“Sometimes I think Howard died at just the right time to keep this repititious tendency from becoming intolerable.”- Letter L. Sprague de Camp to Lin Carter, September 10, 1963.
If you pick up an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the early 1960s, you might find an ad for Gnome Press Conan books. The mail order dealer- L. Sprague de Camp. Those Gnome Press hardbacks were hanging around still in print and it would be a sticking point in shopping the Conan stories to paperback publishers. De Camp appears to have had a prickly relationship with Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press. De Camp publically berated Greenberg in book reviews. Greenberg himself wanted other writers to continue Conan such as Leigh Brackett before settling on de Camp.
The Burroughs reprint boom that started in 1962 would have heartened anyone hoping for Conan reaching a wider audience. L. Sprague de Camp took it on himself to make deals for a mass market deal for Conan. There was a problem, Martin Greenberg had sold paperback rights to Bantam in order to finance a massive Conan omnibus from Gnome Press.Â De Camp was fortunate in that Oscar J. Friend died in 1963 thus removing an obstacle to his ambitions. December, 1963 brought the publication of Swords and Sorcery, an anthology of heroic fantasy edited by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp reprinted “Shadows in the Moonlight” which had gone out of copyright in 1962. In June, 1965, he reprinted “Shadows in Zamboula,” a story that had gone public domain in 1963. These were test cases to gauge reaction from Martin Greenberg. The introductory note to “Shadows” mentions “Plans are on foot to reprint the entire Conan saga in paperback form.”
According to de Camp, three publishers passed on Conan. He said one later regretted that decision. Who wouldn’t? This period is murky. You get de Camp’s version in his autobiography with Martin Greenberg portrayed as the bad guy in all this. It does appear that de Camp was making the rounds attemping to make deals when he may not have been authorized to do so. It is no coincidence he did this right on the heels of Oscar J. Friend’s death. That three publishers passed on Conan when de Camp approached them suggests that the editors at these publisher houses were unsure where this stood legally. It is a safe bet that Don Benson at Pyramid Books was one who passed as Pyramid had pubished Swords and Sorcery! What is interesting is Ace Books reprinted Almuric without any qualms. So Don Wollheim at Ace was not averse to giving Robert E. Howard a second try after the Conan the Conqueror Ace Double from a decade before. Why would he publish Almuric but not Conan?
De Camp had informed Kittie West, Oscar J. Friend’s daughter, who was running the literary agency of a potential deal July 29, 1964. Sept 4, 1964– de Camp informed Kittie West the deal was going through. De Camp was telling her of a fait accompli. Kittie West must have had reservations as she wrote in a note to Glenn Lord, “Sprague getting a little greedy?” Kittie West took over her father’s agency mainly to shut it down. Glenn Lord took over as the Howard agent in Spring 1965.
The Lancer deal was struck September 24, 1964 and called for two Conan paperbacks at first. Greenberg at Gnome Press started legal action claiming its contract with the Howard “heirs.” De Camp’s attorney urged he write additional stories to “strengthen the legal postion of the heirs and himself.” The lawsuit was settled out of court and delayed publication for quite a while. Lancer Books itself was founded in 1961 by Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius. Stein had published science fiction magazines in the 1950s such as Science Fiction Adventures and Infinity edited by the very capable Larry T. Shaw. Stein also published auto magazines such as Auto Age. Lancer was a low tier publisher that used poor quality paper and in the early days published few books. There might have been a degree of desperation on de Camp’s part to get a deal, any deal, with anyone as soon as possible even if it meant with a publisher that might not be around in a year or two. The gamble paid off for de Camp in the end but it was an act that was iffy legally. It could have easily blown up in his face. Like I said, there are a lot of questions to this period that we may never know. I would like to know more about the Bantam deal that Martin Greenberg made. Technically, that was a legal deal.
On November 20, 1964 in a letter from de Camp to his agent, Barthold Fles, de Camp told him:
“If you want to handle a project of this sort, I have a suggestion. In 1929-30 Howard wrote a series of stories about a character called Solomon Kane, an English Puritan who goes adventuring in Africa and has encounters with human villainy and supernatural menaces. Some people like these stories better than the Conan series and there have been some talk from time to time about republishing them in one volume. Paperback sale, I think, offers the best possibilities, if you like to make a deal, whereby I should be paid the going author’s rate, say $1500.00 or better for collecting the stories, reading them to eliminate gross errors or inconsistencies, clearing copyright, preparing the manuscript, writing an introduction, and reading proof that would suit me. If you can make a deal more profatible than my present one with Lancer, I shall of course be delighted. Since I am told that Lancer is presently overstocked, perhaps they would not be so good a prospect as another paperback house. If you like the idea, I can tell you more about the status of these stories when I hear from you. Meanwhile, I trust that our relationship as friends and partners in the promotion of de Camp properties will continue to our mutual benefit for many years to come.”
So, de Camp had his eyes on some other targets at the time also.
Scotty Henderson has researched the de Camp papers in Austin and I would not have been able to present a good portion of the information just presented without his research.