“It must be remembered that we live in an entirely new world. Two hundred years ago, stories of this kind were not possible. Science, through its various branches of mechanics, electricity, astronomy, etc., enters so intimately into all our lives today…”
—From the introduction to the first edition of Amazing Stories, April 1926.
Pulp magazines were the American version of the British Penny Dreadful. Printed on cheap wood pulp paper, they were cheap to make and distribute. Other magazines—printed on higher quality papers that included rag cloth—were still the standard, though wood only papers were gradually becoming more accepted.
The audience for these cheap works was a growing middle class made up of partially educated workers and children. These magazines covered every genre of fiction and non-fiction. They were how-to guides and lurid tales of sex and fantasy. They were semi-literary short stories and gangster stories. The biggest ones were detective novels and westerns.
This crowded market was made possible by a system of distribution that no longer exists today, the American News Company. Following the American Civil War the ANC purchased many huge warehouses located near train stations all across the country for cheap. These warehouses had been used for military purposes, but now their excellent location provided easy access to America’s growing railroad network.
Their model was simple: for a fee, anyone could ship any printed product to any of their branches. Between World War I and World War II they had more than 300 of these distribution points in North America. This allowed any independent publisher access to the market in every major metropolitan area without having to develop their own distribution system. Independent publishers were able to survive, even thrive.
They were Amazon one hundred and fifty years before Amazon was. This lasted until profiteers saw the value of selling off real-estate in all those large cities. With the distribution network dismantled, the independent publishing market crumbled.
In the meantime, at the height of the pulp magazine phenomenon, Hugo Gernsback started publishing how-to magazines in various scientific fields like electronics. And then he started publishing serialized fiction in those magazines. Finally, he started publishing magazines filled completely with fiction. The new kind of fiction that he mentioned in the quote above. The new kind of fiction that more literary minded critics like Brian Aldiss would dismiss as gadgeteer fiction.
With the publication of the first edition of Amazing Stories, Gernsback did something incredible, something that would change the course of science fiction and all of popular culture he created the fan community. How did he do it?
There it is. He asked that readers write in and comment on the stories. He asked that readers respond to the authors and the publishers and let them know where they got the science right, and where they got it wrong. It was a place where they could tell their own fun and interesting stories and opine on which of the published ones would have been better left on the cutting-room floor.
Overnight the genre became an interactive medium. There were—Interspersed between advertisements for nose straighteners and electronic hobby kits—letters to the editor from fans asking questions about the stories, arguing arcane points, and suggesting improvements. Gernsback published their names and addresses, soon leading to organized groups all around the country. These were the first fan groups.
Other interesting things happened. The letter-writers began to argue with each other about the proper ways stories should be told, and Gernsback published those letters. The March 1939 issue of Amazing Stories contained a letter to the editor from L. Sprague De Camp along with the first published work of a 19-year-old Isaac Asimov, Marooned Off Vesta, a 6400 word short story for which he was paid one cent per word.
And so it was that later, when a name was chosen for the awards for best works in the Science Fiction genre as chosen by the readers, the Hugo was a natural fit. After all, he started the whole ball rolling.