Cover of the July 15, 1919 issue; artwork by
In the late 19th century popular magazines typically did not print fiction to the exclusion of other content; they would include non-fiction articles and poetry as well. In October 1896, the Frank A. Munsey company's Argosy magazine was the first to switch to printing only fiction, and in December of that year it switched to using cheap wood-pulp paper. This is now regarded by magazine historians as having been the start of the pulp magazine era. For twenty years pulp magazines were successful without restricting their fiction content to any specific genre, but in 1915 the influential magazine publisher Street & Smith began to issue titles that focused on a particular niche, such as Detective Story Magazine and Western Story Magazine, thus pioneering the specialized and single-genre pulps. In the midst of these changes, some time in 1918, Street & Smith's circulation manager, Henry Ralston, decided to launch a new magazine to publish "different" stories: "different" meant stories that were unusual or unclassifiable in some way, which in most cases meant that they included either fantasy or science fiction elements.[note 1] In The Fiction Factory, Quentin Reynolds' history of Street & Smith, Reynolds asserts that the magazine was the brainchild of Ormond G. Smith, one of the publishers, but pulp historian Will Murray regards this as unlikely to be the full story, given that Reynolds' book was written almost forty years later and was an "approved" history. Murray asserts that Ralston was certainly involved in the creation of The Thrill Book. Walter Adolphe Roberts, the editor of Street & Smith's Ainslee's Magazine, told a friend of his, Harold Hersey, that Ralston was looking for an editor for a new magazine. Hersey had sold some writing to the pulps but his editorial experience was limited to no more than a year's work on several little magazines. He met with Ralston in early 1919 and was immediately hired on the basis of the interview. It is possible that Eugene A. Clancy, the editor of Street & Smith's The Popular Magazine, was originally intended to be the editor of The Thrill Book, but was unable to take on the additional work, though Clancy did assist Hersey on some issues of The Thrill Book. Bringing Hersey on as editor was unfortunate; historians of the field describe Hersey as lacking talent both as a writer and an editor.
The first issue of The Thrill Book was dated March 1, 1919, and was published in a format similar to that of a dime novel. The choice of format was probably a mistake, as it was associated in the minds of the buying public with low-quality fiction aimed at readers with very low standards. The plan to publish twice a month indicated that Street & Smith were confident that the new magazine would be successful.
With the ninth issue, dated July 1, 1919, Hersey was replaced by Ronald Oliphant. The reason he was replaced is not clear, though several explanations have been suggested. Murray Leinster claimed that Hersey was fired for publishing too much of his own fiction and poetry in the magazine; according to Leinster, some of the poetry may have actually been written by Hersey's mother rather than by Hersey himself. Pulp historian Richard Bleiler regards this theory as unlikely, since although up to eighteen of the twenty-five short poems in the first eight issues of the magazine may have been by Hersey, only two stories in those issues are definitely by him, and there are only four other stories which may have been Hersey's work published under a pseudonym. Bleiler suggests that at most Street & Smith would have reprimanded Hersey, and that the real reason for his dismissal is more likely to be that Street & Smith were dissatisfied with The Thrill Book under his editorship. Bleiler also suggests that Hersey may have started the rumor that he was let go for buying too much of his own material, as this would have been less harmful to his reputation than a dismissal for failure. Hersey himself claimed that he was not fired, but quit: "I wasn't fired, but I should have been ... I saw the 'handwriting on the wall' ahead of time. I asked to be relieved of my duties ... and my request was promptly accepted!"
At the same time that Oliphant was appointed editor, the layout of the magazine was changed to that of a standard pulp. At 160 pages, this offered readers much better value for money than the 48-page dime novel format of the first eight issues, even with a price increase from 10 to 15 cents. A question and answer department, "Cross-Trails", was begun, in imitation of a similar feature in Adventure, the most successful pulp magazine of the day, and the format change may also have been done to increase the resemblance of the two magazines, along with a change to the appearance of The Thrill Book's contents page to resemble that of Adventure.
Street & Smith cancelled the magazine after the sixteenth issue, dated October 15. A printers' strike has often been suggested as the reason, though Hersey denied it in his reminiscences, and it is clear that poor sales were at least part of the reason for the cancellation. Stories were still being acquired for the magazine by Street & Smith in November, and since the final issue would have appeared on newsstands some time in September, this implies that the magazine went on hiatus (possibly because of the printers' strike) with the expectation of returning, perhaps on a less frequent schedule. A note in Street & Smith's files records the cancellation date as December 1, 1919, which may indicate the point at which the delay caused by the strike convinced Street & Smith to finally kill the magazine.