Lancer or Del Rey?

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Gary Romeo, a longtime champion of L. Sprague de Camp and a frequent contributor to The Cimmerian, took a bit of umbrage at the last post’s dismissal of the de Camp/Carter pastiches. He sends in the following rebuttal:

Conan the Warrior is not really a good example of a de Camp/Carter pastiche, as it contains all Howard stories: “Red Nails,” “Jewels of Gwahlur,” and “Beyond the Black River.” No doubt old books that feature stories readily available in new volumes will lose value, but I doubt the Karl Edward Wagner edited Berkley Books (without the Ken Kelley foldouts) are doing much better on e-Bay. Although I do believe sellers than sell for 1 cent usually jack up mailing costs to still make a profit, so the sale of the book with mailing cost was probably $3-$4. Not so bad for a twenty-five-year-old, cheaply made paperback.

I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that since the de Camp/Carter books (Conan the Buccaneer, Conan of the Isles, etc.) are not available in new editions they might have held their value if not for the Law of Supply and Demand. It is well known that the de Camp-edited Lancer/Ace Conan series sold in the millions, but today there are far too few devotee Conan fans to make such an enormous supply of used books scarce. The Del Rey series appears to be doing well enough, but it is nowhere near the success of the de Camp edited series. By your reasoning the big question is not “who care[s] about getting the de Camp/Carter pastiches?” but “who cares about the new Del Reys?” What is it, maybe less than a 10th of the people who cared about the Lancer/Ace series?

For the record, in the last few weeks Conan the Buccaneer has also sold at auction for a mere 1 cent, and failed to sell when the minimum bid on another copy was 99 cents. Too rich for most speculators, apparently. A copy did sell for a BUY IT NOW price of $1.99, but the whole point of BUY IT NOW is to pay more than something’s worth in order to get it without the hassle of an auction. Conan of the Isles did a bit better, selling a single copy at $2.54 after two bids, while numerous other copies went unsold at any price. For some of those the minimum starting bid was ridiculous: $5, $7. Another copy priced at a minimum bid of 99 cents also failed to sell.

Meanwhile, what about the Berkleys? They typically sell from $1-$3 per paperback copy, while one set of three hardbacks went for over $20. At the paperback level, the price difference between them and the Lancer/Ace Conans is negligible. The Berkley’s have always suffered from the same problem that the Grants did, namely they weren’t complete. Now that a textually restored complete set is available, they too will go the way of the dodo and the Baens, with the Wagner intros perhaps being pulled and preserved in some critical anthology. So will the Grants, and so will the Gnomes (although the Gnomes will maintain collectability due to their being the first complete set of Conan, more or less, in hardback. But people won’t be seeking them out to read, but only to collect).

Unlike many of my Howardian compatriots, I do think Gary has a point about the old Lancers selling better back then. There was something magical going on there. Few would dare argue, for instance, that any Conan art done in the four decades since even comes close to approaching the genius at play in those Frazetta covers. If this new Del Rey set ever gets published in mass market with no modern illos but with the Frazetta paintings used as covers and interior plates, look out! — it would make a big difference, I think.

To give de Camp his due, I also remember the palpable excitement I felt when discovering the Ace Conans in the early 1980s as a ten-year-old. Specifically, I marveled at and reveled in the “saga” that had been assembled, the sense of history and continuity that echoed what I had earlier felt in The Lord of the Rings. At the time, I liked those textual bridges linking the stories together, I loved the map, and while I did notice a qualitative difference between the Howard tales and the filler, it didn’t bother my teenage sense of taste overmuch. As Gary so often points out, that entire vibe was created with great originality and skill by de Camp — it was his brainchild, and it worked.

Gary’s probably right: re-releasing the entire “saga” today with those Frazetta covers (perhaps with the non-Frazetta books merged into the others, or with the old Ken Kelly Berkley covers substituting for the terrible Duillo/Vallejo ones), and with new intros to give the whole works a “bringing back the classics” feel, would likely sell very well, much better than the Del Reys. That series achieved a power that was far greater than the sum of its parts, and while hardcore Howard fans generally can’t bring themselves to dive back into the Lancers and recapture that magical thrill, a new generation of Conan fans and nostalgic old-timers — the guys who adore the films and the comics, for instance, or modern RPG players — would eat it up.

So will it ever happen? I don’t think so, not from a major publisher anyway. Probably the best that can be done is to strike a deal to repackage the de Camp/Carter stories into a separate set of their own, but of course that won’t achieve the effect Gary is pining for. De Camp/Carter without Howard attached isn’t magical at all to the vast majority of fans.

My dream Conan set would be three big meaty hardcovers, text in a large readable font, each with a Frazetta painting on the cover and a second one on the back cover, a very large, redrawn, full-color fold-out map glued onto the boards with little lines and markers showing Conan’s travels, and the stories presented in the order of Conan’s life with no fragments or editorial distractions of any kind aside from a short, evocative introduction — written by ME, ha ha ha. I’ll probably make a single set like that for myself someday just to have around the house and on the shelf.