Version 1 - March 2006 - to be updated and improved RSN
Latest changes - 30th May 2006
The British SCIENCE FICTION BOOK CLUB was for many years a significant part of the British SF scene. Apparently the brainchild of Herbert Jones, who may have been employed by parent publishers Sidgwick & Jackson, the SFBC issued its first book in January 1953 and in one form or another carried on until the end of 1982, finally expiring a pale shadow of its former self, victim of changing buying patterns amongst its target audience, and, one guesses, chronic underfunding born of indifference to science fiction by its final owners, publishers David & Charles.
From its beginnings it provided an easy way of getting comparatively affordable and well-made hardback books - a wonderful thing in itself for the individual sf fan. Many libraries were 'members' also, and so even those unwilling or unable to join the club personally could benefit from scanning the shelves for the very distinctive spines - almost as obvious a marker indicating "science fiction, and probably pretty good too!" as the rather later Gollancz yellowjackets - being an invaluable helper to those who knew they wanted sf but didn't really know yet who wrote it.
(It's incredible to think now, but forty or fifty years ago just discovering who wrote sf used to be a problem - in my own experience in the 1960s I sometimes used to just look for unusual names, which often led me to many rather dull Eastern European novelists!)
Anyway, I'd like to present on this set of webpages as much information as can be found on the books issued via SFBC, the background to the enterprise, and the personal experiences and reminiscences of members and readers. It's amazing to me that there's nothing else anywhere on the web covering this so while this web-presence may well presently be incomplete it may not be inadequate, and will improve as time goes on and information comes in.
I'd specifically like to thank William Seabrook, for fine work done on the SFBC bibliography, and for much background information. Also thanks to various British members of the Wegenheim mailing-list for showing interest and demonstrating that it's not just be me and Bill Seabrook who care about this undeservedly forgotten part of British sf history - you will find contributions from them within this site.
Also a very large Thank-you goes to sf bibliographer Phil Stephensen-Payne, who is sufficiently supportive of this site to donate a very large stack of the SFBC's newsletters for research and webbing. I'm delighted indeed, and some info regarding the dj-art change of issue 55 was included here just hours after getting them!
The earliest advertisement for SFBC that I have yet found, in NEW WORLDS Number 19 of January 1953. There is no other mention of its advent in the issue, but in the editorial of NW 20 for March 1953 John Carnell hailed it as part of a new dawn of sf publication -
"In the book field 1953 heralds in an outstanding world event in Sidgwick & Jackson's SCIENCE FICTION BOOK CLUB. This is an unprecedented step in the science-fiction field. As with the International Fantasy Award idea, Great Britain is one step ahead of the Americans again - to keep us there the Book Club needs the support of every enthusiast in the country. Naturally it will be to your ultimate advantage."
Fortunately SFBC proved rather more durable than the IFA 'idea', which petered out in some confusion by the end of 1957, largely unloved by the majority of sf fans.
New News - 27th March 2006 - US fan and collector John Boston points out a failure of diligent research -
"Your statement (original erroneous comment since deleted and consigned to the dustbin of history) that there are no SF Book Club ads in NEW WORLDS after the first one in #19 is mistaken--there's one in #49, combined with a Sidgwick & Jackson ad.
I don't know if there are any more, since I'm only up to #58, but I suspect there were--there were several in SCIENCE FANTASY in the late '50s or '60s, I forget which.
Carnell also devotes his editorial in #55 mostly to congratulating the SFBC on its fourth birthday."
That'll teach me to just check half my run of NW and make foolish assumptions then won't it. I'll get the boxes out again then shall I....
The editorial and advertisment are on here
The second issue of SCIENCE FICTION NEWS, 1953
Putting it all very simply, the SFBC was started off in 1953 (coincidentally at the same time the SFBC in the United States) and was originally an offshoot of British publishers Sidgewick and Jackson, who already had what was for the times a respectable sf list under their own imprint.
The original selection panel included Arthur C Clarke,
(New news - in SCIENCE FICTION NEWS 31for March
1958 we find this note -
Well, that's amazing. So Jones was the originator of the SFBC idea in the UK at least. The greatest thing ever done for British sf by a Herbert, no question. We should be grateful.)
By September of 1960 the selection panel had lost Clarke and Jones, and now comprised Porter, Carnell and Kingsley Amis. SCIENCE FICTION NEWS was now being edited by Oliver Caldecott, another unknown. That line-up of selectors and newsletter editor continued until December 1964, when Amis no longer appears listed as a selector; there is no note in SFN to explain this.
John Carnell and J G Porter remain listed as the sole selectors up to April 1966. From then onwards SFN disappears into READERS NEWS and eventually the SCIENCE FICTION BOOK CLUB NEWS neither of which carried information on SFBC selectors. Who were they? Do you know?
The earliest SFBC flyer - perhaps the first.
The latest SFBC flyer I have, from late
SCIENCE FICTION NEWS was a neatly produced single sheet folded pamphlet - roughly A4 in total area, folded to provide four or six printed 'pages' - issued with every monthly (originally bi-monthly) book selection. As well as containing the basic information about SFBC it carried extensive notes on forthcoming selections, and often mini-essays on science fiction or science in general, often by people closely connected with the sf field as fans or writers. One might reasonably say SCIENCE FICTION NEWS carries much of the history of SFBC.
SCIENCE FICTION NEWS ran to 107 issues in its original form, ending in April 1966, being absorbed as a department in READERS NEWS which served all of the various Book Clubs operated by readers Union, its then parent publisher. READERS NEWS was in the first place a substantial multi-page effering with a fair amount of space dedicasted to the SFBC but eventually dwindled during the early 1970s into a simple one-sheet folded newsheet with no more than basic book announcements. The lineage ended with a single-sheet pamphlet called SCIENCE FICTION BOOK CLUB NEWS (from 1979 ??) which continued right up the rather ignominious end of SFBC at the close of 1982.
There had been originally a valiant attempt - apparently by David & Charles employee Paul Begg - to imbue SFBCNews with real content, and for some months from January 1979 at least it included short pieces by authors such as Bob Shaw, Ian Watson and Robert Holdstock (a convention report of Novacon 8) and news of the general sf scene, but that came to an end by early 1980, by which time Paul Begg left the company.
(Thanks to the enormous generosity of Phil Stephensen-Payne mentioned above i now have a substantial number of issues of all era, and I am even even more keen to complete the set - so if you have any you'd like to donate or sell (yes, I will pay actual money provided it isn't too much!) please make contact. If you don't want to dispose of your copies scans or photocopies will be just as welcome.)
The End of the Game
The final days of the SFBC are shrouded in rather more mystery than the events of May 1945 in the Fuhrerbunker. Not to over-dramatise things of course. The latest issue of the SCIENCE FICTION BOOK CLUB NEWS to hand - December 1982 - gives no indication at all that it might be the last. And indeed, was it? Whatever, SFBC enthusiast William Seabrook happened upon a leaflet inserted into a copy of Terry Pratchett's STRATA, which was offered by SFBC in mid-1982 - apparently as a cutprice publishers' edition, not an actual SFBC reprint - which shows there was some order to the final collapse. The letter has a Readers Union header, is undated and reads as follows -
Sadly, this is the final newsletter of the Science Fiction Book Club - an organisation which has enthusiastically served the interests of SF readers in Britain for the last 3O years.
In 1953, when the club was formed, science fiction was very much a minority interest. Books were difficult to obtain except in pulp and digest magazines of indifferent quality. The SF Book Club filled an important gap and quickly established itself as a major source of modern hardback books - often the only source in Britain. Since then SF has become part of our popular mass culture and readers have been deluged with a wealth of new books. As a result the SF Book Club has faced increasingly stiff competition, particularly from the expanding paperback market, and this competition has finally overwhelmed it.
The enclosed newsletter gives you a final opportunity to buy club books. All titles currently in stock are listed - and all of them have been dramatically reduced in price.
As a special farewell offer you can choose any eight Science Fiction Book Club books for just £2.OO!
Meantime, thank you for your support - but read on!
Most of our business thrives and we would hate to lose contact with you, especially if you are one of those members who has been with us many years. If you're not now a member of any other society look at the centre pages of the enclosed catalogue. You're sure to find a society to interest you - especially Nationwide. This society covers all interests, including a few Science Fiction books.
David St John Thomas