Challenge,  On Writing

A Fun Harlan Story

And Some Books as Proof…

My best friend in publishing, as many of you know, was a book dealer by the name of Bill Trojan from Eugene, OR. Now Bill had a heart of gold and at times could be a real jerk on the outside. But he was well-respected in the science fiction and mystery booksellers worlds.

For those of you who don’t know publishing history, for a long time in the 1960s and early 1970s, soft-core porn was written and sold by the millions outside of the normal book channels. By todays standards, these books would not even be considered hot romance, let alone erotica. But they were out front in their day.

Harlan Ellison went to work for one company in Chicago as the editor after the big distribution collapse of 1959. And he hired a lot of his friends to write the books. Robert Silverberg, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Barry Malzberg, Ed Wood, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and so on. And Harlan wrote one of them, actually a collection of linked short stories. Just one, while Silverberg, under many pen names, wrote over 200. No idea how many Lawrence Block or Donald Westlake wrote, but more than Silverberg. Block is actually republishing some of them now under his own name.

You want to know more about this incredible time in publishing history, grab this book:

Algis Budrys took over as editor after Harlan left for California and Hollywood. So Harlan (not great at novels, only wrote a couple in his life) never wrote another soft-core book. And the one he did write is a collection of short stories.

Now these books under pen names by major writers are worth a lot of money these days. And my friend Bill collected them (as did I) but Bill tried to get the writers to sign them using their real names. Most writers had no problem with that and just this week on eBay my store sold five soft-core books by Robert Silverberg signed by Bob with his own name. The lowest priced one went for $40. And I just sold an Ed Wood book for over $400.

So Harlan’s one book is called Sex Gang by Paul Merchant.

The book is frighteningly collectable, especially in good condition.

Well I owned a copy and Bill had two, which I got from him when he died. I was with him one day when he first asked Harlan to sign the book. (Remember, I was friends with Harlan and Harlan knew Bill because Bill often found books Harlan wanted and sent them to him. But as I said, Bill can be abrasive and he was facing Harlan. It was always a fun match to watch.)

So Harlan, with a few choice words to Trojan, took the book and signed it Marcel Proust. It was well known that Harlan would never sign his real name to the book. Bill harassed him for the rest of the convention for doing that. Great fun.

So at the next convention Harlan and Bill crossed paths, Bill annoyed Harlan enough that Harlan took the book again from Bill and this time signed it Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. Damn that was a fun convention as Bill went around calling Harlan by the name Mary.

The year before Bill died, he and Harlan were again at the same convention (I was at all of these and saw all of this, much to my everlasting enjoyment.) Bill had just done a hell of a large favor for Harlan. So Bill presented Harlan with a brand new copy of Sex Gang he had bought for a lot of money and managed to get Harlan, in a soft moment, to sign his real name to it. I was there to watch it and Harlan flipped the book back to Bill and called him a few choice names and walked away.

As far as anyone knows, that was the only time Harlan actually signed Sex Gang with his real name. I inherited both copies of the books. Plus I had my own unsigned.

So since I am reducing a ton of my collection, one of the major collections to go was the combined collection that Bill and I had of the soft-core books written by major writers under pen names. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them. They are going up on one of the stores’ eBay account.

Here are the links to the sales if you want to see more pictures of the three copies of the same book.

My copy: Selling unsigned for $500.

Bill’s double-signed copy selling for $1,500.

Bill’s copy signed by Harlan with his real name. Selling for $3,000.

If you know any Harlan collector or rare book collector, send him the links and a copy of this blog.

And if they don’t sell, I won’t mind in the slightest. They are great memories of times with two friends now both sadly gone. I don’t need the physical copies of the books, I still have the memories, at least until those go as well.



  • Gai

    “There’s no such thing as luck. It’s how well you run your life — this cottage industry you call your writing career. It’s the one great secret of writing that I’ve learned over the years, and the secret is not how to become a writer… …The secret is staying a writer. And staying a writer is hard. To stay a writer you have to keep growing, have to be flexible, have to be able to recognize when the world has gone on and changed without asking your opinion. Do that, and you can not only become a writer, you can stay a writer.”
    Harlan Ellison

    • dwsmith

      Gai, as you can tell I took one sentence out of that Harlan quote because it distracted from (and narrowed) the meaning Harlan was trying to get across. And he is right. Staying a writer is hard. A person can become a writer with a few novels even rewriting everything a hundred times. Staying a writer on that path is not possible for long. Same with selling these days to traditional publishers and using agents. The world has changed and now that 1980s way of doing things no longer applies in 2018. You can go that way and maybe have a few book career, but staying on that path these days for longer than a few years is almost lottery-winning impossible. So Harlan was right in so many ways in that quote.

  • Philip

    Awesome story, Dean. I’m a big fan of Lawrence Block’s crime fiction, so I’ve also read some of his smut on Kindle. This is another parallel between today’s indies and the paperback writers of back then. I know a lot of indies, myself included, who publish short smut under pen names and our crime or scifi or whatever under real names or other pen names. Not only does it build confidence as a writer, but the money comes with ease. In fact, your Make A Living on Short Stories roadmap works perfectly with erotica. I was making $1,500/month by my third month. It’s easy to burn out, but it’s just as easy to make money and build your storytelling skills. Write it into the dark, never re-write, definitely no beta readers, and no marketing. Just slap a pretty girl on the cover and you have a moneymaker.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, burn out is a problem now on that and it was back then as well. Same with media writing. I wrote a lot of erotica in my day, but back when I was coming in it was different forms. I wrote and got paid for a lot of Letters to Penthouse. (No pen names needed for that, but very formula. Made nice money.) My third professional story sale was to Oui Magazine and I still have the art for that story on my wall here in Las Vegas. (Bought the original from the artist.) The story was called “The Sexual Voyage of the Starship Shirley” It’s a large oil painting by Curt Hopper and is an image of the Starship Enterprise firing lasers at a giant boob.

  • Lawrence Block

    Actually, Dean, neither Don Westlake nor I wrote nearly as many of the books as Bob did. And we hired ghosts for many of our titles; in fact, of Don’s books for Nightstand et al, only one or two were his own work.

    I’ve republished—as ebooks and paperbacks—most of the titles I actually wrote for Bill Hamling and Harry Shorten. (Demonstrating, and not for the first time, that shame and embarrassment can’t begin to compete with ego and avarice.) Anyone interested in having a look can do an Amazon search for “Lawrence Block Collection of Classic Erotica”

    Another note—both Don and I, and Bob as well, were writing books for Nightstand before Harlan signed on as editor. Harlan may have hired his friends, but he and I never met until several years later. (Of course I knew him by reputation, as did everyone else in the world.)

    Cheers, and pass my regards to KKR.


    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Larry. Very much appreciated on that. I forgot all about all the ones put through the Scott Meredith agency agreement. Great information, thanks. And I knew that Harlan was with Nightstand for only a short time before AJ took his job, just not a lot of information out there on when and how long and all that. And I never thought of asking Harlan about it. And Kris says hi back.