Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Stratemeyer Syndicate

Trick question: True or false--Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon are one and the same person.

Carolyn Keene, you may recall, is the creator/author of the Nancy Drew series. Franklin W. Dixon holds that honor for The Hardy Boys.

The answer is: it's a trick question. Both Carolyn Keen and Franklin W. Dixon are pseudonyms, and they both belong to one of the most successful book packaging operations in publishing history.

A book packager is a company that produces books more-or-less on demand for publishers. The practice continues into the 21st century. The idea is that the company creates the book to meet the specifications of a given contract. For example, a publisher wants to put out a series of guides to the great outdoors or to the great cities of Europe. It might approach an organization with some credibility in the field (the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy, for example). The organization will agree to lend their name to the project, but they won't necessarily have the staff to compile the book. So a packager is contracted to do the actual work. This company does the research, writes the text, secures rights to the photos, etc. and pretty much puts it together for an agreed-upon fee. Once the book is published, the packager is pretty much done. Often it doesn't receive credit or even an acknowledgement.

In many respects, it isn't all that different from a ghost writer who will produce a book that is credited to another individual (wait...you don't think that John F. Kennedy actually wrote Profiles in Courage, do you?)

Anyway, Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon weren't real people. They were pseudonyms owned by The Stratemeyer Syndicate. It got its start in 1899 when Edward Stratemeyer launched a series of juvenile fiction called The Rover Boys. He wrote the books himself under the pseudonym of Arthur M. Winfield. (Stratemeyer was comfortable with pseudonyms; he had written a number of the Horatio Alger novels using that pseudonym.)

The first series was a hit, so he expanded into a second series called The Bobbsey Twins, written under the name of Laura Lee Hope. This, too, proved popular and Stratemeyer knew he was on to something.

He also knew that he wouldn't be able to crank them out fast enough all by his lonesome. So he got some help by hiring ghost writers. These men and women would be paid a fee to produce books in the series according to a set of rules (and names) dictated by Stratemeyer.

One of the rules was that Stratemeyer would devise the titles and the basic plot that the writers would flesh out. Another was that the writers were sworn to secrecy. No one was to know that there was no one Carolyn Keene or Franklin W. Dixon. In fact, a series of writers (usually moonlighting newspaper reporters) wrote under each name. Fan mail directed to the authors in care of the publisher was forwarded, and answering letters were sent by either "the assistant to" or "the secretary of" the particular author. And no one outside a small circle knew.

The number of series in the Stratemeyer Syndicate continued to expand. In addition to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, there were The Radio Boys, Ted Scott Flying Stories, Tom Swift (actually, Tom Swift, Tom Swift, Jr. and Tom Swift III each had his own series), The Happy Hollisters...more than 40 series in all.

Mr. Stratemeyer died in 1930, but his Syndicate continued and was operated by his daughter, Harriet. She continued to introduce new series and, in the 1950s, she began to update the earlier books. Times were changing and teenagers listening to Elvis weren't really all that taken by reading about the exploits of air mail pilots (especially when they were written in the present tense). There was also the issue of awakening consciousness, and many of the books were no longer quite correct in their characterizations of various ethnic groups. The term "politically correct" hadn't yet been coined, but if it had it certainly would not have applied to the stereotypes and slurs that the books contained.

Harriet continued to update the series and in the 1970s, she decided to start producing the books in paperback. Well, the traditional publisher, Grosset & Dunlap was less than enthusiastic (they didn't do paperbacks) and they sued. For more than 70 years the secret had been kept (that's far longer than many of the secrets of World War II when you stop to think about it), but the law suit brought it all out into the open.

The secret was out! There was no one Carolyn Keene. There was no one Franklin W. Dixon. But there was one Stratemeyer Syndicate. And since they won the suit, there would now be modern paperbacks. They were enough like the original to please the parents (who actually bought the books) but realistic enough in contemporary references (no more roadsters, for example) to satisfy the young teens who would read them.

With Harriet's death in 1982, Simon & Schuster bought the Syndicate and continues to publish several of the series.

So, if you answered "yes" to our original question ("True or false--Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon are one and the same person."), you were correct. It is, indeed, both true and false.


  1. Jim,

    This is an interesting post and you have most of the information correct. However, there are some details which don't line up with the research into the Stratemeyer Syndicate I have done for the past 20 years (http://www.Keeline.com/articles http://www.Stratemeyer.org)

    "it got its start in 1899"--The Stratemeyer Syndicate was begun in 1905. Edward was involved in purchasing manuscripts or book rights for serials which he edited for book publication. He wrote the entire Rover Boys series himself.

    "Arthur M. Winfield"--Although used on the 11 Alger "completions", this name was used much earlier. There are brief poems under this name and serialized stories for periodicals which were as much as a decade earlier. An early draft of his first long professional story, "Victor Horton's Idea", had the Winfield name but was published under his own name.

    "second series"--Although the Bobbsey Twins are perhaps the second series known today, it was far from the second series Edward was working on. He had a number of books in series under his own name and typewriter (ie Bound to Succeed, Ship and Shore, Bound to Win, Minute Boys, Old Glory, Flag of Freedom, etc.) plus others.

    He personally wrote the first Bobbsey Twins volume (others were ghostwritten from his outlines) for publication in 1904. This was just before he formally organized the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

    The first two series volumes produced under the new method were the initial Motor Boys volume and the first Ralph of the Railroad book. These were ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis and Weldon J. Cobb. I think the letter to Cobb went out first.

    "sworn to secrecy"--This is a common myth so it's not surprising that you have run into it. None of the releases signed during his lifetime had any specific mention of secrecy. He told some writers that they could tell publishers they were doing work for him. However, some ghostwriters went too far and made broad claims.

    One interesting example along this line is St. George Rathborne. Stratemeyer became concerned that if readers sensed that one person was behind one pen name that they would infer that the same person was behind all of the books using that name.

    Even for his own books, he tried to discourage attaching his own name to the Arthur M. Winfield and Captain Ralph Bonehill books. The whole point of using pen names was to allow more books to be sold in a given year. It seems that he considered using the names for the Syndicate by having ghostwriters work under some of them.

    "more than 40 series in all"--Much more. If one counts only the Syndicate (not personal) series produced during his lifetime, the number is about 86. The number is larger still when the Syndicate series started after his death are included.

    "continued and was operated by his daughter, Harriet"--Edward had two daughters: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (1892-1982) and Edna Camilla Stratemeyer Squier (1895-1974). The ownership of the Syndicate passed to Edward's wife, Magdalene, but even before he died he knew that she was not in a position to execute the estate and likely no thought was given to anyone in the family continuing his unique business.

    Harriet and Edna were executrixes of the estate. Initially they sought to sell the Syndicate, perhaps to the Garis or Duffield family or even a young man from Missouri. The publishers wanted more titles in the established series so they could not abandon the company.

    While these decisions were being made, the office was run by Edward's assistant of 15 years, Harriet Otis Smith. She stayed on until the fall of 1930 when the sisters decided that they would indeed continue the company together and move the offices from Manhattan to East Orange, NJ, near where they lived.

    The sisters worked together for a dozen years before Edna moved to Florida with her husband and daughter. At that point she became an inactive partner and the sisters corresponded about major decisions. Harriet continued to run the company and began writing some of the stories (ie Bobbsey Twins) after Edna left in 1942. Edna had written one of the Kay Tracey volumes published in 1940.

    Harriet is an impressive figure for running a major media company with extensive market reach for more than a half century at a time when women were not especially well accepted in such a leadership role.

    "she decided to start producing the books in paperback"--This is not the crux of the problem. Around 1929 Edward entered into a contract with G&D to lower his royalty rate from 2.5c for a 50c book (5%) down to about 2c per copy (4%) at least for a certain number of books which needed to be sold to pay for the production of the book.

    This rate was retained for the entire time that G&D issued Syndicate books. By the 1960s, the sales after the Baby Boom era were declining. The sales per volume were dropping. However, with larger numbers of volumes and higher retail prices, the royalty checks were larger but not if you account for inflation. Harriet noticed this and tried to get G&D to renegotiate a contract which would grant a higher royalty rate. G&D had no interest in this and evaded her almost annual inquiries on the matter.

    "they didn't do paperbacks"--This is not true. There were numerous G&D paperbacks published under the Tempo imprint from this period and earlier, including some non-Syndicate series books like Connie Blair and Judy Bolton.

    Harriet wanted better royalty terms and Simon & Schuster had been making overtures for a while. When the Bobbsey Twins 75th anniversary in 1979 came and went without fanfare from G&D, she asked what they had planned for Nancy Drew's 50th in 1980. When it appeared that nothing had been planned, she sent the new titles in the series to S&S. They immediately produced an anniversary set of the first three Bobbsey Twins volumes and planned an elaborate gala for Nancy Drew the next year.

    G&D felt that the Syndicate taking these series to S&S was a breach of contract so that was the basis for the lawsuit. Ultimately, the judge decided that the Syndicate could use any publisher they wanted for future volumes (in paper or hardcover) but G&D could continue to issue the titles they had to that point in hardcover only since the contracts related to that format.

    The early S&S books were issued both in HB and PB but the PBs are mostly seen because the sales of the HBs were fewer and mainly went to libraries--at least those libraries who would buy them.

    "please the parents"--The rewrites occurred for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest, but little known, was the change in the printing methods from copper printing plates to photo offset. The old method was expensive to make and store and could be damaged. The new method used plastic sheets and saved money all around. However, it cost about the same to issue a new story with the method as it did to retype an old one.

    The Syndicate had already discovered what occurs when a publisher failed to renew a copyright as was the case for the first three Bobbsey Twins. When the copyright expired around 1935, almost a dozen publishers (eg Saalfield, Mary Perks, Goldsmith, etc.) issued their own editions and didn't pay a penny to the Syndicate. By issuing new stories under the old titles, they could extend the life of them under the copyright laws.

    There was definitely some interest to remove stereotypes but old attitudes were replaced much the same way that old technology was replaced. In the Bobbsey Twins, references to magic lantern shows did not have much connection for children of the 1950s, for example.

    Parents generally did not realize that there was any difference in the books. To them, buying a copy of the Bungalow Mystery in 1960 meant they were giving their daughter the same story they remembered. However, the story had been rewritten and had little resemblance to the original.

    Despite the obviously dated attitudes, the early "original text" editions also had richer and more descriptive language. They had longer and more complex plots in the 25 chapters and 214 pages vs 20 and 180.

    "With Harriet's death in 1982"--The Syndicate continued to run for three more years after Harriet died in March 1982. The partners in the Syndicate decided to sell to Simon & Schuster in 1985.

    James D. Keeline

  2. I stand corrected on a number of points.

    I also stand flattered that one of Mr. Keeline's reputation would take the time to (1) read the post in the first place and (2) correct and expand upon what I had written.

    Thank you, sir.

  3. Many of these series were written by Howard Garis and his wife Lilian. Garis was the creator of my favorite Uncle Wiggily stories that my parents first read daily in the Newark News, beginning in 1912 and going on for years (50 maybe?), then shared with us and I still share with first and second graders sometimes.

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