Pulp magazine history, like all forms of history, is largely a
progression of connections. Most pulp publishers are
connected to each other, have dotted line relationships or
are parts of affinity orbits—generally either to Frank Munsey
or Joseph Delacorte or Hugo Gernsback. Even Time’s
publisher Harry Luce has a direct relationship to Frank
Munsey. Alex Hillman does not. Nor did any publishers sprout
out of Hillman Publications. As with the internet, the more
lines you have leading to or from you, the more attention you
get. Hillman Publications was something of an island. Other
than the proximity of being located in New York, it was
unrelated to other firms.
Hillman also ran his business in a manner entirely different
from other magazine publishers of his day. His methods may
have had more to do with his circumstances than any design
or business theory. Hillman’s attention was divided between
this business, his other businesses, other peoples’
businesses and outside interests. He vacillated between
being a hot touch publisher, especially in digests and
paperback novel development, to letting the lunatics run the
asylum. He trained up little editorial teams and let them at it.
In many cases, these teams operated independently of each
other. Even his composition department functioned this way.
There wasn’t a lot of bureaucracy at Hillman Publications.
Hillman was essentially an acquisitions editor: a finder of
talent and a project director. This is a very difficult skill set to
monetize or turn into an enterprise. Hillman did both for a
long period of time. Normally acquisitions editor is a dead
end staff position. To my knowledge, he is the only
successful publisher to have this background.
His training as an acquisitions editor and later as a publisher
came on the job. Although unquestionably a very bright man,
and well educated, he was self-taught at what became his
profession. Like many people, he fell into his trade and then
struck out on his own after a reverse.
|Hillman described his own start in magazines to Leonard Lyons writing in the Lyon’s Den on July 10 of 1944:
(Hillman) began in the Depression days when he managed to meet Otto Kahn and asked him for $25,000
with which to start his first magazine. The financier explained to the young man that his fortunes, too, had
been hit and that his money was tied up.
Hillman thought a while and made another proposal. “A bank official I went to told me all I really need is a
note signed by a responsible person. If you could sign that note, he’d let me have the money.”
“If you’d bring me a note signed by someone like me,” Kahn replied, “I’d give you the money myself.”
Hillman Publications was started in the teeth of the Depression and had been built into a prosperous concern
by the start of WWII. From what can be verified, the firm’s beginnings were far more humble than what was
described to Lyons.
Alex Hillman was born in Chicago in 1900. He graduated from the
University of Chicago in 1923 with a Science Bachelors degree in what
we would today call pre-Law. As opposed to going on to get his Jurist
Doctorate, Hillman found employment with the Kellogg Switchboard &
Supply Company. This high tech Chicago firm was one of the leaders in
the development of the visual telegraph—today known as radio. He was
appointed director of the broadcast division for China in 1926 and
relocated to Shanghai.
Then as now, many technology firms were anxious to get into the
opening Chinese market. (At the time, the target areas were Shanghai
and Hong Kong.) Then as now, sometimes things dion't work out.
Kellogg disbanded its broadcast division to focus on telephone
Hillman landed back in the states by 1928, this time in New York City. He would make New York his home from
this point on. While looking for another position in the emerging broadcast industry, Hillman obtained an adjunct
teaching position at Washington Square College. (Later a part of New York University.) It was during his time at
Washington Square that Hillman found both a wife and his new profession. He met Rita Kanarek, his future wife
(and art collecting partner) at a social event related to the college. His introduction to the world of publishing is
a little harder to pin down.
Alex Hillman is listed as the publisher for Lois MacDonald’s 1928 PhD dissertation Southern Mills Hills: A
Study of Social and Economic Forces in Certain Textile Mill Villages. Lois MacDonald was an instructor of
Economics, also employed at Washington Square College.
Southern Mills Hills was something of a hit by academic standards. Most PhD dissertations are not published at
all, or if they are, have circulations in the dozens. Thousands of copies appear to have been printed of this
work. It is enshrined in the Textile Hall of Fame. It was widely read and is still cited to this day. This was
published as a hard back book in a manner similar to that of text books of the time.
Whether this was Hillman’s first work or if he was really the publisher is somewhat unclear. More likely, Hillman
was already working for a firm that had yet to come up with a name for its publishing division. Hillman would go
on to be the editor of record for several similar academic works.
Hillman’s own recollection of this time was that, besides editing academic works, he was also in charge of
putting together condensed paperback versions of the classics. The paperback industry as a whole at the time
was primarily in the business of publishing erotic Flapper Fiction. As a one off business, many of them offered
prefab cardboard bookcases filled with collections of great books for mail order sale. It was a way of giving
one's home (or the local drugstore or tavern or pool hall) an instant whiff of class.
A lot of printers jumped into the paperback production business during the erotica craze and then just as
quickly jumped out. The presses were cheap to obtain, but expensive to operate. They seldom functioned for
long without repair and their output was filled with a high percentage of defects. As for the books themselves,
they self destructed quickly. By 1930 few retailers of any kind were willing to handle paperbacks.
By 1930 the firm Hillman worked for had come up with a name. As is typical for college based enterprises, it
chose an ironic DBA, in this case the name of an obscure anarchist philosopher.
William Godwin Incorporated formally started operations in 1930. It seems to have been the outgrowth of a text
book printing firm. The idea behind the imprint (Godwin was both the publishing company’s name and the name
of one of its lines) appears to have been to expand the plant’s short run hard back printing business beyond
the academic arena.
Per the American News Trade Journal of September 1934, Godwin eventually subdivided into two operating
units: “William Godwin, Inc., has organized a subsidiary to be known as Arcadia House Publications, which will
publish good clean romances especially designed for the circulating library. The books will bear the Arcadia
House imprint, but the publishing, advertising, distribution and billing will be handled by William Godwin.” (
Lifted directly from www.lendinglibmystery.com’s listing on Arcadia house.)
Both Godwin and Arcadia House primarily produced novels for the Commuter Library market. Although largely
forgotten today, Commuter Libraries were very common during the Depression. Often called Circulating
Libraries or Public Lending Libraries, these for profit businesses rented books to the public, charging a
standard 3 cents a day per book. In a way they were something akin to today’s video rental stores. The majority
of Commuter Libraries were book stores which had turned to renting inventory out after the Depression had
killed sales. The rest of the Commuter Libraries were side businesses located in pool halls, taverns, drug stores
and tobacco shops. These smaller libraries had been established in the wake of the Flapper Fiction paperback
craze of the 1920s. Most new material introduced into these smaller libraries was erotic in nature. Godwin’s
sales manager Sam Curl had created a third network of Commuter Libraries centered on train depots, in-train
concessions, hotels and general stores. Godwin sold into all three types of Commuter Libraries.
|Godwin was mostly an erotica imprint. Its typical offerings included…
|Jail Bait (Sally Chayes)
An extremely risqué novel of a sixteen year old
girl and her "school friends, delightful
provocative girls, all under eighteen, seductive
to the nth degree. Eavesdrop upon them when
they are having their private talks and get the
low-down on what they think and do about
|Youth Cries Out (Bernice E Noar)
"At eighteen Doris Blakely, a stenographer in the
law offices of Jasper Richards, is plunged unawares
into a bedroom scene which changes the entire
course of her life. After an affair with her employer
the realization dawns upon her that there is
something more in life than pounding typewriter
keys at $15 per week. A bed of roses heroine,
Doris is a veritable modern. Absolutely
contemptuous of virtue, she takes the sophisticated
way out because she believes her way of life is
superior to that of her married sister who slaves for
a worthless husband." Bernice Noar was a literary
critic, the fiction editor at Vogue in the 1920s and a
frequent pulp author of the 1930s.
|Indecent (Jack Woodford)
Romance novel about a
young woman who is
chased out of her
hometown of Gratiot, Iowa
due to a love affair. She
flees to New York City into a
world of unrestrained vice
and avaricious men. Jack
Woodford was a guru on
the subject of writing for
publication and a frequent
pulp and paperback author.
|Cheaters Club (James Montague)
Set in the risqué world of amusement clubs
where jaded husbands and wives seek
diversion and relief from the humdrum of
conventionally married life. It is here that lives
of Helen Reed, her husband Harold, Julia
Ferris, wife of a prominent physician, and
Robert Ainsley, become peculiarly interrelated
in a complex web of clandestine love.