Saturday, March 4, 2017

Back story: the man who invented Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys

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The Syndicator: Edward L. Stratemeyer (aka Fred Frisby, Horatio Alger Jr, Captain Ravell Pinkerton, Roy Rockwood, Arthur M. Winfield, Laura Lee Hope, Victor Appleton, Lester Chadwick, Franklin Dixon, Ed Ward, Robert Rollic, Captain Ralph Bonehill, Margaret Penrose, Clarence Young, Carolyn Keene, and James Cody Ferris, et al)

By Lindsay Thompson (for Rare Book Cafe’s March 4, 2017 program)

James Patterson, a 70-year-old former ad man, is the richest man in publishing. His $95 million haul in 2016 made him Forbes’ world’s highest-paid author for the third year in a row; over the last decade he’s earned over $700 million.

Since he retired from advertising and turned to writing full-time in 1996, Patterson has sold over 300 million copies of his books, was the first author to sell a million copies of an e-book, and over forty years has published 147 novels.

114 have made The New York Times bestseller list; 67 got to #1.

One in every seventeen novels sold in America is by James Patterson.

He says he is better at coming up with plots for books than writing all those sentences, so Patterson has used co-writers for years, branching out into young adult and children’s fiction.

But as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Patterson has simply dusted off and updated a production system developed almost 125 years ago by a New Jersey stationer and part-time writer, Edward L. Stratemeyer.

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Formed in 1905, The Stratemeyer Syndicate produced over 1400 volumes in 75 years in thirty-one different series. By 1920- when the US population was ⅔ less than today, Stratemeyer’s Rover Boys- all written by the founder, Edward L. Stratemeyer- had sold six million copies.

A 1926 survey found that, of the top ten favorite books among young adult readers, 98% were Stratemeyer titles, and one series- Tom Swift, launched in 1910- was #1. Stratemeyer books remain in print to this day, and have sold over half a billion copies.

Born to a German immigrant couple in New Jersey in 1862, the last of six kids, Edward Stratemeyer grew up on pulp fiction- the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger, Albert Optic, nd their ilk. He kept a printing press in the basement of his father’s shop, turning out broadsides, posters and the occasional story of his own.

His father thought it a waste of time until 1898, when Stratemeyer sold “Victor Horton’s Idea” to a children’s magazine for $75- the equal of six weeks’ wages for the average workingman. He moved to Newark, set up as a stationer and turned out more stories, dime novels, detective stories, westerns and adventure serials. He published under a raft of pen names to avoid over-saturating his brand.

By 1893 Stratmeyer was an editor at Good News, the magazine that bought his first story. He published his first novel, a Horatio Alger knockoff, in 1894. In 1899, Alger- in poor health- asked Stratmeyer to finish some of his books in progress, offering him half the profit but retaining the copyright. Stratemeyer agreed, and filed away the idea. He also noticed the runaway success of the series his boss at Good News, Gilbert Patten, had launched: Frank Merriwell, America’s wholesome boy hero, whose adventures sold 125 million copies in twenty years.

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Maggie O'Rourke, writing in The New Yorker in 2004, picked up the tale:

Stratemeyer’s timing was superb. The spread of primary education had spawned a host of independent young readers, and juvenile fiction was on the verge of becoming hugely popular. The dime novel, which had emerged in 1860, had created an appetite among children for more exciting fare than Sunday-school moralism. What Stratemeyer brought to this burgeoning market was not literary brilliance; the early Rover Boys books are crudely written at best. But he had two essential gifts: a knack for coming up with ideas, and organizational genius. As Henry Ford was revolutionizing the auto industry, Stratemeyer was revolutionizing the way children’s books were produced. The boy who had played at the printing press had learned how to put his single-mindedness to work for him.

The most daunting obstacle facing publishers at the turn of the century wasn’t finding good stories but figuring out how to package and distribute them. Advertising was relatively uncommon, and, in any case, children didn’t read the newspaper. Salesmen travelled around the country, selling books from publishers’ lists, but this system was highly inefficient.

New printing techniques had made it easier to manufacture good-looking books for less than ever before. Most “quality” hardcover juvenile fiction cost a dollar or a dollar twenty-five, but it was still primarily instructional. The most famous of these was the Rollo series, about a boy who travelled through Europe with his uncle, learning the virtue of honesty. For excitement, people had the Deadwood Dicks and the Lone Star Lizzies, low-end dime novels aimed at working-class men and read on the sly by boys—and some girls—everywhere. (Publishers assumed that girls would happily read boys’ books, but not vice versa.)

In 1906, Stratemeyer had his first big idea. The Rover Boys had sold tens of thousands of copies, but Stratemeyer had hopes for more. He went to a publishing firm with a radical proposal: his new series, “The Motor Boys” (the Rover Boys with more speed), would cost fifty cents but, with its cloth hardbound covers, look like it cost twice as much. The “fifty-center” would bridge the gap between the nineteenth century’s moralistic tradition and the dime novel’s frontier adventures. Because the fifty-center was a hardback, unlike the dime novel, it seemed respectable to parents. And it was within range of a boy’s allowance, or his wheedling skills.

At first, the publishers worried about the scant profit margin—probably three to five cents per book. But Stratemeyer thought that the books would make up in volume for the diminished profit margin per unit. He was right. The Motor Boys series quickly became “the biggest and best selling series for boys ever published,” according to a publisher’s blurb. When Stratemeyer repackaged the Rover Boys series in the same format, it, too, grew into a bona-fide phenomenon, selling more than six million copies by 1920. Years after Stratemeyer’s death, boys were still writing to say things like “I think you write the best books ever. You know how to put that touch in them that gets boys… . I will always try to imitate the Rovers as much as I can.

He published the first of the Rover Boys- three wisecracking brothers who had adventures- in 1900. Each had a preface that thanks readers for buying it, reminding them where the action stopped in the last one, and pitched what would be in the next one. This was, O’Rourke explained,

to test the waters, and, if the set did well, you had immediately generated an audience for the sequels. Sequels to one-off books, in contrast, tended to sell relatively poorly. By the time a fifty-cent series reached ten volumes, it was considered successful; it had captured enough faithful readers to bring in good money for writer and publisher alike.

Stratemeyer started buying stories from magazines, expanded them into books, and pitched them to publishers as potential series. But that was a cumbersome process, and left Stratemeyer with unsold inventory tying up his money.

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It was like building cars by hand. Edward Stratemeyer was not in the way of making Pierce-Arrows. He wanted to build Fords, fast and in quantity. So he built his own assembly line in 1905. Megan O’Rourke recalled his lightbulb moment:

From his days of working at Good News, he was acquainted with the best juvenile writers, and knew that “any one of them could have built up a 70,000-word novel from a comma, if required,” as one such writer put it. By the time the Stratemeyer Syndicate was incorporated, in 1910, he was putting out ten or so juvenile series by a dozen writers under pseudonyms, and had more series in development.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation. Each series was published under a pseudonym that Stratemeyer owned. As Fortune later noted, it was good business for children to become attached to a name, but it would be bad business for that name to leave the syndicate with the ghostwriter.

There were a few missteps in the early years. In 1906, G. Waldo Browne, an enthusiastic contract writer, wrote Stratemeyer that he had completed the first book of the “Young Builders” series that Stratemeyer had commissioned, and excitedly outlined his ideas for forthcoming volumes, including “The Young Mechanics: How They Earned the Money to Build a School House,” “The Young Mill Owners: How They Lifted the Mortgage from the Old Red Mill,” and “The Young Manufacturers: How They Won the Great Financial Battle.” Alas, Browne was informed, he had not quite “hit the nail” with Stratemeyer.

By contrast, one of Stratemeyer’s stars was the writer Howard Garis, who turned out  315 titles while running his own Uncle Wiggly Tales series on the side.

Stratemeyer aimed, initially, for boys between ten and sixteen, mixing security independence, larkiness and danger, and a leavening of the latest gee-whiz technology. When the Boy Scouts took off after 1910 Stratemeyer was there to meet them, and soon scoutmasters were complaining their troops looked askance at learning knots and building fires by rubbing sticks.

Like Wal-Mart decades later with its supplierrs, he soon had his publishers by the tail, demanding more and better illustrations and covers, and grinding out more and more efficiencies to grow the series’s slender profits (two cents a book in the mid-Twenties, each one going into the black after 6200 copies) on volume. He complained endlessly that his publishers took him for granted, and pelted them with acidic letters:

I think “The Fort in the Wilderness” is exceedingly good… . I wish I could say as much for “Dave Porter” but I cannot. To me the pictures are very poor and will do the book more harm than good. Every one of them lacks life and action. The race on the ice is tame and the knock-down blow in the gym simply awful. And what life is there in the automobile scene? I suggested lots of good things—the feast, the “rough house,” the boys on the run-away trolley, the serio-comic initiations, etc., but none were used. Some day when I feel rich I am going to ask you to put in two or three new pictures at my expense.
After the Rover Boys came the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the boy inventor (“Swift by name and swift by nature”), Baseball Joe, Mel Marti, Don Sturdy, the Motor Boys, the Boy Hunters and Outdoor Girls, Buck & Larry, the Dana Girls, Honey Kay, Don Fearless, The Happy Hollisters, Ted Scott, the X-Bar-X Boys, Kay Tracey, the Motion Picture Chums, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. When detective fiction took off in the 1920s, Stratemeyer debuted The Hardy Boys (he hired their first ghost, a Canadian journalist, through a newspaper ad); then, in 1930, Nancy Drew.

The Boy Scouts’ chief librarian hated Stratemeyer’s syndicate, and so did regular librarians reading in buildings rather than in tents. Books  were supposed to educate and improve; Ed Stratemeyer’s just entertained. And he didn’t even write them, any more than Thomas Kinkade did his own paintings decades later.

Sticklers found errors from one title to the next: in 1930 the Hardy Boys were out of Baytown High, by 1932 the were still short of graduation, and they still are today. But, as Megan O’Rourke found,

Stratemeyer’s assembly-line method surely made his series better, not worse. The rapid rate at which the syndicate was producing fiction allowed Stratemeyer to learn from his mistakes more swiftly, making his series more sophisticated than many of the series penned by individual authors. Furthermore, when it came to refining a catchy story, two heads often proved to be better than one.

Stratemeyer realized that the way to move books was to keep them constant. The “manufactured” nature of the series was curiously reassuring to kids, who felt that there was an endless supply of goods they knew and liked coming their way. Children, of course, love repetition, as any parent who’s had to watch “Finding Nemo” ten times knows. But so do adults. The hardest thing about selling what economists call “experience goods”—like books or movies—is persuading people to try something they can’t be sure they’ll like. That’s why a handful of brand-name fiction writers (often writing books with continuing characters) dominate the best-seller lists and the shelves of airport bookstores: in some way they’re a known quantity. As the Stratemeyer Syndicate grew, a snowball effect could be seen: the more books that appeared in any given series, the more children bought them, confident that supply would not run out.

Though collaborative effort doesn’t seem strange to us when it comes to making television shows or movies, even today we resist it when the resulting narrative is bound between hard covers. Yet Stratemeyer’s books really were meant to be simply another form of mass entertainment. His closest peer wasn’t another writer—say, L. Frank Baum—but his near-contemporary Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” movie producer who worked at Universal and M-G-M in the nineteen-twenties and helped pioneer the studio system. Like Stratemeyer, Thalberg devoted obsessive attention to every detail of his products, and believed in staying out of the public eye; his first screen credit was a posthumous one.

Stratmeyer fell ill and died suddenly in 1930, leaving behind two daughters, an invalid widow, and a huge business they didn’t want to give up but didn’t know how to run. So the daughters moved the office from Manhattan closer to home in New Jersey and set about learning how to make books. Edna wrote one Nancy Drew title in 1940; two years later, she married well and became a silent partner.

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Harriet took to the business, and cranked out over two hundred series titles in her 52-year reign, including most of the later Nancy Drews.  She brought in new generations of ghost writers to update the work of the old ones, and reintroduced the series titles (steadily reduced from fourteen in 1935 to nine in 1940 and four by 1980) to new generations of readers. While she insisted on what became an increasingly mockable goody-two-shoesness, Harriet also kept the tech up to date in the rewrites, while weeding out the most out-of-date ethnic and racial stereotypes. The New York Times wrote of her oversight in 1982,

As well as adventures with happy endings, Mrs. Adams insisted that each book contain some educational content. Woven in with the stories are lectures on Ming pottery, rocket manufacture or Nazcan site lines in Peru.

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Trouble came to paradise in 1979. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew TV series, in its third season, hit ratings turbulence. ABC dropped Nancy Drew, and finally let Frank and Joe graduate high school and go to work for the Justice Department as investigators, then canceled the series. Then Harriet Adams got miffed that Grosset & Dunlap, Stratemeyer’s publisher for decades, let the 75th anniversary of the Bobbsey Twins pass uncelebrated. Simon & Schuster, sensing an opening, pounced, a new contract was signed, and a big lawsuit over the rights followed. Simon & Schuster won, and acquired all the rights in 1984.

After Edward Stratemeyer died, Fortune magazine wrote, “As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer." Harriet Stratemeyer Adams died, watching The Wizard of Oz on TV, in 1982. She was 89, and had the draft of a Nancy Drew ghost story at her side.

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