The Ace Robert Silverberg: skewed titles and unclutterd art. The Seed of Earth, The Silent Invaders, Recalled to Life,
Next Stop the Stars, Collision Course and Stepsons of Terra. All from 1977. Covers by Don Punchatz
If you cruised the bookstore and supermarket racks in the 70s and 80s for science fiction paperbacks, Robert Silverberg was everywhere. I mean, everywhere. It wasn’t just that he was enormously productive — that was certainly true. But his books remained in print, or were returned to print, countless times by different publishers.
This was the era when agents would package up backlists by top writers en masse, selling the rights to multiple novels, and publishers would release them virtually simultaneously, usually with the same cover artist. If you had a popular novel — and Silverberg had many — a diligent agent could package and re-package it many times. That’s how Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station was released by Doubleday, The Science Fiction Book Club, Avon, Tandem, Berkley, Star, Warner Books, Tor, and many others between 1968 and 1990, just to pick one example.
The 1977 paperback edition of Robert Silverberg’s Collision Course was one of the first science fiction books I bought (the other was Star Trek 2, by James Blish). Mark Kelly reviewed it for us here last month, calling it “a fascinating, ordinary 1950s science fiction novel.” The mix of far-flung space adventure and galactic intrigue was perfectly pitched for a 13-year old however, and I loved it. Naturally I returned to the bookstore to find more in the same vein, and lo and behold, I did: five more Robert Silverberg novels, cleverly packaged by Ace Books to capitalize on the natural brand loyalty of young SF fans (see above).
This practice of bundling authors, and creating custom cover designs for each, was by no means unique to science fiction, of course. But if you’re a student of SF art there’s an enormous amount to learn by examining the visual language built up around the most popular SF authors in the 70s and 80s, and the ways editors and Art Directors at the major publishers used that language to draw in readers with familiar images and themes, and simultaneously differentiate themselves from the competition on overcrowded paperback racks.
There are countless examples, of course. But for our purposes, I’m going to single out Robert Silverberg, mostly because he’s the one I think of when I think of author branding. Well, Silverberg and Larry Niven (whom we’ll get to in a minute).
The many face of Hawksbill Station: Avon (1970, cover by Don Ivan Punchatz), Berkley Books (1978, Paul Alexander),
Universal-Tandem (1978, uncredited), Star (1982, Bruce Pennington), Warner Books (1986, Jim Burns), and Tor (1990, Jim Warren).
When I trekked back to the bookstore in downtown Ottawa in 1977, looking for a book as exciting and as full of gosh-wow space action as Collision Course, I probably didn’t actually remember the name Robert Silverberg. At thirteen, I was only dimly aware that science fiction books had authors — or at least, that I should bother paying attention to such things. No, mostly what I paid attention to were the covers. I poured over dozens in the aisles at W.H. Smith’s, my buck-fifty in hand, weighing the pros and cons of each. And in general, if it looked very much like a book I’d just read and enjoyed, I was warmly disposed.
Tom Doherty was publisher of Ace Books in 1977; he succeeded the great Donald A. Wollheim, the founding editor of Ace, who left in 1971 to found his own imprint, DAW Books. The editor at Ace in 1977 was Jim Baen. Doherty and Baen understood that when I returned to WH Smith with my hard-earned babysitting money, I was on the lookout for something like Collision Course, and they made it bog easy for me to find. Every Robert Silverberg title from Ace had identical layout and cover design:
- The author’s name in bold, colorful print, slightly skewed from the horizontal
- Subdued colors, mostly against a dark background, by the “elegantly weird” artist Don Ivan Punchatz
- A clean, uncluttered design with minimum text and a small publisher’s colophon on the top left
In addition — and here’s the key point — the Ace Robert Silverberg was clearly different from, say, the Berkley Books Robert Silverberg. There was no brand confusion between the two, and that was very deliberate.
The Berkley Robert Silverberg: dash-lines and prominent blurbs. Hawksbill Station, To Live Again, To Open the Sky, The Masks of Time, and Unfamiliar
Territory, all 1978, and Downward to the Earth, The Book of Skulls, A Time of Changes, and Born With the Dead, from 1979. Covers by Paul Alexander
The Berkley Robert Silverberg (see examples above) had busier covers, with the top third smothered in text, including the author’s name bracketed by dash lines, and prominent blurbs from Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. A reader scanning the racks for another Collision Course wasn’t likely to give the Berkley volumes a second glance.
Doherty, who left Ace to found Tor Books in 1980, and Baen, who left in 1980 to (can you guess?) found his own publishing house, Baen Books, were both extremely skilled in creating and carefully nurturing a brand around house authors. Like Wollheim before them, they learned and honed those skills to a fine art at Ace.
All three men — as a group, perhaps the most successful and prolific publishers of mass market science fiction books in the 20th Century — refined the art of packaging, marketing and selling at Ace Books. I find it fascinating that each of them learned slightly different lessons. Or at the very least, they put those lessons to work slightly differently.
Wollheim, for example, catered to the peculiar collecting mentality of science fiction fans by numbering every DAW title (starting with “DAW Book No. 1,” Andre Norton’s Spell of the Witch World, in April 1972), and making DAW Books easy to spot on bookstore shelves by giving every one a bright yellow spine. Jim Baen relied heavily on design, using bright, bold typography for book titles. And Doherty arguably took the Ace formula the farthest. SF and fantasy series from popular authors were a staple at Tor, and Doherty used the skills he learned at Ace to give each one a unique look — while simultaneously cultivating a house look that made it easy to spot Tor Books at a glance.
The distinctive DAW yellow spines
It’s an overstatement to say that Ace pioneered the practice of creating a distinct visual brand for their authors. Any student of SF book art can point to numerous examples in the 1960s, and even the 50s. And as you can see from the impressive selection of Berkley titles from Robert Silverberg above, by the late 70s it was fairly common industry-wide. By this point, the best agents in the business were growing increasingly skilled at bundling clients’ back catalogs into attractive package deals for publishers anyway. So it’s tough to say who really drove the practice — authors, agents, or publishers?
But whatever the case, I think it’s accurate to say that by the mid-70s Ace was the most skilled practitioner of author branding in science fiction, and they perfected the art with a simple yet powerful formula:
- Signing up popular SF authors with a deep back catalog
- Pairing them with top-notch cover artists like Michael Whelan, Vincent Di Fate, Boris Vallejo, Jeff Jones, and others
- Using attractive and highly distinctive Art Design to leverage author loyalty into brand loyalty for Ace
This strategy paid off handsomely. Within a few years I wasn’t just looking for cover designs that signaled a familiar author. I was looking for the Ace colophon on the stacks… at first unconsciously, but gradually with more awareness.
For all the strides publishers made building up their own brand awareness — DAW with easy-to-spot yellow spines, and Ace with brilliant Art Design — in many cases the author’s brand still won out. In other words, the delicate art of successfully guiding an unsophisticated thirteen-year-old toward what he wants (more Robert Silverberg novels in the vein of Collision Course, for example) also gradually educates the reader to look for Robert Silverberg. This is precisely how young readers become fans. And when the author’s brand becomes bigger than the publisher’s, it pays off to swap the latter out for the former.
Author branding will trump series branding if the author is big enough. Note the modified cover design for Alpha 9, to match
Robert Silverberg’s. Berkley Books, 1977, 1977, and 1978. Covers by Randy Weidner, unknown, and Vicente Segrelles
For example, in 1970 Ballantine Books launched a reprint SF anthology series to compete with Damon Knight’s Orbit and Terry Carr’s Universe. Alpha was edited by Robert Silverberg, and it lasted for nine years, switching publisher to Berkley with volume 6. Like the authors it competed with on bookstore racks, Alpha had its own branding, including a distinctive typeface(see Alpha 7 and Alpha 8 above).
By 1978 however, Berkley discarded all of that and subsumed it under Silverberg’s house brand, marketing the book alongside their many Silverberg paperbacks, and using the same Art Design. (Compare the look of Alpha 9 to the Berkley Silverberg titles above to see what I mean.)
No matter how carefully you plan an author rollout, of course, there’s always a few quirks. Berkley Books’ impressive 10-book Silverberg reprint in 1978-79 (eleven books, if you count Alpha 9), is an interesting example. Nine volumes had covers by Paul Alexander, an extraordinary feat no matter how you look at it. One, the collection The Feast of St. Dionysus, for reasons lost to the mists of time, had a cover by David Schleinkofer. Did the Art Director feel Schleinkofer was just more suited to this one? Did Alexander have a nervous breakdown after delivering a painting per month for nine months? These are the mysteries that keep us up late at night.
The Feast of St. Dionysus by Robert Silverberg.
(Berkley Books, 1979. Cover by David Schleinkofer)
Ace may have helped pioneer — and arguably perfected — the practice, but the many cover images on this page should tell you that they were by no means the only publisher who successfully used it. By the late 79s and early 80s, the paperback racks were filled with author-branded books from dozens of publishers.
As the market matured, publishers found that this kind of book packaging often yielded more predictable returns than spending the same money on a single big-budget book. Likewise, authors and agents found that well-timed and coordinated publishing events like this helped enormously to raise their profile. And of course, once a publisher treated them this way, authors tended to expect it, or at least favor those publishers who put this level of marketing effort and dollars behind them.
Pretty soon the major SF publishers of the day — including Ace, Ballantine/Del Rey, Pocket, Berkley, DAW, Bantam, and Warner — began to compete to attract the top authors to build brands around. Competition meant more money, and anyone who’s spent time in publishing will tell you that money breeds money. Meaning that that books the cost the most to acquire tend to get the biggest marketing budget. The more expensive a book or book package is, the more a publisher will spend to promote it.
As publishers spent more freely on multi-book deals with science fiction authors, they successfully nurtured brands around them, and made stars of more than a few. It was this gradual process that some folks credit for the impressive number of science fiction authors who burst unto bestseller lists for the first time in the 80s and 90s.
The Warner Robert Silverberg: photorealism and vivid colors, & blurbs that build on the bestselling Majipoor trilogy. Hawksbill Station, To Live Again,
A Times of Changes (all 1986, covers by Jim Burns) and The Stochastic Man, Son of Man, and Tower of Glass (1987, covers by Don Dixon).
If you were a midlist science fiction author in the early 1980s, watching as your peers cashed big checks, you could be forgiven for being a little envious. The truth was that only a few authors really benefited from the process.
You had to be both popular and prolific. While there were a few authors who fit the bill — Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Harry Harrison, Clifford D. Simak, Alan Dean Foster, Philip José Farmer, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick, C. J. Cherryh, Alfred Bester, Joe Haldeman, Octavia E. Butler, Jack Vance, Piers Anthony, A. E. van Vogt, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, James Blish, John Brunner, Anne McCaffrey, Samuel R. Delany, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, a few dozen more — the vast majority of writers lacked either the sales figures, or an available back catalog, sufficient to interest publishers. Or, perhaps, an agent with enough savvy to package the books together.
As I mentioned above, all this packaging and re-packaging is one reason there are so many editions of some of your favorite authors around. The continuous appetite for these books, and the lingering interest in the authors who wrote them, is a testament to the long memories of SF readers. It’s a major reason why science fiction has survived as a genre, while so many others popular in the 70s — including Westerns, Gothic Romances, and even mass-market Horror — are dead.
Most science fiction fans of my generation have their favorite authors from the 70s and 80s. If you ask the right questions, you’ll often find that many have favorite editions too. They may be only vaguely aware that Ballantine/Del Rey packaged more than a half-dozen Larry Niven novels and collections with a distinctive framing motif, creating a virtual mini-imprint showcasing Niven in the mid-70s. But they know for sure it’s the 1975 editions of Neutron Star, Ringworld, and Tales From Known Space, featuring Rich Sternbach’s evocative cover art, that carry all the nostalgia for them. Other editions simply don’t mean as much.
Larry Niven’s easy-to-spot Ballantine/Del Rey brand: A Gift from Earth, Neutron Star, Ringworld, Tales of Known Space,
World of Ptavvs (all 1975, covers by Rick Sternbach) and A World Out of Time (1977, Rick Sternbach and Murray Tinkelman)
Creating a unique brand for an author is an artistic partnership between the editor, Art Director, cover designer, and cover artist. There’s doubtless a good Master’s Thesis topic (or three) here for an interested graphic design or modern art student.
Publishers communicate a ton of information to readers in often very subtle ways using cover art, framing, color, and font. Not just what the book is about, but also the presence (or absence) of strong female characters, sexual themes, LGBTQ characters, the sub-genres (time travel, military SF, space opera), age appropriateness, and much more. Even today, when you stand in front of a book rack, knowingly or not you rely on Art Directors to tell you a great deal about the books you’re looking at. You may not even be aware how they’re telling you those things, but they are.
There’s countless modern examples, of course. Sticking with Robert Silverberg as our example (he’s handy that way), when Open Road Media released nearly a dozen Silverberg titles in digital formats in 2014, they issued them with attractive matching covers. Unlike the other examples on this page, they eschewed art in favor of photography-based design that relies heavily on color. Have a look.
The digital Robert Silverberg: The Stochastic Man, Tower of Glass, Thorns, To Open the Sky, Kingdoms of the Wall,
The Alien Years, The Longest Way Home, and Hot Sky at Midnight. Open Road Media, all 2014.
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the print versions. I find the art-based cover design richer and and more reflective of the novels, and the era they were published.
And I like them for another reason that probably won’t be a surprise to anyone: they’re fun to collect. If you’re a Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, or Samuel R. Delany fan, it can be a lot of fun to track down the matching editions of your favorite books. And it can be fascinating to compare the differences between editions over the years and decades (as we did with the many editions of Fritz Lieber’s Conjure Wife).
Besides, collecting vintage paperbacks isn’t much more expensive than the digital option. You can purchase just about every Larry Niven paperback ever printed for about the cost of a dinner for two at a fine restaurant.
But there’s still enough challenge in it to make it enjoyable. Curious precisely how many Robert Silverberg titles Berkley Books released in 1978-1979 using the same design? ISFDB will tell you… in a roundabout way. Figure out which artist was commissioned for the series (Paul Alexander), and then use ISFDB’s chronological Art Credit page to review them all.
Of course, that won’t tell you if there’s stray book here or there by a different artist — as there was with The Feast of St. Dionysus by David Schleinkofer, or Alpha 9 by Vicente Segrelles. But tracking down the surprises is all part of the fun of collecting, right?
A word of caution though — don’t try to track down every Robert Silverberg paperback ever printed. It’s far from a cheap undertaking, and I’m reasonably sure it’s never been done. I’m not even sure there’s a list of Silverberg books that professes to be complete anywhere (Silverberg himself has admitted he doesn’t know how many books he’s written).
Has any of this reminded you of a favorite publisher-author series you enjoyed, or found particularly interesting? Let us know in the comments, and see all our recent musing on Art in Science Fiction here.