Doubling Down With Don Wollheim

Presenting the platypus paperbacks.

I don’t think there are many fans of vintage science fiction who would disagree with me if I suggested that Ace Doubles are among the most desirable paperbacks to collect ever published. However, this is something a non-collector might find a little strange given the Ace Doubles are best described as the platypus of the publishing world. Like the platypus those early Ace Double paperbacks were a weird hybrid that worked better than they had any right to. However it’s that very unusual format which makes them so collectable in many eyes.

As the name implies every Ace Double consists of two separate books (usually novels but not always) bound back to back. This might seem like a strange publishing decision now given it appears to reduce potential revenue but at the time it seemed like a clever solution to a difficult problem. According to Piet Schreuders in his book, Paperbacks, U.S.A., publishers in the US had been unwilling to price their books above 25¢ all through the 30s and 40s. The reasoning behind this being a fear that raising prices any higher than that would encourage the reading public to buy magazines devoted to fiction, few of which were selling for more than 25¢ prior to 1950, than said publishers paperbacks. Don Wollheim, for it was he who was head of editorial staff at Ace Books, neatly sidestepped this concern with his two ‘Complete and Unabridged’ novels for 35¢ scheme. Not only did offering two novels ensure the higher cover price wouldn’t scare off would be purchasers but the implication that the second novel could be had for a mere extra 10¢ surely tempted them instead.

However, much as I’d like to give full credit for this idea to our boy Don it would appear that the idea didn’t originate with him. To quote Piet Schreuders in Paperbacks, U.S.A.:

Throughout the 1940s, many important books were not published in paperback form because they were too long for it to economically feasible to retail them for 25 cents and because breaking them up into several separate volumes was considered impractical. Kurt Enoch solved this problem in 1950, with the introduction of the SIGNET DOUBLE VOLUMES and, three years later, the TRIPLE VOLUMES. The Double Volumes were priced at 35 cents and the Triple Volumes at 50 cents and, to clearly show the reader that he was getting extra value for his extra money , spine texts were printed or three times side-by-side over contrasting backgrounds to symbolize the doubleness or tripleness of the book; sometimes even the serial number was subdivided into, for example, 802A and 802B.

So how similar was the packaging? Well this is the cover of the very first Signet Double.

Knock On Any Door

And this is the cover of the very first Ace Double.

The Grinning Gizmo

Okay, so they don’t look that alike and the Ace artwork is decidedly pulpier in style. But then it would be, wouldn’t it? Don Wollheim wasn’t going to try and muscle in on Signet’s classier patch. No, Don Wollheim was going to do what he knew best and let’s not forget that Don’s editorial career had begun with Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories, two of the pulpiest of the pulp magazines.

Covers not withstanding it’s pretty clear to me that the Ace books borrowed a lot of layout detail from Signet. If you have any doubt about that compare the spine of Signet’s Knock On Any Door with the spine of a 1958 Ace Double featuring Eric Frank Russell I just happen to have laying about.

Spine Comparison

Oh, Don Wollheim you clever scamp.

Now you might be thinking that this is all very well but really, what did the Ace Doubles do other than borrow some layout details from Signet? The core feature, the two different novels in one volume, well that’s clearly unique to Ace, isn’t it? Now if you’ve been thinking anything like that then you are so very wrong. Consider the examples pictured below and their publication dates; Two Complete Detective Books (Winter 1939), Two Daring Love Novels (January 1948); and Two Complete Science-Adventure Books (Winter 1950). Three magazine titles that predated Ace Doubles by years (and the first two even left Kurt Enoch and his Signet Doubles in their dust).

Two Novels

Of course it can be argued that none of those magazines sported two separate covers so that’s one innovation that Don Wollheim can successfully claim. On the other hand take a look at Two Complete Detective Books. How on Earth did Wollheim miss pinching that brilliant idea? Every one of the early Ace Doubles should have had a banner proclaiming ‘$5 value for 35¢‘ somewhere on the cover. You missed a trick there Don my boy.

All is not lost on the innovation front though as according to Piet Schreuders Wollheim did introduce another new idea, at least in regards to the earlier Ace Doubles, in that one book was new and one was a reprint (usually taken from the rival fiction pulps). This helped keep the format profitable as reprints were to be had for less money than brand new stories. And profitable the series surely was given Ace kept issuing titles long after the 25¢ barrier became a thing of the past.

Another money saving tactic was to impose a strict word length on each novel published as an Ace Double. A set length saves on printing costs and perhaps even allows the company to offer authors less money. This also meant that if a manuscript was longer than the space allocated some pruning was done. Yes, at least some of the Ace Doubles have ‘Complete and Unabridged’ printed on the cover but not all do. Indeed, it’s possible that Ace made a point of advertising ‘Complete and Unabridged’ when it was true and then saying nothing when a story had indeed been abridged. Even if not done to intentionally deceive I imagine this encouraged the casual reader to assumed all Ace Books were ‘Complete and Unabridged’. One such example of what could be described as a sin by omission was Bob Tucker’s novel, To the Tombaugh Station. As you can see from the cover below there’s no mention that the book had been trimmed for publication, just that it was the ‘First book publication’.

To the Tombaugh Station

As it happens Tucker detailed the story behind the publication of this story in the second issue of Vic Ryan’s fanzine Bane. I’m going to quote Bob’s explanation here as I find such stories fascinating and assume you do too:

The novel (nearly 60,000 words) was sent to Rinehart last fall, but they rejected it (Rinehart has rejected my last two or three books and broken our contract; apparently I no longer made money for them, and the honorable way to sever a contract is to reject a couple of books). Well. So my agent sent the manuscript around, seeking other likely prospects. Meanwhile, the second copy was making the rounds of the magazine editors. Campbell passed it, Gold declined to read it on technical grounds, and it fell into Bob Mills’ lap. Mills liked the story but couldn’t use anything of that extreme length – he suggested that I boil it down to 20,000 words and try him again. The price he offered was decent, so I did, and he accepted the rewrite. However, it developed that I had over-estimated my word-count, so he cut it again to fit into his space. And that is what you read.

Meanwhile (and here is where I make up for the earlier slight), the first copy was being rejected here and there among the book publishers. However, on June 10, my agent sent a note saying that Ace Books was buying it. I have no additional information yet, but I assume it will be ½ of an Ace double-volume.

Which brings us back to cutting. I am under the impression that Wollheim cuts all his manuscripts to fit that tight “double-volume” space. If so, then fandom won’t see the full-length novel unless they happen to get the British edition, if there is a British edition.

An awful lot of material (and a few names) were dropped from the magazine version – 40, 000 words were thrown away, remember. Most of the background on both the man and the woman were thrown away; almost half a chapter of Abraham Calkins was cut. A good deal more happened on that trip to Pluto, and the larger part of the astronomical stuff was pruned away.

Don Wollheim then replied to Tucker’s comments in Bane #3 and I’m going to quote that too because how often does the average reader get to see the workings of the editorial mind? Not often enough if you ask me:

I enjoyed Tucker’s novel a great deal. It isn’t fast-paced but it has a certain pleasingly handled eye for detail and life which made it very worthwhile, in my opinion. Hence, Ace bought it. It’s going to be a double book, paired with Poul Anderson’s Flandry, but I’ve tried not to have it cut at all – in fact, I gave instructions to cut the hell out of Anderson’s novel if necessary to save Tucker’s. But the damn printer still hollered and sent the copy back, so we had to cut maybe 5, 000 words – but I think the leisure is retained.

Actually, Poul Anderson is a better writer than Tucker, but I only like some of his work, and find a good deal of the rest of his copy annoying and reject-worthy (even when not submitted to me…)

On the other hand, Tucker and I haven’t always gotten along, but I always find his writings pleasingly backwoodsy with a sort of bucolic corn that’s very rare in these sophisticated days.

Now that’s an absolutely fascinating response by Wollheim if you ask me. His claim that Anderson was a better writer than Tucker surprised me at first glance but on reflection I suspect he meant that Anderson was a slicker writer of action than Tucker. Which is the sort of comment I’d expect to see coming from a pulp veteran like Wollheim. I’m sure Don was the sort to agree with the advice his fellow editor, Raymond A. Palmer, often gave to authors whose fiction wasn’t ‘slam-bang’ enough for Palmer’s liking, “When the action slows, throw another body through the skylight.” Ah, pulp editors, not men of subtlety.

Given the above it may seem strange then that Wollheim told his staff to trim Anderson’s novel rather than Tucker’s but that’s the thing about ‘slam-bang’ action, there’s usually more ‘bangs’ than is really necessary to move the plot along so an editor can safely delete a few of the less impressive explosions without spoiling the overall display of fireworks. In comparison both Tucker’s and Wollheim’s comments lead me to suspect that everything in To the Tombaugh Station builds on what has come before which would make it difficult not to leave obvious gaps when editing the story down. In which case it makes sense that Wollheim would be reluctant to trim Tucker’s novel. That would be my guess anyway (based on not having read the story).

Now perhaps it’s just that my cynical nature which caused me to raise an eyebrow when Wollheim blamed what editorial cuts that had been made to Tucker’s novel on an uncooperative printer. Surely once the manuscript was in galley proofs whichever editor has charge of it could tell if was too long for the space allocated? Surely then the cuts were decided on before anything was sent to the printer? I can’t help but suspect Don threw in a little pre-emptive finger-pointing in order to deflect future complaints about whatever his staff had done to the manuscript.

From my point of view the most important point to come out of the above exchange is the admission by Don Wollheim himself that cutting manuscripts marked for publication as half an Ace Double was standard practise. I’ve seen that it happened mentioned elsewhere but without any specific examples given so it’s nice to have one confirmed.

And there you have it, my take on one of the more unusual, and thus highly collectable, lines of science fiction paperbacks to ever be published. How would I sum up my feelings about the Ace Doubles? Let me channel my inner Lewis Carrol.

Double cover story book
How I like the way you look
Your only fault you noble mutt
Are missing words that Ace did cut