By David Aronovitz
I have a confession to make. At one time I wanted to become a professional writer. After all, I know that I can write. Write well in fact. And most importantly I realize that I have the ability to write better. However, I'm not ready to cash in my chips on the "who you know, not what you know game" (at least not for the moment even though I do indeed know a fair number of authors, publishers, editors and agents). Yet, this very same desire to write along with the revelation below is the key to my beginnings as a publisher.
After several years of collecting the printed word, I found myself (like many before me) drawn to the ownership of an author's first book. Perhaps it was the joy in locating them. Often not such an easy task. Perhaps reading them and making that inescapable comparison to a later and/or perhaps better known work was the fascination. Or just maybe the fact that in this most competitive world we live in, the word 'first' has such emotional panache that I too became entangled in its web. Whatever the reason or reasons, I was (and still am) a first book junkie.
Yet it wasn't long after this avenue of passion had consumed me that I realized that I was often laboring under somewhat of a misconception. That is to say (and I came to this knowledge with infinite more glee than despondency), it became all too apparent that an author's first book was not necessarily his or her first publication. That distinction was often to be found in periodicals; periodicals of all types encompassing anything from pulps to slicks to literary small presses, fanzines and even high school and college literary magazines. Armed with such (new) knowledge, my task and enjoyment then increased exponentially and was rewarded by not only finding these earlier publications, but also discovering several that the bibliographical scholarship had missed! (What better thing to have happen to one involved in the world of books.)
In 1984, simultaneously celebrating three years as a full time bookseller (and bemoaning four years as a non-writer), I had once again an urge to create something other than yet another book catalogue (which certainly is an art form in itself). As the short story was a more comfortable mode of creative expression for me than the novel, I commenced to execute one on the new computer I had just purchased. (And perhaps therein lie some of my motivation as well). Having recently read a collection of stories by a writer who I had not read before but whose stories had always delighted me (ever since I was first introduced to his work on television in the 50's - Yes I'm a boomer), I decided to write a story emulating this author's style but touching upon a subject matter on which he never would have gambled. It was about a bookseller of the future named Antiquities Smith and his friends Dust Jacket Johnson, Second State Susie, Reprint Rupert, How Much How Much Berman, Little A Lenny, et.al. Thus my Damon Runyon pastiche, entitled RUN HITHER, RUN YON (1985), was born.
Much to my delight, giving birth was not at all difficult. In fact it was down right exhilarating. But now what about publication? This proved to be an even easier task than the writing. I would simply do it myself! And on nice paper stock chosen from my local printer! This left me with a distribution problem which was likewise overcome quite simply when I decided to inscribe all 100 copies printed to my best customers, mailing them out as an end of the year gift and thanking them for their patronage. So what if a number of my clients had not heard of nor read anything by Damon Runyon. So what if this was a vanity publication. What would one expect from a new publisher which called itself The Pretentious Press.
The next year witnessed the second publication from the press, again from my finger tips and my word processing program. It was a horror story with perhaps the not too frightening name of 1001: A CRAYOLA ODYSSEY or HOUSE OF WAX TWO (1986). It was about a young girl named Alicia, who as a contest winner, received a tour of The Crayola Company and the right to aid in the name of the 1,001st color. The owner of the company had quite an unusual definition of aid in mind, however.
The year after that, yet again another booklet was released. This 3rd volume had an amusing tie in with the 1986 Tor publication of Gene Wolfe's novel entitled THE SOLDIER OF THE MIST. I had provided Gene with a multi-volume set of the works of the Greek historian Herodutus and Gene had acknowledged my "help" with the novel by kindly surprising me with a fictional reference to this in the books' introduction. He inferred that he had purchased from me some long lost but recently found secret scrolls from which his novel was based. This was the origin of Pretentious Press 3: DEALER OF THE MIST or HOW I FOUND THE SCROLLS (1987) and how I dealt with the mischievous Dr. Falafel. As before, each of these were printed in a quantity of 100, inscribed and sent out to a select group of my clientele.
My next publication, the 4th, was indeed my first commercial venture. It came about when a consensus of my fellow collectors and customers who were most interested in obtaining all of the hard-cover publications produced by Ballantine Books revealed that no one exactly knew which Ballantine Books were produced in this format. As I appeared to be the only one among us who knew Ian Ballantine, I took up the staff. With Ian's help BALLANTINE BOOKS: THE FIRST DECADE (a Bailiwick Books production) was published in an edition of 597 copies in 1987. But it was the concept of the 4th publication of The Pretentious Press (my 5th overall) which excited me most. And it no doubt had its origin well steeped in the provocative world of authors first appearances in print.
I published LITTLE BROTHERS by Isaac Asimov in 1988. It came about when I learned that Dr. Asimov's first appearance in print was in fact not MAROONED OFF VESTA in the March, 1939 issue of Amazing Stories. He had 4 letters appear before then; three in the 'Letters to the Editor' columns in Astounding Science Fiction in 1935, 1937 & 1938 respectively, as well as a similar letter which appeared in the science fiction fanzine Imagination in October of 1938. I knew this as I owned all of these periodicals and had asked Dr. A to sign them for me (over a period of years). Each time he did, however, I couldn't help notice that an element of pleasant surprise would accompany each signing. The way he caressed them so lovingly, it seemed as if he had forgotten about each of these early appearances and was undertaking some spiritualistic reacquaintance. And when I asked him if there was yet anything earlier, he would answer in the negative until..... On one visit he in fact did recall an earlier work. A first work. LITTLE BROTHERS. An essay he wrote at the age of 14 lamenting the birth of his younger sibling and how it would change his life forever. It seemed that Isaac had indeed forgotten this published work as well. Sensing a wonderful chance to publish this historic juvenalia, I boldly asked Isaac (who had received my 3 earlier Pretentious Press publications) if he would like to be the guest author for the 4th. When he said "sure" with the proviso that I let readers know that this work was indeed written when he was only 14 years old, a nanosecond perhaps elapsed before I said "Ok. You've got a deal." And so my first venture into a different type of publishing began. 126 copies were printed with accompanying tipped-in photos of the young Asimovs, signed by the elder and properly distributed.
Now if perhaps you doubt the statement "Isaac Asimov forgot......" or the even more implausible.... "Isaac Asimov forgot something about himself......," let me assure you that your trepidation is well founded. Isaac did not forget this early work. He in fact mentions it in his 1979 Doubleday publication, IN MEMORY YET GREEN, the first of a massive 3 volume autobiography. So what happened? I am firmly convinced that he was just playing the gentleman; that he did not want to embarrass this young publisher by drawing to my attention what I should have already known. To this I have no defense save that often the curse of a full time bookseller is that he or she is so engrossed in the buying and selling and processing of books that so little time is left to read them.
Pretentious Press publication #5 was somewhat like #4. That is, another was invited to take part in the year end celebration. However, unlike #4, the publication of #5 contained work which had never been published before. Ever. It happened like this: While perusing the deep recesses of the Ackermansion (the home of the late Forrest J. Ackerman: often deemed science fiction's #1 fan among many other things) in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, I came across a #101 blue bond notebook. Upon opening it, I noticed that it contained several poems, stories and essays written in what appeared to be a relatively young script. As I quickly deduced that this might indeed by Forrie's own early handiwork, I began reading them out loud as I approached his office from the basement labyrinth where he sat quietly reading the morning mail. The look of horror on his face told me that I had guessed rightly. But before Mr. Ackerman could say Sci-Fi (a phrase which he himself had long ago first minted), he was soon overcome by my charm. Authority to publish had been asked and granted. Then showing both mercy and appreciation for his generosity, I continued to read on, silently this time, when an idea emerged. It seemed that Mr. Ackerman had been at the head of his class in 1929. I thus saw the potential of a Poe pastiche. And it wasn't long before THE PIRATE AND OTHER POEMS by A. Valedictorian (1990) had been set in type (very much like the title page to TAMERLANE), printed in an edition of 126 copies, signed by its author and timely delivered.
THE PARROT WHO MET PAPA (1991).You either lovingly recognize it or you don't. If the story rings a bell (nay...peels like a great clap of thunder) you know it to be one of Ray Bradbury's most enduring works. A homage in it's own 'write' to Hemingway, it is also a wonderful fantasy about one of Hemingway's least known confidants; EL CORDOBA, the parrot that swung from his perch over Hemingway's shoulder at the bar in the Cuba Libre in Havana. It seems that this very same creature was not only privy to any and all remarks that Hemingway had reserved for himself about his peers (such as Norman Mailer, who, according to Hemingway (via Bradbury) "couldn't remember the alphabet," or Gertrude Stein who, again according to Hemingway (via Bradbury) "suffered from undescended testicles"), but also had full retentive memory of Hemingway's last unpublished manuscript of which no surviving copy existed. And this is only the beginning of the story. To finish it, you can pick up one of Ray's short story collections (such as LONG AFTER MIDNIGHT or THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY). Or you could perhaps also try to track down a copy of Pretentious Press #6, which not only reprints the story, but also prints a new continuation. By yours truly. Hey. I know it's an act of great hubris. But I told you; it's the Pretentious Press. With Ray's kind permission, 126 copies were again struck, this time with tipped-in photos of EL CORDOBA (I had taken on yet another new assignment as photographer), signed by both authors and soon exhausted.
Also in 1991, I tracked down and finally acquired the earliest printings of Gene Wolfe's first 2 stories which had appeared in his college literary magazine, The Commentator, in November, 1951 & January, 1952 respectively. I obtained them when Gene found his own copies and sent them to me as a gift. Nice man, Gene Wolfe. And of course not much imagination need be exerted here to predict the eventual outcome of these offerings. Pretentious Press publication #7, a hitherto unknown Sherlock Holmes Pastiche entitled THE CASE OF THE VANISHING GHOST (1991) & Pretentious Press #8, a ghost story entitled THE GRAVE SECRET (1991 also but if memory serves correctly, actually released in 1992), both with new original authorial introductions, came into being and once again marked a return to the lure and publication of first appearances (although Pretentious Press #8 holds that title a bit dubiously as it followed the original 1951 publication mentioned above by 2 months. This time 85 copies of each were printed with different tipped-in photos of a young Gene Wolfe, duly signed by the author and distributed.
A return to vanity heralded the 1993 Pretentious Press publication, #9. A story that I apparently had within me a long time but never gave due process finally made its way out. It was a retelling of the Rumplestiltskin myth, but this time from Rumplestiltskin's point of view. It was entitled, not oddly enough, RUMPLE, and again 85 copies were prepared, signed and dispatched.
THE THING ( copyrighted 1993) was the holiday offering of 1994, a.k.a. Pretentious Press #10. This indeed was not the original nor John Carpenter's remake of John Campbell's story into film WHO GOES THERE? It was rather much loved author Robert Bloch's first appearance in print taken from his high school literary magazine when he too was just 14 years old. A Lovecraft pastiche from one who was soon to be a long time Lovecraft friend and correspondent is indeed quite a find and I was quite pleased to locate it. It came to me in the same manner as Gene Wolfe's first publications. A gift from its' originator. A short time later, 85 copies were prepared, again with a new original authorial introduction, signed by the author and sent on their way with a marvelous tipped-in photo of a young Robert Bloch.
Also in 1994, I had a return to the commercial venue. An unpublished mystery short story entitled THE KING'S WATCH by Stanley Weinbaum (a science fiction writer of considerable renown in the early 1930's before he was struck down by a brain tumor at the age of 35) came into my hands from the owner of the actual work who also held the copyright. I was about to publish it, thinking that I would be able to utilize one page of the actual manuscript for each copy, when I found, much to my chagrin, that I had been incorrect in this assumption. Considering then cancellation of the project, two most interesting and fortuitous things developed. First, in a salvage attempt, thinking to locate someone living who knew Stanley Weinbaum well and who could perhaps write an introduction, I recalled that the very person whose work I had just published, namely Robert Bloch, might fit the bill. He most certainly could have known Stanley Weinbaum as in fact they both grew up in Milwaukee together and shared similar interests. And sure enough, Bloch, who was some 15 years younger than Weinbaum, did indeed know him, as for a time they were members of the same writing group, the Milwaukee Fictioneers. One letter later, an agreement was reached and I was another step closer to doing the project after all. Then the owner of the manuscript called me to say that Weinbaum's widow, who was then in her 80's, had sent him a copy of a photo of the Milwaukee Fictioneers, a photo which not only pictured some of the group sitting about a large table in discussion, but indeed pictured Weinbaum and Bloch seated right next to each other! Well, hey. Sometimes even a non-believer can read the signs. And thus I was now determined to go ahead and publish the story. But there was a serious problem. It turned out that Mrs. Weinbaum only had a horrible unreproduceable copy of the photo and could not recall who had sent it to her. The project then once again took on a 'maybe' posture. However, as luck or some such would have it, I did in fact know the most likely candidate who perhaps had indeed sent her the photo. Incredibly, one phone call later not only netted the prize, but also a second original photo of the Milwaukee Fictioneers standing outside their meeting place. Again with Bloch and Weinbaum in close proximity. The project was back on.
As I saw this publication as perhaps the first in my own personal series of such productions (unpublished works by deceased authors), I decided to take on yet a new name and the Posthumous Press was born. Eighty five copies were printed with a tipped-in photo of the Milwaukee Fictioneers and signed by Robert Bloch, who indeed rendered a wonderful 7 page introduction. Much to my horror and unknown to me at the time, however, was the fact that Bloch was terminally ill. He died just before final publication. What an opener for the Posthumous Press which indeed sold out the entire print run without benefit of advertisement. The book was offered once in a catalogue and taken to several book fairs before being exhausted. No doubt a testimony to both authors.
Needless to say, this sort of ill timed occurrence could not happen again. But astoundingly enough, it did! Pretentious Press #11 entitled AND THE DARKNESS WAS HARSH (1994 copyright but again, I believe actually released in 1995) offered the first printed works of Roger Zelazny. Taken from his senior high school literary magazine when he was 16, it contained likewise a new and original authorial introduction; a short story whose idea and exact same punch line coincidentally reached fruition in a much later televised episode of The Twilight Zone (DIAL P FOR PIP scripted by Charles Beaumont ); a Ray Bradbury pastiche and a poem. Once more 85 copies were produced with a most charming high school photo of Roger, who kindly added his signature in the appropriate place. The finished booklets were then distributed. And once again (unbeknownst to myself), suffering from a fatal illness, Roger died soon afterwards. (Apparently in this type of literary marriage, the publisher is always the last to know !!! ).
The next Pretentious Press publication, #12, was the early work of a writer whose work I have admired greatly but whose writing career took a down turn when he became a full time academic. Entitled THE EVOLUTION OF WILLIAM TENN or MYSELF WHEN YOUNG (1995), it contains an original authorial introduction; 2 short pieces; 2 short stories and a poem. Tipped-in is again a very nice photo of the author taken at a time shortly after these tales were composed and published while he was at New York University. Of the 85 copies produced, signed by the author and sent off to postal oblivion, I can only hope that they all reached their destination. Now Philip Klass, retired from Penn State University for quite some time and alas in poor health (as perhaps many of us would be who are months away from celebrating 90 orbits around our sun) is still writing today. Or was when I visited him last in November, 2009.
If you're still reading this publishing memoir, you perhaps can't help note that all the authors mentioned within write in the most creative and demanding genres of science fiction and fantasy. Knowing that it is my favorite venue of literature, you will no doubt be unsurprised that Pretentious Press #13, THE FATE OF FU MANCHU (1998), yet another hitherto unknown Sherlock Holmes pastiche, was written by Arthur C. Clarke. Again 85 copies were produced, but this time, approximately half of them were kept by Arthur. What destiny they fulfilled is unknown. Hopefully they too were gifted. This tale, written in 1935, however, was the first separate publication. The first book appearance was in CHILDHOOD ENDS: THE EARLIEST WRITINGS OF ARTHUR C. CLARKE (1996), my third and most ambitious commercial publication to date. And so with yet another designation, as the three previous didn't seem to suit, THE PORTENTOUS PRESS was born. This publication contains a tipped-in frontispiece photo of Arthur at age 2 (obtained by the good graces of his brother Fred) and another photo at age 17. It was the result of spending two days buried in the archives of the Taunton library in Somerset, England (which housed early 1930 student publications of the Richard Huish Secondary School, the school that Arthur C. Clarke attended as a teen). There I was fortunate to discover some items that were unknown to the bibliographer and ended up printing / publishing some 34 in total that were virtually unknown to the public. Most probably still are, as again only 85 signed copies of this book were produced as well and like all my publications preceding it, none were ever reprinted.
Pretentious Press #14, my 17th and penultimate volume, once again had its origins in the U.K. Upon asking my usual unabashed question, "I know that (fill in the blank) is your first commercial publication, but was there anything earlier," this time now of friend Brian Aldiss, the reply was astounding as Brian asserted that he was not only in actual possession of an unpublished story that he had written in 1942 as a teenager, but also had the color illustrations he had drawn for them as well! When he culminated the reply with the question, "Would I like to have that?," well......you know the answer. THE RAIN WILL STOP (2000), essentially the earliest surviving work by this much acclaimed author, complete with full color illustrations, a first for the press, was released in the usual manner.
Most recent, but I hope by no means hardly my last publication (indeed I think I could do three a year if I had/made the time), is FRITZ, WILLY & BOB AND THE SUMMER OF '48 (2005), my 4th commercial venture. It the text of a letter (which has never before been published anywhere about a hitherto unknown occurrence) from the world renowned film director Fritz Lang to his very good friend and perhaps equally renowned rocket and space travel enthusiast, Willy Ley. It's a most fascinating letter concerning events of the summer of 1948 when then a still maturing science fiction writer named Robert Heinlein visited Fritz Lang in the hopes of stimulating the esteemed film director to produce an accurate and technically correct film of a journey to the moon. What actually transpired between the two men (at least from Mr. Lang's point of view) makes fascinating reading, if not only for the fact that such a meeting took place, but also in an attempt to better understand the machinations of that marvelous and enigmatic wonderland of magic and nepotism we call Hollywood.
In closing, let me say that the Pretentious Press, my first love, will hopefully always remain as it has been in the past; that is freely distributed, exhausted, dispatched and disseminated, but never initially sold. A truly amazing accomplishment unparalleled among any publishers today and only achieved by the good heartedness of it's contributors.
The article is published on ILAB.org by permission of the author. Thank you very much. David Aronovitz (Rochester, Michigan), specializes in First Editions, Manuscripts, Proofs, Letters and Periodicals of the 19th and 20th Century. His latest catalogue “Science Fiction and Fantasy” has recently been published.