Precious story manuscript,
How I wonder who has it.
I sent it out for lasting fame,
But where it went I cannot name.
I’m sure that anybody familiar with the history of science fiction publishing knows that in the USA the rise of the paperback steadily occurred during the 40s and 50s. Prior to about 1955 most science fiction was still first appearing in magazines dedicated to the genre but after that the science fiction magazines steadily declined in importance.
However, even if you are aware of all this I wonder if you have ever really considered the implications of this piece of history. Between 1926, when Amazing Stories first appeared, and 1955 there were a lot of magazines published which were wholly or partly devoted to printing science fiction. Secondly, for reasons I won’t go into today the the majority of this fiction was composed of shorter stories rather than novels. There were quite a few novels serialised in the SF magazines over the years but that total is still dwarfed by the number of shorter pieces published (it should also be noted that a good many stories that were described on magazine covers and title pages as novels were really too short of deserve the description). Last, but certainly not least, all these published stories began their lives as manuscripts which had to be physically delivered to an editor for consideration, either by the post or by hand. So what this implies is that at any given time there were thousands of manuscripts in circulation between authors and editors. That may seem a lot but keep in mind only a small fraction of those manuscripts ended up being bought and published. For every story published there were probably scores of never to be sold efforts clogging up post offices around the world.
Now the obvious question to ask then is, was this a perfect system? And the equally obvious answer is that no, it was not. If nothing else the sheer quantity of manuscripts in circulation ensured that some of them went astray. This is not to put the entire blame on the postal services either. Even if they did manage to lose some manuscripts on their own initiative, I doubt getting every item of mail to the right address was the easiest of tasks in the era of hand-written addresses (and that’s not even considering how many of those addresses had been copied down incorrectly in the first place).
However, sometimes problems occurred even after the postal services had successfully delivered a manuscript. Consider this extract from Rich Elsberry’s column, Nothing Sirius:, which appeared in Odd #8 (a fanzine published in December 1949 by Duggie Fisher Jr):
Some time ago, Poul Anderson sent a story in to JWC, Jr. A short time later Poul received a check for the story. Everything seemed fine till two weeks later when he received the story back from Standard Publications with a rejection slip. It was easy to deduce that something was fouled up somewhere. The story hadn’t been sent to Merwin. How did he get it? And how did it get out of JWC’s office? Poul decided to wait and see what would happen. It didn’t take long. Comes a letter from from JWC asking Anderson if he can send along the carbon, he’s lost the original somehow. Poul sent the original back to JWC but he still didn’t know how it got into Standard’s office. Noel Loomis had an answer tho; he’d had the same thing happen to him once. He figured that an agent must have come to JWC’s office and left a bunch of scripts for Campbell to look at. Later when he came back to pick up the slush pile, Poul’s story must have gotten mixed in accidentally. Later, when Merwin found the Anderson manuscript on his desk he probably checked with the agent and found out that he wasn’t handling Poul. Since it wasn’t his he must have had Merwin send it back to Anderson. While it still isn’t certain that this is the way it happened, JWC must have been pretty happy to get his story back.
The JWC, Jr. mentioned here was of course John W. Campbell, long time editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, which was generally considered to be the leading science fiction magazine at this time. Merwin was Sam Merwin, Jr., who was editing Thrilling Wonder Stories & Startling Stories for the Standard Magazines Group. By this point it’s generally considered that Merwin had raised Thrilling Wonder Stories to a level just below that of Astounding. I think it can be safely assumed that John W. Campbell was a competent editor not normally given to losing important pieces of paper within the confines of his office. So you can see that sometimes even the best had trouble with their paperwork.
However, the detail I find most interesting in regards to this story is that Noel Loomis, an author whose fiction appeared in the magazines nearly 30 times during the 40s and 50s, had experienced something similar happening to him. It certainly makes me wonder how often manuscripts went astray in the various editorial offices. Not a daily occurrence I’m sure, but given it was normal practise was for a title page containing only the names of the story and author to be attached to the front of a manuscript I suppose it would be easy for somebody to mistake one sheaf of paper for another. In which case it’s possible that in the average busy office manuscripts went missing several times a year. Now there’s a thought to send shivers down the spine of any old-time author.
No doubt you will be thinking well good riddance to that then. In today’s world of tomorrow we don’t have to send our manuscripts out as bulky bundles of paper in order to lose them, we can lose them much faster digitally. The upside to that being how much easier it is (and I’m assuming here) to locate stories sent digitally that somehow went astray. Now that’s all well and good but sometimes there are mistakes made that I suspect even the highest of hi-tech can’t thwart.
Consider for example the mysterious error described below by August Derleth under his H.H. Holmes pseudonym. This appeared in Rhodomagnetic Digest V1 #2 (published in August 1949 by George Blumenson for The Elves’, Gnomes’ and Little Men’s Science-Fiction Chowder and Marching Society). Just how the following error was made I can’t imagine but I do wonder if this makes early copies of Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction especially collectible:
The Monster From Everywhere
by H.H. Holmes
In the last number of these proceedings, Dr. J. Lloyd Eaton pointed out that the story, The Monster From Nowhere, by Donald Wandrei, reprinted in Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction, does not in the least resemble the story, The Monster From Nowhere, in The Eye and the Finger, the Arkham collection of Donald Wandrei short stories, and added an explanation from Wandrei via August Derleth that the Conklin version was “an old, discarded draft.”
Meanwhile the situation has been further complicated by the appearance of Gnome Press’ collection of Nelson Bond stories, The Thirty-First of February, which contains a story, The Monster From Nowhere, by Nelson Bond – word-for-word identical with the story in the Conklin anthology.
Mr. Derleth now writes, “Crown wrote us for permission to reprint Wandrei’s tale in the Conklin Best, and paid us on receipt of permission and the copyright form to be used. The book came out with Bond’s story under Wandrei’s name. I queried Don, saying that the story was entirely different. Without looking at the book, he concluded that somehow Conklin had got hold of an earlier discarded draft of the story, which had been lost in editorial New York, and used it. It was only later that Nels discovered his tale with Don’s byline, and Crown made the necessary adjustment.”
One trembles at the thought of the financial complexities implied in the three last words. Late printings of The Best presumably carry the correction; collectors please note this as a “point.”
I have forwarded a copy of this note to Mr. Conklin, and hope in a later issue of the Digest to reveal his explanation of what brought about this most chaotic mystery of modern bibliography.
The Donald Wandrei story appeared in 23rd November issue of Argosy while the Nelson Bond story appeared in the July 1939 issue of Fantastic Adventures. Now I understand some confusion is possible when both stories have exactly the same title but even so how does a mistake like this happen? I would assume that when Groff Conklin drew up a list of stories to be copied out for the printer to typeset he included the titles, author names, and where each story was originally published. Did Groff Conklin misremember the source and list the wrong magazine? I can’t see how whoever physically assembled the manuscript would even know the wrong story existed and include it otherwise. Unfortunately the next issue of Rhodomagnetic Digest I own is the fifth issue so if Mr Conklin tendered an explanation I don’t have access to it.
There is another layer to this mystery by the way. I’ve checked The Internet SF Data Base and not only is the Wandrei story not listed as appearing in The Best of Science Fiction but the Bond story is. Did Conklin end up sticking with the mistake because fixing it would be too hard? I assume August Derleth is to be trusted when he states that the Wandrei story was the one suppose to be in that collection so why does ISFDB claim otherwise? Could it be that whoever entered in the relevant data did not know about this mistake? If so and if the ISFDB entry was composed by somebody working from an early copy of The Best of Science Fiction then all is explained. After all, who in their right mind is ever going to question something like this without good reason to. I’m sure it’s not a mistake any of us expect editors or publishers to make.
Publishing, apparently more complicated than the word suggests.