This is, perhaps, the geekiest thing I’ve done in many a month, but it does help me answer a question that’s been bothering me for a while: if the pulps are supposed to have died around 1950, why were there so many pulps published after that?
Certainly, it seemed to me that there were a lot of pulps published after 1950, and that the "death" of the pulps was overstated. But there was really only one way to resolve this: a spreadsheet. (Yes, I’m a stat wonk, I guess).
So, here you go. The link brings you to a spreadsheet I created, covering the years 1896-1960, with seven categories: Overall, Detective Pulps, Romance Pulps, Saucy/Spicy Pulps, Science Fiction Pulps, Sports Pulps, and Western Pulps. (I’d present the information as an easy-to-read table, but—-embarrassingly-—I never learned how to make them). Each entry is for the number of magazines—-not issues—-in that category published that year, so for 1898 there was only one pulp published, in 1931 there were 150 pulps total published, including 28 detective, 24 romance, 8 saucy/spicy, 8 science fiction, 2 sports, and 33 westerns. The number in the Overall category won’t equal the sum of the other categories because I omitted smaller pulp genres (boxing, weird menace) and pulps publishing general pulpy adventure fiction and because some pulps, like Western Rodeo Romance, fit into two categories.
Now, admittedly, this is a hasty and imprecise collection of data-—what would be more useful would be a) the number of pulps published broken down by month as well as by year (can’t be done-—that information simply isn’t possible to get for too many pulps) and b) the sales figures (someone may have some of that data, but, again, that information simply isn’t possible to get for too many pulps). But we can draw some tentative conclusions from this.
First, the pulps didn’t die around 1950. That was the peak post-WW2 year for them. The death of the pulps was a gradual thing, although by 1955 the end of the medium and its replacement by the digest format must have been obvious. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that the death of the pulps and the transition to digests took a while. One obvious precursor was the transition from dime novels to pulps in the 1910s. I don’t have the data to do a similar spreadsheet on dime novels (although, hmm, I could put one together using Galactic Central), but I know, based on the western and detective dime novels, that their death and replacement by the pulps in the 1910s was gradual and not sudden. I think the death of the pulps was like that.
Second, and I know this will be hard for the sf zealots to read, but...sf wasn’t the most important genre for the pulps. (And, please, never write the phrase "the pulp genre." There was no such thing. The pulps were the medium, not the genre). Until 1939 there were more spicy pulps published every year than sf pulps. (Why the number of spicy pulps declined is another question, one I can’t answer). From 1937 to 1951 there were more sports pulps published every year than sf pulps. Westerns clobber sf. And romance pulps...well, this will gall the geeks, but romance pulps were more important to the industry than sf pulps. (And the average pulp romance story was approximately eight times better written than the average pulp sf story, but that’s another issue).
Third, take a look at the saucy/spicy list. The first one came out in 1912. That’s before detective pulps, before westerns, before sf, before romance, before everything except general fiction, adventure, and railway. The saucy/spicy pulps are criminally understudied, not least because they are much less available to scholars than even the romance or sports pulps, but they were around for a long time and deserve further study. Hell, from 1915 to 1924 they made up at least 10% of the entire industry.
Fourth-—the number of Westerns! Criminy! For such a formulaic genre (with a few exceptions) it was remarkably popular. In terms of market share, from 1936, Westerns were the heavyweight of pulps, never making up less than 25% of the entire market.
Fifth, look at the overall numbers for 1929-1931. You’d think that the first three years of the Depression wouldn’t have been a good time to enter publishing or increase the number of pulps that you were already publishing, but clearly people thought it was. I don’t have numbers to hand, but I suspect the economy took a substantial dip from 1931-1933, which would explain the decrease there, but after 1933 the numbers resume increasing.
I’m sure other conclusions will occur to me later, but that’s what I’ve got for now.
First, the pulps didn’t die around 1950. That was the peak post-WW2 year for them. The death of the pulps was a gradual thing, although by 1955 the end of the medium and its replacement by the digest format must have been obvious.
Plotting the data, I think I'd say the pulps died after 1953. '53 was a slight bump up from '52, and comparable to many earlier years, but after that the numbers declined fast.
Thanks for all this work!
Glad you enjoyed it! I dunno, though. They were clearly *dying* in '53, but in '57 you've still got 30 pulps being published, still got 6 romance pulps, still got 14 western pulps, still got 4 sf pulps being published. I think it was a lingering death rather than a sudden one.
Thanks! This is interesting.
Without sales figures it's hard to tell what's really happening. Perhaps the post 1933 increase in numbers really just indicates a desperate attempt to capture markets as the overall circulations diminish.
That's an interesting sheet, but what isn't clear from it is if the magazines at the end of the time span are newcomers, the last of the old ones hanging on by a thread, or whatever.
What would go well with it is a chart showing the lifespan of each magazine, and the average lifespan each year for each genre, if that makes sense to you.
On July 29th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
First off , I hate the term that 'the pulps died' when, as you clearly show - they didn't die.
I like to think the pulps - and this is backed up by the fact that many pulp writers, artists, editors and publishers moved on - evolved into comics, digests, Men's Adventure magazines and paperbacks. Many of the conventions from the pulps made the transition to these other media forms.
So, the pulps never died, and they are continuing to evolve. Period.
Mad Pulp Bastard since 1963
I suspect the misperception comes from the fact that many SF stories still considered classics were originally published in the pulps. This also holds true for mysteries and fantasy, but, so far as I'm aware, is less true for other genres. I'd be surprised if any stories originally published in the spicy or romance pulps are still getting routinely read by fans of those genres.
I was thinking SF fans are just obsessive enough to remember and track down old pulps. Especially originals. Is there a similar obsession amongst Western, Sports, or Mystery lovers?
Hell, does anyone even write sports fiction anymore?
The saucy/spicy pulps are criminally understudied, not least because they are much less available to scholars than even the romance or sports pulps, but they were around for a long time and deserve further study.
I remember being quite baffled by the large amount of Spicy titles, and wondered where they fit into the whole "Adult" magazine picture-- sort of a link between the fiction, French Postcards, and the eventual photo magazines?
I'm also think of the genre fiction that still appeared in later photo magazines, now. Did they hang onto the fiction for the appearance of legitimacy, when the focus of the magazines had shifted?
I have read an account of how postal rates profoundly affected the production of popular literature, but I can;t remember whether it was that postal rates on books went up in the early 20s and promoted magazines instead, or that they went up in the 1950s, promoting paperback fiction over magazine fiction. Do you know what I'm on about?
On July 30th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
You said the spreadsheet went to 1960, but I don't see anything after 1959. There was at least one pulp briefly around in 1960: the sf digest magazine FANTASTIC UNIVERSE converted to pulp size for its final two or three issues early in that year.
Denny Lien / U of Minnesota Libraries // email@example.com
On August 2nd, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Another interesting thing is if you look at the "start dates" of a given genre:
You'll see that new genres come "online" roughly every 3-4 years
and when you compare those dates to their "high water" marks
1941 detective, s-f
you'll start to see an interesting pattern emerge
30 years for romance
23 years for saucy
26 years for detective
31 years for westerns
25 years for sports
15 years for s-f
It took roughly 30 years for most genres to hit their high points in the industry EXCEPT for sci-fi which did so in half the time.
On August 3rd, 2010 12:05 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Since Street and Smith got out of pulps in 1949, I suspect that had lots to do with the believed death of pulps in 1950. On the other hand, while Ranch Romances ran in pulp format till the end, most of us don't think of 1971! as the end of pulps.
Ha! This is most excellent. I found this post googling around, trying to discover if pulp romances were a thing as early as 1912, in particular. How serendipitous. Any chance you could point me towards any specific titles from that year, if you still have the data easily accessible?