that the same sort of moron buys both. However, since the lad who makes this decision is probably a guy who moves his lips when he reads, and who thinks Amazing is science fiction, he can quite easily be fooled into using Boot & Shoe Industry as a comparison magazine for Boats & Ships.

Once his usual slightly wrong decision has been made, our distributor’s expert proceeds to make a distribution. He does this by opening up his lists of dealers and saying, “Well, Gooha’s Stationary Store gets six copies of The Quarterly Fetishist, sells four. Give him eight of Frenetic Fiction, on account we got twice as many copies to get rid of.” Thereafter the distributor using these figures carries copies of Frenetic, along with all the other magazines he handles, to Gooha, and to all the other stores and stands called for.

Gooha opens the bundle and sees a new magazine among the others. Gooha, you must remember, is a high grade moron, much smarter than the average fan. He is in the magazine business because at an early age his Aunt Tchasha bought it for him; she correctly figured that books and magazines were the only stock in trade he wouldn’t try to steal. He hates the magazine business – all newsdealers do. They make much more on candy bars and reefers, and they only keep magazines in the place so the cop on the beat can have something to paw over when he comes in for his weekly ice.

Gooha cannot read, but he can recognise a new magazine. He resents the very idea of a publisher trying to make him sell something. He grunts and flings it under the counter, to be returned at the end of the week without ever having been visible. If you ask Gooha about Frenetic he will say, quite truthfully, “Duh, it didn’t sell.” That’s right, it didn’t, none of his customers having X-ray vision.

The magazines are given to Gooha and his anthropoid brethren on consignment, which means he only has to pay for what he inadvertently sells. He has to pay a very small carrying charge and he has to keep a small sum on deposit with the distributor; also, he must return a magazine which has not been sold in order to get credit. The dealers resent these various small curbs on what they would like to do, which would be to evade their bills, swindle everybody involved, and possibly sell the unsold magazines for pulp.

Now, among other things, I make up distributions for publishers. Having personally visited Gooha and a thousand others of his ilk, I know him well. I know what his stand looks like, his habits, his prejudices, what sells well and what doesn’t. Judging by this, I try to give him enough copies so that he will have to return only two or three.

If he ‘prematures’, or returns copies before the end of sale period, or if he sells out rather quickly, I will find out about it. If, for instance, I don’t see Frenetic right out there in front, I’ll ask him where it is. I may try to do him little favors like adding up 3 and 7 so his accounts will come out straight. But with smiles and soap I’ll get copies of Frenetic out in front where the madding crowd can see it. If he returns copies, re-orders will appear in his mail the same day. If he tries to sell them out fast, I’ll be there with more. And, as returns come drifting back to the distributor, I’ll be there waiting with a list of dealers who have never received Frenetic, to whom returned copies can be sent, thereby making certain that no copies stop moving till the end of sale.

Now, there’s more to promotion than this; I’m not writing a book on the subject. But the whole basic concept of promoting is the same anywhere, in all fields. It’s this: Make a noise. Beat on a tin pan in the market place and cry loudly, “I have oil and wine, o ye Faithful!” And whether the wine be good or bad, the loudest pan-beater sells the most. Being an idealist I would prefer that the loudest pan-beater also be a good wine-maker, but there’s no necessary connection.

I shall now make some highly radical statements.

Number one. I know, better than – certain other parties – what kinds of science fiction will sell, which will sell best and which will not sell at all. Now, when I speak of promotion, I don’t mean that lousy stuff of the SF Plus or Amazing variety will naturally sell better than Astounding or Fantasy & Science Fiction. It doesn’t, unless, as in the case of Amazing, the enormous push of a big chain publisher’s sales and circulation staff are put behind it. Rap didn’t make Amazing into the leading seller single handed, and he didn’t do it simply by making it the awful crud that it was; he did it because Ziff-Davis knew how to make magazines sell. That’s nothing in Rap’s disfavor – it’s easy for him to think he was the prime mover, because, as usual, the editorial department lived in Parnassus, above the madding throng of circulation men.

On the other side of that coin, SF Plus, which did its best to be much worse than Amazing, and succeeded to a large extent, was a tee-total newsstand flop. That was not merely because it was as bad as it was, but because there was hardly any shadow of an attempt made to circulate it properly. It’s doubtful if any amount of promotion could have helped that item, but it might have; you never can tell.

Second radical statement. Science fiction – real science fiction, and good fantasy, adult stuff – will never have a really large market. On the other hand, there’s a good steady small market for a few magazines of quality. Unless you publish the kind of thing Imagination does, which simply cannot be classed as anything but comic book stuff, you aren’t going to get large sales. So don’t try.

Which to digress into another phase of the lunacy that is the publishing business. Whenever anything appears to be selling well, there will be seventeen other publishers, most of them of the sort that operate out of hats and strictly on credit, who will rush to supply the obvious public hunger with seventeen imitations of the successful item. There are three or four imitations of Mad on the stands now; there will be ten or fifteen imitations of Shock as soon as the other publishers find out how well it’s been selling. And every time there’s a slight upturn in SF there are seventeen hungry impresarios waiting to turn out imitations.

Third radical statement. Fantasy & Science Fiction and Astounding are going to last just as long as Boucher and Campbell feel like running them. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Galaxy suddenly went poof. I’d be sorry, because I like it. But I don’t think SF would feel the loss.

My reason for comparing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Astounding with Galaxy is this: Boucher and Campbell know a great deal about their public, and have been giving them a pretty consistent diet of what that public wants. Gold, on the other hand, is a guy who knows what he likes, and that’s what he’s going to publish. If you happen to share all of Gold’s personal tastes – which would be difficult – you’ll like Galaxy all the way, every issue. If you don’t, Galaxy will ultimately begin to bore you.

So, from an illiterate, hairy-hoofed, harrier of dealers and juggler of distribution, these words of wisdom: One of these days there will come out of the desserts a Great Man, some editor-publisher who will know how to put together a good general SF magazine. An editor who will put as much effort into promotion and distribution as he does convention activity. And then, we shall see…

Alas for Dave Mason his final prediction never came to pass. Indeed it can be argued that by 1960 the few remaining science fiction magazines had been relegated to a place behind the newly dominant paperbacks and would remain there for ever more.

Now before I finish we need check in on Joe Fan.

That night a shadowy figure crept across the roof of a certain drugstore and with trembling fingers eased open the skylight. A moment later that same figure lowered itself into the store down an Acme brand Chain of Logic and with a soft but gleeful laugh headed for the unlocked storeroom.

And so it was that sooner or later each month Joe Fan’s druggist foe would find his magazine racks mysteriously rearranged and the despised science fiction prominently displayed. He was so disheartened by this mysterious turn of events he could barely bring himself to accept the money customers kept pressing into his hands…

 

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