The publications known as pulp magazines officially began appearing in 1896 and were aggressively published through the 1950’s. Most were 7 inches wide, 10 inches long, and a half inch thick featuring 128 pages of edgy, fantastic fiction. The pages were from cheap paper that was ragged and untrimmed and made from very inexpensive wood pulp.
Newspaper and magazine publisher Frank Munsey remastered his ‘slick’ magazine, Golden Argosy, from a magazine that offered both articles and fiction catering to young men into the first pulp fiction publication. Using the fastest printing presses available, the cheapest production methods, including the cheap paper, no illustrations, and cheap authors, Munsey was able to sell the all fiction publications at a dime a pop. This was a campaign totally targeted at the middle class who either could afford the twenty-five cents for the ‘slick’ magazines, or just weren’t interested in them.
Right about here, a light bulb should be flickering on for you. Dime Store Cowboy.
Yes, Western short stories probably stuffed most of the pages of the early pulp fiction magazines. With likes of Zane Grey and Paul S. Powers (Laurie’s grandfather) churning out exhilarating stories of the still untamed Wild West, what boy wouldn’t spend a dime on cheap entertainment?
Genres were added; mystery, horror, crime, science-fiction, and even romance to name a few. Characters became famous and appeared in series of publishings; some even had their own magazine, including The Shadow and Doc Savage. Illustrations started appearing as the competition grew along with the popularity.
The cover art that began to show up was something to behold. Some were awe inspiring depictions of the featured characters in scenes of the old west and others were a bit racy; showing women in peril. Quite often, the covers were created before the tales were submitted to fill the magazine, and authors were asked to submit stories based on the cover art.
The list names of the authors who wrote for pulp magazines are amazing. Names like L. Ron Hubbard, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and many more graced those uncut, ragged pages.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Upton Sinclair wrote for the pulps at one time. Sinclair wrote 8000 words a day, seven days a week at that time. Just to think that many of us struggle to write a 300 word blog post every day in these modern times.
Because the pulps paid far less than other markets, untried authors would start there, establishing a name for themselves. Even famous pens that were in a slump would turn to submitting to the short story anthologies for a boost in their cash flow. The publishers paid for the story on acceptance, even if the pieces weren’t to be published until months later, thus making submission to pulp fiction digests a very good way for a writer to make some quick cash.
The pulps survived through the Golden Era of radio and the infancy of cinema; probably because both mediums (film and radio) borrowed heavily from the popular pulp magazines. Hollywood produced many serials that were shown every week while radio was famous for the dramatic weekly programs such as the Shadow.
By the time the 1950’s rolled around a number of factors were in play that contributed to the severe decline. Increasing production costs, the evolution of comic books, and television are the largest factors.
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (born in 1941), Asimov’s Science Fiction, and the German pulp fiction Perry Rhodan are all publications that seem to be thriving even after the decline of the pulp market.
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has survived in large part due to the high standards set by the editorial staff. The same can be said about the Asimov production, although it should be noted that the Asimov magazine was first produced well after the decline of the market and just recently celebrated thirty years in print.
Perry Rhodan started in 1961 and lays claim to having published over 2500 installments with dozens of story arcs. To date, the publication has sold over one billion copies, making it the clear leader in pulp fiction sales.
Long live the short story, and long live the pulps; even if they are gasping.