Some of science fiction/fantasy's classic books failed to win over readers at first. And the publishers of some of SF's most beloved works were convinced they had a disaster on their hands. Here are 10 masterpieces that were deemed failures.
Writer's Almanac summed it up best: "[John Crowley's] most famous novel is Little, Big (1981). It's a fantasy story, full of fairies and enchantment, but it's also an epic saga of a New England family, complete with historical details... John Crowley has a cult following, and his novels always get great reviews, but they still don't sell very well, partly because they're so hard to categorize." In the Village Voice, critic Harold Bloom writes that Little, Big was a "neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll." The book did win the World Fantasy Award, but as the Guardian writes, "it would be nice if Little, Big could get a wider audience so many years down the line."
Jonathan Carroll is a writer's writer, producing little known works of speculative fiction, fantasy and horror. Writers like Neil Gaiman sing his praises loudly. His book of short stories The Panic Hand was written in English, translated into German and published in 1989. It took six years for an English version to come out. And it's out of print again. So check your local library if you want to read the writer Gaiman called "an international publishing phenomenon waiting to happen." In 2001.
Nominated for a Bram Stoker award, and showered with loving reviews, this book was remaindered almost immediately. Why? The publisher was owned by a bookseller and remaindered the title to themselves, shutting the author out of any profits, according to I Have This Nifty Idea: Now What Do I Do with It? by Mike Resnick (Page 325). The book, which Publisher's Weekly called a blend "of horror (sometimes graphic), fantasy, and magical realism into a unique novel that's not only an occult standout but a captivating memoir of an important slice of American culture" was republished in 2000. But you'll still probably have to find a used bookstore to get your own copy.
Forever overshadowed by Shelley's Frankenstein (another book that met a cool critical reception), The Last Man's reviews were scathing, and the book disappeared not long after an 1833 American edition. It wouldn't see print again until 1965, when interest in Mary Shelley's life brought several of her other novels back into print. Mary Shelley considered The Last Man her favorite of her books. The story of a plague that slowly wipes out humanity over the course of the book, The Last Man is now accepted as a progenitor of dystopian science fiction. Modern metaphorical readings of the book include the idea that the book represents the fall of gothic romanticism, which would be completely discarded by the middle of the Victorian era.
While lots of Dick's books have fallen out of print (only to be re-issued later), his most well known (The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, VALIS) have always been in print. Not so with Electric Sheep. Originally published in 1968, Signet published a 75¢ paperback in 1971. The book didn't reappear, until Ballentine published it 11 years later as Blade Runner (which would have put you back $2.75).
One of the classics of Space Opera, Triplanetary was originally a group of short stories published in Amazing Stories in 1934. But it didn't get a book release until 1948, when it was reworked into a Lensman novel published by Fantasy Books. Triplanetary "created the idea of the galactic civilization" (according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, page 229). But it wasn't a particularly beloved novel at the time, even if its status as a Lensman novel made it essential reading for fans. After that first book edition, Triplanetary was out of print continuously from 1950 to 1965, and then again until 1978.
According to Dave Langford's always-essential Ansible newsletter (which you can subscribe to via Google Groups) this novel by the author of The Prestige got lost originally. The Separation was "miserably marketed" by Simon & Schuster UK, who confessed to Priest that they were "no longer able to do what we once did well," and the book was impossible to find in bookstores. Nevertheless, the book won an Arthur C. Clarke award and was taken over by Gollancz UK, which put out a nice new hardcover edition.
It's debatable whether this one belongs on the list, because it actually sold amazingly well when it first came out — no thanks to its publisher, which had decided to dump it quietly. Explains Delany in an interview with Larry McCaffery (in the book Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, p. 103):
The advance was comparatively small. The editor who bought the book prudently didn't mention its size to anyone in the company. At the first sales conference, after copies showed up in the office, the general feeling was that they had a nine-hundred page disaster on their hands. It was not about anything that anyone could grab a hold of, much less synopsize commercially in a sentence or a paragraph. "Sell as many copies as you can, then let it sink out of existence; and we'll all try not to do that again!" Since they hadn't put much money into the book, they didn't feel obliged to spend any extra on making it back.
At the time of that interview, in 1987, sales of Dhalgren were "edging up toward a million [copies]."
According to the Huxley biography by Nicholas Murray (page 263), Brave New World initially sold about 13,000 copies in the U.K., which wasn't bad. But in the U.S., it was more or less a failure, because "its jaundiced view of the materialist Utopia would be less welcome" stateside. (And it was already starting on its long path to become one of the most banned books of all time.)
Rayner Unwin, Tolkien's publisher, wrote to his father, Sir Stanley Unwin, that this series could lose their company a thousand pounds. His father responded that if Rayner really believed the books were a work of genius, "then you may lose a thousand pounds." (Rayner was also responsible for dividing the story into three books, but also fought against cutting anything out of it.) In the event, according to Leslie Jones' biography of Tolkien (page 101) The Fellowship Of The Ring's original print run of 3,500 copies sold out within six weeks, necessitating a second printing.
Top image: Triplanetary cover art by Jack Gaughan.
Thanks to Jon Spinner, Tania Clucas, Wayne Nix, Jackie Jack, Adam Shaftoe, Niall Harrison, Paige K, Allan Ebalo, Les MacKenzie, Tia Marie and Andrew Liptak for suggestions!