More on Elwood

First of all, my thanks to Bill Contento, compiler of the Locus database, for making the following information available. I asked Bill for information on the number of anthologies published every year. He sent me a list covering every year from 1941 to 2004, a period that saw 4,236 science fiction anthologies (original and reprint) published.

Now, before making any further comment, I should make it clear that the data I have available comes from one single (particularly good) database. I believe that it offers the most complete and accurate information available, but it is still only one data source. It’s possible other data exists which may contradict some of my interpretations, but I think it’s the best data available and at least a good indicator of the pattern of trends etc.

Roger Elwood published his first anthology, Alien Worlds, in 1964. He went on to publish a further sixty six anthologies, the last of which, Spinechillers: Unforgettable Tales of Terror, appeared in 1978. He hit his publishing peak in the mid-70’s, editing no fewer than 58 reprint and original anthologies between 1972 and 1977, peaking in 1974 when he published 23 books (or almost one in four of the SF anthologies published in the US that year).

In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry on Elwood, John Clute and Malcolm Edwards observe that “…At one time it was estimated that Roger Elwood alone constituted about one quarter of the total market for SF short stories…” This claim was based on the number of anthologies Elwood edited, as well as number of magazine and other projects. They go on to say “…as the oversaturated anthology market contracted, he [Elwood] diversified into editing the SF lines of various publishers…” Clearly, Elwood entered the field, published a huge number of books (of dubious merit), and then left. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s wikipedia entry mentioned earlier states “…Roger Elwood ended that, singlehandedly breaking the story collection/anthology market. It has never wholly recovered. He squandered industry credibility accumulated over decades by better anthologists, and wrecked the readers’ faith in collections. To this day, anthologies and story collections remain a hard sell.”

My question is, do the quantitative figures bear that out? Well, not really. There is no doubt that after a peak year in 1974 when 100 anthologies appeared, the number of anthologies published fell sharply reaching bottom in 1983 and not fully recovering till 1987 when 109 anthologies were published. However, even that is somewhat deceptive.

SF Anthologies 1941-2004
Year Reprint Original Total Elwood
Books
1941: 1 0 1  
1942: 1 0 1  
1943: 3 0 3  
1944: 1 0 1  
1945: 3 0 3  
1946: 5 1 6  
1947: 3 0 3  
1948: 3 0 3  
1949: 6 1 7  
1950: 9 0 9  
1951: 15 1 16  
1952: 18 1 19  
1953: 25 3 28  
1954: 27 4 31  
1955: 21 0 21  
1956: 10 1 11  
1957: 6 0 6  
1958: 17 1 18  
1959: 14 2 16  
1960: 16 0 16  
1961: 15 0 15  
1962: 24 1 25  
1963: 38 0 38  
1964: 31 4 35 1
1965: 38 4 42 1
1966: 49 4 53 1
1967: 36 4 40 1
1968: 46 7 53 1
1969: 42 6 48 3
1970: 41 12 53 1
1971: 56 17 73 0
1972: 39 17 56 4
1973: 57 37 94 19
1974: 60 40 100 23
1975: 54 24 78 8
1976: 51 31 82 3
1977: 56 31 87 1
1978: 46 23 69  
1979: 50 25 75  
1980: 48 34 82  
1981: 48 26 74  
1982: 51 16 67  
1983: 48 14 62  
1984: 53 13 66  
1985: 53 32 85  
1986: 63 29 92  
1987: 63 46 109  
1988: 83 44 127  
1989: 80 52 132  
1990: 84 53 137  
1991: 73 74 147  
1992: 57 69 126  
1993: 52 68 120  
1994: 57 85 142  
1995: 68 89 157  
1996: 68 73 141  
1997: 67 79 146  
1998: 59 83 142  
1999: 54 52 106  
2000: 46 68 114  
2001: 57 66 123  
2002: 48 80 128  
2003: 54 93 147  
2004: 44 85 129  

 

If you remove Elwood’s books from the figures for a moment, you see a fairly steady growth through the time he was publishing, with only a slight trough between 1981 and 1985. Arguably, up to a point, the trough in the number of anthologies observed following Elwood’s departure from the field had as much to do with him not producing books himself, as any other impact his books may have had. It’s also interesting to note that much of the increase in the number of anthologies published after Elwood’s departure could be attributed to the anthologies edited or co-edited by Martin H. Greenberg, who entered the anthology field in 1974 and has dominated it since 1980.

While I think the figures show that it’s hard to maintain an argument that Elwood materially affected the number of anthologies published, it’s much harder to refute the qualitative assessments in Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s wikipedia entry. As noted earlier, Nielsen Hayden writes:

Was Roger Elwood dishonest? Nothing can be proved, certainly not at this late date. What’s safe to say is that there are no very creditable explanations for his flood of anthologies in the mid-1970s; that the publishers who bought them would never have done so if they’d had any idea that he was carpet-bombing SF publishing with anthology projects; that many of his anthologies (if not all the stories in them) were well below par in terms of their quality; and that the subsequent collapse of the anthology and story-collection market did long-term damage to science fiction as a whole.

Looking at the available evidence, the only statements in the piece I would question are that the market never wholly recovered, and that he did long term damage to science fiction as a whole. In purely quantitative terms, I think Elwood did little damage. The market, if not publishers’ confidence, did return. Certainly anthologies are a hard sell these days (I can confirm from personal experience), and have the reputation of something of a poor cousin in sales terms, but they can be sold. Was science fiction damaged? Well, I don’t think there was a subsequent collapse of the anthology market, unless you’re talking in terms of editor/publisher confidence and in the kind of books acquired. I don’t know if the majority of anthologies published pre-Elwood were overall of a higher quality than those published post-Elwood. And I don’t know if, should it be true that there has been a reduction in quality, that that is not at least in part due to other factors. Certainly Peter Nichols has suggested that “The general standard of reprint anthologies has dropped since the mid-’60s, probably because the vast backlog of SF magazines had been mined and mined for gold and not much was left”. It seems reasonable to allow that there might be other factors.

All of that said, there seems little doubt that Elwood wasn’t a good thing for the field, that he at the least acted unprofessionally, and that had a long-term effect on the psyche of the field. Which is unfortunate. It’s hard not to feel that every time someone asks for a gimmick for an anthology, or someone asks for more marquee names on a book, that the ghost of Elwood isn’t somewhere in the room.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi Jonathan

    This is really interesting stuff – but you only mention the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the viability of the anthology, and the reputation of the anthology; ie. how many anthologies are published in a given year, and how “good” the fiction within actually is.

    If there was “long term damage” done to the field by Elwood and that isn’t shown by how many anthologies are published each year, perhaps it might be shown by how much money publishers are willing to invest in advances and print runs of anthologies?

    I would assume that if publishers are more wary about anthologies, they generally print them in smaller numbers – but I’d be really interested to know if this was the case, and how big average print runs of anthologies now compared to, for instance, average print runs in the time of Elwood.

    And does the table above refer only to mass market published anthologies, or does it include independent & small press? It would be interesting to know if those percentages had changed.

    I’ve never heard of Elwood before. :) You learn something every day

  2. What’s your cutoff for professionally published anthologies?

    Total number of anthologies is one thing. How well they sell is another. What kind of advances, placement, and distribution they get is a third.

    A disaster like Elwood’s binge is hardest on the top-notch anthologies. We’ve gotten back to where there are a fair number of anthologies coming out every year, but few of those are positioned anywhere near the top of the list, and far fewer sell as though they were.

    Is the anthology market permanently broken? I’ll say “of course not,” because nothing in publishing is permanently anything, but it’s still a lot broker than it used to be. That’s in part a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the publishers, distributors, and booksellers don’t expect anthologies to do well, and readers don’t expect them to be a reliable pleasure, they’re going to get low advances and catch-as-catch-can marketing, and sell accordingly. Observing this pattern isn’t going to convince booksellers or readers that anthologies could be anything beyond small-time bottom-feeder projects.

  3. It’s basically a raw list of the number of books published each year, with the only main criteria being that they actually are anthologies. I don’t disagree with your description of what Elwood did as being a disaster, I’m just looking for some way of measuring it. The raw number of books published doesn’t support that position, and I don’t have access to print runs, advances etc.

    I actually think that some modern packagers are doing at least as much as Elwood did to keep the value/profile of anthologies down, and I think that the ease of publishing junk books is going to make this even worse.

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