The Mid-1980s Paperback Sword and Sorcery Extinction Event

Sunday , 28, December 2014 14 Comments

In the early 1980s, if you were new to the sword and sorcery genre, you could go to your local chain bookstore, generally B. Dalton or Walden Books and get the core library in short order. Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Michael Moorcock’s Elric were all there. There was a period around 1983 that you could get Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books, C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, and Timescape editions of Clark Ashton Smith. Sword and sorcery in paperback form went back to 1966 with the Lancer editions of Conan. There was a post-Conan sword and sorcery boom in the late 1960s where you had Brak, Thongor, Kothar with eye catching covers painted by Frank Frazetta or Jeff Jones. That died out around 1971.

There was a second boom in the late 1970s fueled by Zebra Books reissues of Robert E. Howard non-Conan material and Berkley Medallion issuing of nine collections and one novel and another six reissues of previous Zebra paperbacks with new covers. All this created a coat tails effect with new sword and sorcery novels and anthologies published. Many of them were bad. Some of the books were really science fiction disguised to look like sword and sorcery. The minor publishers such as Manor, Zebra, and Tower were looking for anything to slap a barbarian with a sword on the cover. Those publishers were gone in the early 80s leaving Ace, D.A.W., Bantam, Del Rey, and the new Tor Books as the main publishers.

Ace Books did a lot of classic reprints of Fritz Leiber, the twelve volumes Conan set, Andre Norton. You didn’t see much in the way of stand alone novels but rather series from Andrew Offutt or eventually Steven Brust. D.A.W. Books always seemed to love sword and planet more than sword and sorcery fiction though the genre was well represented in The Year’s Best Fantasy under Lin Carter. Dell Books published a small but steady number of sword and sorcery paperbacks but publishing mainly media tie in novels after 1982. Tor was a science fiction imprint, it might thrown in a Poul Anderson collection of his fantasy stories but was not publishing any sword and sorcery at this time. Signet was the domain of Robert Adams’ Horseclans books, those appeared to suck the proverbial oxygen out of room allowing no competition within the publisher. Berkley had one of the best sword and sorcery lists in the late 70s reprinting Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and even Norvell Page. The very interesting Dark Border books by Paul Edwin Zimmer came out in 1982 alongside Glen Cook’s early Dread Empire novels.

Harp and the Blade

One of the last in early 1985, actually an historical novel that gets on the border of sword and sorcery.

Del Rey was the science fiction and fantasy division of Ballantine Books. Started in 1977, it struck upon the idea of publishing derivative fantasy novels by unknown authors with an emphasis on Tolkienesque packaging. Darrell K. Sweet and to a lesser degree, the Brothers Hildebrandt were the house artists. Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, and David Eddings were big sellers for Del Rey Books. A fair number of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy titles were reprinted with new covers. About the only pulp sword and sorcery that Del Rey published was L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring. Berkley and Ace were bought by the same publishing corporation and the Berkley imprint phased out. Zebra’s science fiction and fantasy was scaled back by 1983.

At the same time the numbers of publishers shrank, you had a change in science fiction publishing. For decades, classic titles were kept in print. The idea was to sell smaller but steady numbers of your Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov etc. Titles were allowed to lapse. A good example is Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Ace would generally reprint all six titles every year. In 1985, only Swords and Deviltry was reprinted in the series and that had not been reprinted in 1984. All the titles were reprinted for the last time in 1986 and that was it. A similar pattern took place with the Conan titles. It seemed in 1983 that you could walk into a K-Mart and see a bunch of Andre Norton titles. You didn’t in 1985. Ace was going the the Del Rey route and allowing pulp sword and sorcery to lapse. The main sword and sorcery series was Geo. W. Proctor and Robert E. Vardeman’s Swords of Raemllyn. The editor at Ace must have liked Steven Brust as his Jhereg (1983) and Yendi (1984) as those enjoyed multiple printings.

What replaced sword and sorcery

What replaced sword and sorcery

D.A.W. Book went through similar changes. Kenneth Bulmer managed to put out three of the Dray Prescott sword and planet novels in 1985 and that was it. One last novel came out in 1988. Charles Saunders’ The Trail of Bohu was near impossible to find in fall 1985. Meanwhile, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Warrior Woman (irritatingly told in the present tense) was ubiquitous. So ended an era, you were not going to find a reprint of Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis or Gardner F. Fox’s Niall the Wanderer stories collected as paperbacks. I can remember seeing a wire rack at a grocery store in October 1985 with all of Dennis McKiernan’s Iron Tower trilogy all displayed at the book section. The mighty barbarians were vanquished by the Tolkien imitations. You did have the Tor Conan pastiche series ramp up right when the rest of the genre died. The series was so dismal that it didn’t count.

Sword and sorcery fiction did not disappear completely. There were a few books still coming out in the late 1980s that might have been in the pipeline from contracts years before but they were noteworthy due to the scarcity of titles by this time.

14 Comments
  • Dave Hardy says:

    I always like these publishing histories. Seems like publishers (and writers) have always been looking for consistent money-makers. If you can pay the bills and make a profit publishing Tolkien knock-offs, why not?

    I remember trying to read Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul’s Bane. They was like Tolkien, except with excruciatingly woe-is-me protagonists. They seem to have took mundane heroes to mean whiney ones.

    • deuce says:

      Keith Taylor’s BARD books kept being published until about 1990, carrying the torch for historical S&S up to that point (and doing it very well).

  • Kull says:

    I love these histories too. I grew up on sword and sorcery. I remember rifling through my father’s massive collection for the classics. Then at Waldenbooks I would see the same stuff but the trippy seventies covers were replaced by more Vallejo-esque tanned, gym-rat barbarians. Then the fantasy door stoppers rolled in. I read Sword of Shannara and remember vaguely enjoying it but it left no lasting impression whatsoever. Then Dragonlance. Not the worst way to spend a lazy afternoon but I am thankful my dad was there to suggest better stuff, as I have mentioned before.
    I remember standing in a store, a game store actually, holding Dragonlance, volume 7 or 8, perhaps, and thinking, screw this, I’m keeping the 4.95 and going back to the archives for some Leiber. The long series model did well for them for a while but I think they rode that horse to death, relying on one kind of reader for sales. Things haven’t improved. Not that I am against epic fantasy. Just a bit tired of it. ATOB 2 will scratch that itch when its finally out.

  • JD says:

    For decades, classic titles were kept in print. The idea was to sell smaller but steady numbers of your Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov etc. Titles were allowed to lapse.

    Thor Power Tool Company vs Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 1979. That’s why.

  • Angus Trim says:

    When it came time for me to pretend I was a writer, there wasn’t much modern stuff that would work for inspiration for a swords and boots fantasy.

    Had to go back to Glen Cook’s first three “Black Company” books, really.

    Conan and the Grey Mouser was what inspired me when younger. But as this kind of fantasy declined, both in quality and quantity, it’s not that easy to find anything to use as an inspiration.

    I wound up going to other genres for some of what I felt I needed.

    Louis L’Amour, for instance, for things like the tempo and duration of a fight scene……….

    • Hunsdon says:

      I just think it’s the neatest thing of the year (and the year is just about over) that I’m reading an Angus Trim comment here.

  • Daniel says:

    One of the Jeff Sutton books has gunfights on the moon, and they don’t read correctly, even though they may be fairly accurate from a physics perspective.

    The art of an action scene is in the blend of accuracy (i.e. You can’t auto-fire a long bow, you can’t cock a glock, you can’t fire dual M-60s from the hip) with art and rhythm that somehow even better captures the accuracy and enjoyment.

    I’ve noticed a recent tendency (particularly in the Warhammer books) to “stack” fights, where the good guy goes from weaker to progressively harder foes in a fight, kind of like what happens in most video games. It actually reads better to occasionally follow a very difficult and intricate conflict with a tough guy, followed by a short sentence dismissing weaker foes, and so on.

    This relates to the evaporation of the sword & sorcery backlist in that those stories were co-opted by other publishing interests in the 1990s.

    Interesting: the elimination/reduction of book inventories were followed by a period of entryist takeover which resulted in the elimination of a number of genres from popular sale. These entryists were once a hard target, because no one even knew that there was an argument to be made.

    Now they are soft, and the sentences describing their demise are becoming much, much shorter.

    Today any hero with a keyboard has access to an Enchanted Ebook of Antiensorcellment. You just need to…wield it.

  • RM says:

    The Dark Border books by Paul Edwin Zimmer ….

    Who owns the rights to these?

    I wonder if Castalia could get them and re-publish.

    PS: How about a post about the Dark Border books and/or Paul Edwin Zimmer>

    • Morgan says:

      I have given thought to doing a post on Paul Edwin Zimmer. I have been tracking down his shorter fiction. A collection of his short fiction would probably just fill up a book.

      • Massimorgon says:

        I know I am some two years late but republishing PEW would be great! And there is “The King Who Was of Old” the Fifth Novel from the Dark Border Universe, that I dream to see published one day!

  • Great article. Interesting to me because in the mid-1980s I wrote a sword and sorcery trilogy about Bloodsong, the name of a Viking-like warrior woman who stood against the minions of the Norse Death Goddess Hel to save her daughter and all Life on Earth. The “Hel Trilogy” was written as mass market paperback originals for the Questar Books imprint of Popular Library/Warner Books. I wrote them under my pen name of “Asa Drake.” Questar was just starting up at the time. The late Brian Thomsen was the editor who championed my sword and sorcery. He described the books as being about “a female barbarian.” He told me there was a hold-out on the editorial committee who did not want the books for Questar. He also said that he waited until a day that person was absent to bring the books up for a vote of the committee in order to get them accepted. Brian then got Boris Vallejo to do the original art for the covers. The first novel, Warrior Witch of Hel, was written in ’84-’85, the 2nd and 3rd in ’85 and ’86, Death Riders of Hel and Werebeasts of Hel. The books were reprinted as trade paperbacks in 2000 by Hawk Books with the Vallejo covers but under new titles, Warrior Witch, Warrior Rebel, and Warrior Beast, and under my name (C. Dean Andersson). They were translated into Russian and published in Russia by Alpha-Kniga in 2002 with cover art by Ilya Voronin, in hardback editions. All three novels are now available in an ebook omnibus called HELX3 (HEL X 3) published by Event Horizon, available on Amazon and from Baen ebooks, and elsewhere. The HELX3 editions are revised and expanded “author’s cut” versions which I plan to eventually break back out into three separate books and make available in both ebooks and versions. I am currently (2016) writing a 4th book in the series with the working title, Valkyries of Hel.

    • Stan Wagenaar says:

      I recommend Andersson’s Hel trilogy for anyone looking for good S&S with a Norse twist. I have the original 3 paperbacks, plus the ebook omnibus collection…

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