Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era is a memoir by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach recollecting his involvement in writing, editing, and publishing science fiction. It was published in 1983 and covers the good old days of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (although there is some brief updating to 1980 when it was written). This is a book that only collectors of old science fiction hardbacks will appreciate, or maybe SF fans interested in the history of science fiction publishing, writers, and fandom. I can’t imagine it appealing to anyone else. Eshbach was one of the founding members of First Fandom.
There are young people today who can’t remember a time before smartphones. There are slightly older young people who can’t remember a time before video games. I can remember the time before personal computers, but I’ve always known a world with television sets. My parents knew a world before TVs, and their parents knew a world before radio.
I’ve never known a time without science fiction, but there was one. Eshbach grew up in such a time. My parents probably didn’t hear the term until their thirties in the 1950s. The label ‘science fiction’ emerged in the 1930s with pulp magazine readers. (Read: “How Science Fiction Got Its Name” by Sam Moskowitz, F&SF Feb 1957). Before WWII very few science fiction books appeared and they weren’t labeled science fiction.
After WWII, pulp magazine science fiction began being reprinted in hardback books, and eventually in paperbacks. For about a decade before large publishing houses embraced the genre, small publishers promoted science fiction. In a handful of locations around the country, a few ardent fans would pitch in a few hundred bucks each and start a publishing company reprinting their favorite stories and novels from the pulps.
Print runs were often just 1,000-3,000, but this jump-started the genre, especially as libraries bought these books. Seeing the cover images today triggers memories of when I checked out these books from libraries in the 1960s. Even today, I’ve seen these old specialty publishers as beat-up and rebound library discards. There’s no telling how many young readers found sense-of-wonder in their pages.
Most of these legendary small press publishers went out of business because of poor management, competition from the big publishers, and paperback reprints, but especially because of the Science Fiction Book Club which began in 1953.
Lloyd Arthur Eshbach writes about those small publishers in Over My Shoulder. What’s funny is I just bought this 1983 first edition from Amazon sold as new in 2022. Amazon even said “Only 2 left in stock (more on the way).” Now only 1 left in stock. There are plenty of used copies on ABEbooks.
My copy arrived in plastic shrink-wrap in an old shipping box sent to Amazon, inside an Amazon shipping box. It’s not an actual new book, and I doubt they’ll be getting any more soon. I bought this title decades ago, and never read it, and gave it to the library book sale. I bought it again last week when I ran across a mention of it on the internet.
I now know more about the people and histories that Eshbach writes about, and I read it with great pleasure. It was written over forty years ago, and it’s Eshbach’s memoir of discovering science fiction magazines in the 1920s, writing it in the 1930s, and publishing it in the 1940s and 1950s. He remembers First Fandom, the First Worldcon and other early Worldcons, and many big-name fans and pros from the 1940s and 1950s. The book is full of anecdotes about science fiction books that are now collector items, such as how Eshbach finished stories for John W. Campbell and E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, or how Hannes Bok, the wonderful cover artist, barely survived by painting SF and fantasy subjects, ended up writing about astrology and selling horoscopes, which paid better. The book is filled with loving memories, some regrets and apologies, some gossip, and even some setting the records straight. It also has a nice section of photographs.
Eshbach was the main mover behind Fantasy Press. I own its first edition of Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein. I couldn’t afford to buy it today, but I was lucky enough to afford it over 50 years ago. It was $3 when it came out in 1948, maybe $10 when I bought it in 1970, probably 10x the cover price when Eshbach published his memoir, and often 100x or more today. Some of the other titles are now 1000x.
The only other Fantasy Press book I own is the first edition of The Titan by P. Schuyler Miller. I bought it a few years ago for the Hannes Bok cover. I could afford it because Miller is not famous. I’d love to own most of the books that Eshbach published but they are rare and expensive today. Follow the links above. I’d especially love to own Assignment in Eternity by Heinlein. Probably the most famous of the Fantasy Press books were the original Lensmen books by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith. A complete set of Fantasy Press books is currently listed on eBay for $34,000.
I avoid thinking about collecting rare science fiction books because I need my retirement savings for future vital expenses. Still, it’s pleasurable to read about the early history of science fiction publishing. And every now and then I’ll treat myself to one of these books published by these early publishers if I can get it cheap enough. (And only if I love the cover.)
Eshbach also relates a short history of some of his competitors because he knew everyone in the business. Gnome Press is probably the most famous of the early SF publishers. I only own three of them, Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras, The Seedling Stars by James Blish, and The Mixed Men by A. E. van Vogt. Gnome is most famous for the first editions of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation in book form. Currently, a signed set of the trilogy is going for $32,000 on eBay. They also published I, Robot, and a signed copy is going for $7,895.00 on eBay right now.
I remember reading four books by Robert Heinlein back in 1964, at the Homestead Air Force Base library, that were Gnome Press editions. I remember it because their covers are burned into my memory. They weren’t great covers, but I’d love to own them for nostalgic reasons.
That was one of the important impacts of Fantasy, Gnome, Shasta, Arkham, and other small publishers. They were bought by libraries and that’s how many readers in the 1950s and 1960s discovered these science fiction classics.
Eshbach has chapters on these publishers but I don’t own any of these books:
- Arkham House
- Grant-Hadley Enterprises
- Prime Press, Philadelphia
- Shasta Publishers
- Fantasy Publishing Company, Inc. (FPCI)
Plus Eshbach does a chapter that quickly covers several smaller publishers. If you collect books, Eshbach does mention a lot of interesting little publications that might be worth tracking down, many of them with some inside information. I was disappointed that Eshbach didn’t give a book-by-book history of his acquiring all the Fantasy Press titles. He does have a final chapter that lists all the books published by each publisher with the print run for each first edition.
- “The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Gnome Press” by Andrew Liptak (Kirkus, 3/27/14)
- The Great Gnome Press Science Fiction Odyssey – website
- Gnome Press – Flying Cars and Food Pills
Here’s a photo of a complete set of Gnome Press from Hydraxia Books:
James Wallace Harris, 5/8/22