Heinlein's Missed Bestsellers

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Puppet Masters
1951 (abridged);
1990 (complete)

Stranger in a Strange Land
1961 (abridged);
1991 (complete)

January 2004

Bestseller opportunities?

I have come to believe that Robert A. Heinlein missed two early opportunities to have best-selling novels. These lost chances were long before Heinlein's late science-fiction novels began appearing on bestseller lists, and even before the paperback edition of his Stranger in a Strange Land became a campus and counterculture bestseller in the middle and late 1960s.

So how do I think those other bestseller opportunities existed for The Puppet Masters and Stranger in a Strange Land? And why were they missed?

Heinlein's first novels in print, Sixth Column (1941), Methuselah's Children (1941), and Beyond This Horizon (1942), all were serialized in Astounding Science Fiction to acclaim among fans. But no book publication followed. In those days, the new paperback style of publication was just finding its feet, and neither paperback nor traditional hardcover publishers really thought science fiction worth their trouble. No exception was found for Heinlein, though already the most popular science-fiction writer. These novels eventually appeared in hardcover from small-press publishers run by fans, Beyond This Horizon becoming Heinlein's first book appearance, from Fantasy Press in 1948. These pioneering publishers did not have substantial financial or publicity clout in the marketplace.

By best seller I mean here not how many total copies were sold (including book club and paperback), but whether enough trade hardcovers were sold in a burst to get "Best Seller List" recognition and the attendant publicity that sometimes reaches far beyond the book trade. Later the lists' criteria became more complex, and allegedly more sophisticated.

Three later fine novels by Heinlein have been re-released in their originally intended versions, which are significantly different from their first publications. The restorations are not taken from rough or alternate drafts, but from the manuscripts created by Heinlein to be published. This is thanks to his devoted widow Virginia Heinlein and modern copyright law. The publishing history is fascinating — and tantalizing.

Another novel, Podkayne of Mars (1963) with its alternate endings, is a different sort of concoction.

It is not my intent here to contrast these alternate texts in detail. I do not claim that Heinlein's original versions are ideal, or that his works may not be improved as well as worsened by editing — his own or another's. Heinlein's years-later revisions of "If This Goes On —" and Methuselah's Children strengthened them substantially. Among shorter pieces, "Water Is for Washing" was improved by dropping its concluding symbolism; "Let There Be Light" was tinkered with repeatedly over the years but should have been left alone. The original versions of these antedate the novels below.

"Go in for the senior prizes?"

Robert Heinlein was a risk-taker, both artistically and with his writing career. How ambitious was he, and how confident? By the time he jumped into war-related work in 1942, although at the top of his field in Astounding Science Fiction, that best of the pulp SF magazines was the upper limit for science fiction. After World War II, with the help of his agent Lurton Blassingame, Heinlein broke into the slick magazines with "The Green Hills of Earth" in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. This provided a mass audience with prized substantial payments. Heinlein had lifted the sky above the whole modern science-fiction field.

Even grander horizons beckoned:

... In the meantime, I am collecting notes on (Forgive me!) the Great American Novel. Yup, Lurton, I have fallen ill of the desire to turn out a "literary" job. Specifically, I would like to do a job somewhat like Ayn Rand did in The Fountainhead, but with modern art, especially pictorial art, as my target. It may be a year or two before I feel ready to tackle it, but I am working on it.

Heinlein to Lurton Blassingame, 28 January 1949

Robert A. Heinlein
Grumbles from the Grave
page 94, Chapter 5 (not in the index)

I'd say that Heinlein was very ambitious, and very confident! At other times as documented in Grumbles from the Grave, he writes about risk-taking and its relation to artistry and commercial success. In the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, both his artistry and his career did very well. But —

"I think I see." Cargraves sat up. "But why bother with the competition? After all ... modern rockets can't touch the full-sized commercial jobs. The prizes are offered just to keep up interest in rocketry — it's like the model airplane meets they used to have when I was a kid. But you guys can do better than that — why don't you go in for the senior prizes?" ...

"Why don't you go to the moon — with me?"

Robert A. Heinlein
Rocket Ship Galileo  (1947)


Red Planet

The earliest of the three major restored novels I don't count as a candidate for the bestseller lists. It is Red Planet (1949), Heinlein's third "juvenile" novel for Scribner, a wonderful and widely-loved book. The now-notoriously delicate sensibilities of Scribner editor Alice Dalgliesh required Heinlein to delete harmless details of the sexual nature of Willis the basketball-shaped Martian, a longer discussion about firearms and freedom, and alter lots of points of style and characterization. Heinlein was pushing the envelope, and themes of religion and sex that only are hinted at here, as well as themes of freedom and aliens, are explored much further in the two novels discussed below. In fact, the Martians introduced here form part of the background to Stranger in a Strange Land.

The abridged Scribner edition of Red Planet appeared in 1949; the unabridged novel in 1990 as a Del Rey paperback: look on the cover for a mention that it's the uncut novel, or check the copyright page for the revised printing count beginning in 1990.

"Willis fine!" says the little Martian roundhead, or bouncer. Read Heinlein's complete version.

The Puppet Masters

The next novel, one I believe was a potential early bestseller, The Puppet Masters (1951), was broken and crippled as a published book. Heinlein's manuscript is 100,000 words. Doubleday's edition as published, stripped down by Heinlein to editorial demand, is 75,000 words. Although I always liked The Puppet Masters, it was not one of my top favorites because it read jerkily. Even repeated re-readings into my adulthood teased with aspects I did not understand, yet I couldn't see just what was wrong with the story. It wasn't until I read the much longer version that it all came together. Heinlein's complete version is far more coherent as well as having more vivid and realistic details, and overall is a vastly better novel.

Galaxy announcement for The Puppet MastersI take the word counts here and below from James Gifford's "The New Heinlein Opus List", which is an appendix to his book Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, and also available online. Heinlein discusses editorial changes via colorful letters to his agent Lurton Blassingame, collected in his posthumous Grumbles from the Grave.

In a related misfortune, The Puppet Masters first was serialized in Galaxy magazine, promoted as complete and book-length though abridged even further down to 60,000 words, and additionally subjected to H.L. Gold's typically heavy-handed editing.

The Puppet Masters a potential bestseller? Here's how it might have happened. Around 1950 was the height of the flying-saucer craze in America. Amazing Stories and some other magazines and newspapers were pushing flying saucers for all the market would bear, and beyond. Most science-fiction fans and writers were dubious at best about saucer claims.

But if you wanted to read a novel about flying saucers done right, could it be done at all? Who would you turn to? What writer of stature and capability would dare to try?

Already in mid-1941, Heinlein was generally acclaimed the top science-fiction writer by the time of his Guest of Honor appearance at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver (the Denvention). By 1950, after breaking into both the slick magazines and the juvenile-novel markets, Heinlein was ready and able for another major challenge. He wanted to write a solid and fully adult science fiction novel, and for theme he tackled the flying-saucer scare head on. The result is The Puppet Masters. Even abridged and watered-down, it's a powerful novel of alien invasion and mental control, full of naturalistic detail.

But major publishers were only cautiously dipping their toes into the uncertain space of science fiction. Doubleday's abridged version was published and promoted as part of their new science-fiction line, a standard science-fiction novel without fanfare. No big deal. Since it was by Heinlein after all, reprintings followed, but all labelled and confined within the safe and narrow science-fiction box as it was then perceived.

In some alternate timeline, I envision The Puppet Masters becoming a major bestseller in 1951, greatly boosting science fiction's awareness and acceptance by the general public. This is fifteen years before Stranger in a Strange Land boosted that process in the mid-1960s, and well before the first Star Wars film in 1977 began a major science-fiction boom. But that didn't happen here, not in our timeline. — By the way, I mention an even earlier missed chance for Skylark and Lensman author Edward E. Smith in my review of David Kyle's The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams.

The abridged Doubleday edition of The Puppet Masters appeared in 1951 with a sad book-jacket cover that could not entice anyone who didn't know Heinlein's name already. Galaxy ran a much nicer cover painting, but textually missed the boat by an even wider margin. There's a stolen concept here, the editors valuing the Heinlein byline to appeal to their readers, but contemptuously slighting the Heinlein story itself.

The unabridged novel appeared in 1990 as a Del Rey paperback: look on the cover for a mention that it's the uncut novel, or check the copyright page for the revised printing count beginning in 1990. Read Heinlein's complete version.

Stranger in a Strange Land

The third of these abridged novels, and the second potential breakout novel, is the justly famous Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). But it was a bestseller, you say? No, not to begin with.

Heinlein's manuscript is 220,000 words; Putnam's edition, stripped down by Heinlein "for salability" (as James Gifford puts it), is 160,000 words. This latter is still very long for a science fiction novel at that time. It took several years to gather momentum, begin finding its eventual huge readership.

There's a lot gone missing from the abridged version, a lot of fine detail. But unlike The Puppet Masters, this cutting leaves a far more readable version. The abridged Stranger in a Strange Land after a few years did became a bestseller in paperback. During the publisher-seeking stage Heinlein wrote to his agent in October 1960:

I am aware of the commercial difficulties in this ms. [manuscript], those which you pointed out — but, if it does get published, it might sell lots of copies. (It certainly has no more strikes against its success than did Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Elmer Gantry, or Tropic of Cancer — each at the time it was published.)


Perhaps I will flop at it. I don't know. But such success as I have had has come from being original, not from writing "safe" stuff — in pulps, in movies, in slicks, in juveniles. In pulp SF I moved at once to the top of the field by writing about sociology, sex, politics, and religion at a time (1939) when those subjects were all taboo. Later I cracked the slicks with science fiction ["The Green Hills of Earth" in The Saturday Evening Post; part of the Future History] when it was taken for granted that SF was pulp and nothing but pulp. You will recall that my first juvenile [Rocket Ship Galileo] was considered an experiment by the publisher — and a rather risky one.

From another letter to his agent a few days later:

But, in addition to a double dozen of minor satirical slants, the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.

Robert A. Heinlein
Grumbles from the Grave

The unabridged novel is much longer and substantially better. One of the most important cumulative effects in the complete version is that Jubal Harshaw's character is more subtly delineated. Heinlein's summary in Grumbles from the Grave of the philosophy of religion and sex as treated in the novel is excellent.

The abridged Putnam edition of Stranger in a Strange Land appeared in 1961. It had a good book-jacket painting but not perhaps one that would reach out and grab uninformed bookstore browsers. The unabridged novel appeared in 1991 as an Ace hardcover and later paperback: look on the cover for a mention that it's the uncut novel, or check the copyright page for the revision copyrighted 1991. Read Heinlein's complete version.

Better late than never

If Doubleday in 1951 and Putnam in 1961 had put half as much promotional effort into complete versions of The Puppet Masters and Stranger in a Strange Land as publishers routinely do in promoting trivial trash into flash-in-the-pan hits, I believe each novel had a good chance of becoming a major bestseller at the time. Relatively early on, they could have found, entertained, and even educated a far wider readership. Fortunately Heinlein, and his novels, and his readers, were persistent. In a few years after 1961, word-of-mouth recommendations from reader to reader began to generate tremendous paperback sales for Stranger in a Strange Land, turning it into Heinlein's breakout book and making his name a household word among the general literate public.

There's really no reason that anyone should read the cut versions any more. Read Heinlein's preferred versions — they are much better. Accept no substitutes.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

Geo. E. Rule's analysis for The Heinlein Society:
Stranger vs Stranger:
Comparing Versions of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land

James Gifford provides
story / version lists on his
Robert A. Heinlein site

Robert A. Heinlein at Troynovant

ReFuture at Troynovant
history of science fiction
& progress of fantasy

More controversy:
W.H. Stoddard's review of
Farnham's Freehold



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