When Edward Stratemeyer was a boy he wanted to make his living writing stories for children, and that’s just what he did. He not only became one of the world’s most prolific writers, but he changed the landscape of the publishing world.
Stratemeyer, born in New Jersey in 1862, grew up reading “rags to riches” novels by Horatio Alger. He began writing his own stories, and even self-published his work using a small printing press he set up in the basement of his father’s tobacco shop. Stratemeyer’s father didn’t approve of his literary ambitions so Edward also worked for his father, but wrote whenever he wasn’t waiting on customers.
In 1888, when he was 26, he sold his first story for $75, which at the time was more than an average month’s wage. In 1893 he went to work for Street & Smith, a publisher of magazines and cheap novels. A few years later he was asked to finish a novel Horatio Alger was too ill to complete. Stratemeyer would write several novels published under Horatio Alger’s name.
He was both a writer and a businessman. Most novelists wrote in longhand until at least the early 1900s, but in 1891 Stratemeyer taught himself to use a typewriter. And he came up with new publishing ideas.
During the 1890s major book publishers printed illustrated hardback novels that sold for $1.25, a price too steep for most families to purchase except as Christmas presents. Low-end publishers, such as Street & Smith, printed paperbacks known as dime or pulp novels, which used cheap wood-pulp paper that yellowed and became brittle with age. There were also mid-priced hardback books, but they were closer in quality to pulp novels than to the offerings of major publishers.
Edward Stratemeyer wanted to create a line of 50 cent hardback novels that rivaled the appearance of $1.25 books. His plan was to create numerous children’s book series that were affordable enough for families to buy volumes throughout the year. Plus, the books’ attractive appearance would make them popular gift choices. Profits would be made from a high volume of sales.
Two publishing firms, including Grosset & Dunlap, agreed to print the numerous book series he created, and he began pounding out novels. Bound to Win, Working Upwards, Minute Boys, and Dave Porter were some of the series that were written entirely by Stratemeyer – either under his own name or under pseudonyms.
But he kept thinking up new book series. Books that would appeal to beginner readers, books about an inventor, and about young folks that rode around in motor cars, and about adolescent girls who did more than attend school and help with household chores. Too many books for even a fast typer to write all on his own. And so the Stratemeyer Syndicate came into being.
Edward Stratemeyer would create a new series, name the characters, then assign them vague physical descriptions and a fictional hometown in an unnamed state. He came up with an author’s pseudonym, decided on the length of the books, and typed out a five to six page synopsis of each adventure. Writers were hired to produce publishable manuscripts for a set fee, and each signed a contract agreeing not to reveal that he or she wrote for the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
In a 1976 American Heritage article Arthur Prager proposed this scenario: “Imagine a starving ex-police reporter, suffering from the grandfather of all hangovers, staggering to his typewriter to begin an episode of Honey Bunch, Her First Day of School.” I can only hope that nothing that incongruous took place, but not all of the Syndicate writers were fans of the series they worked on. For some their sole reason for taking on assignments was to pay bills.
Stratemeyer read over each submitted manuscript, made minor edits on acceptable ones, and sent some back for partial rewrites. Writers whose first attempts didn’t come close to Stratemeyer’s standards were unlikely to be assigned another novel to complete.
Decades after his death stories were told about Edward Stratemeyer being a cruel taskmaster who paid miniscule wages. Since I never worked for the Syndicate I’m no expert on him as an employer, but it is known that many writers created dozens of manuscripts for Stratemeyer, so working conditions must not have been too dire.
His writers didn’t sit around pondering the exact phrase to describe a particular scene, they produced an acceptable novel in about four weeks, and in the early 1900s a payment of $75 would have been a good wage for a month of work. In later decades the price to write a Stratemeyer Syndicate manuscript was always based on the assumption that the work wouldn’t take up much of the writer’s time.
From the 1890s up to his death in 1930 Edward Stratemeyer created over 60 children’s book series. Some of his most popular were Rover Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Motor Boys, Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, Honey Bunch, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. Two of the last series he created achieved the Grand Slam in popularity – Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
In his early series some plots centered around actual events – such as World War I – that established the stories as taking place in a specific time period, and with each book the characters grew older until they “aged out” of their role as a hero or heroine of children’s books.
In later series the characters lived in what I’ll call a Book Series Time Bubble, where current events were never mentioned and characters had decades of adventures without growing a day older. That way individual titles could stay in print long enough for a second generation of readers to buy the book and imagine that the plot was unfolding in the present time period.
After Edward Stratemeyer’s death his two daughters took over the Syndicate. Daughter Edna oversaw business matters until she married, but Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was in charge of her father’s legacy for 52 years – from 1930 until her death in 1982.
During the 1930s the financial depression cut into book sales just as other publishing companies started printing competing book series about young people solving mysteries. Many of the older Stratemeyer series went out of print, and fees to writers were reduced.
During daughter Harriet’s management of the Syndicate a few new series were introduced, and three of them had more than 30 titles published. Dana Girls began in 1934, and during the 1950s Happy Hollisters and Tom Swift, Jr. became popular.
In the 1950s three of the Syndicate’s perennial favorites – Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew – received rewrite makeovers. The books were shortened, and outdated belongings and attitudes were changed. Plus the character of Nancy Drew aged from 16 to 18 to make her independent lifestyle more plausible.
For many years Grosset & Dunlap had published all of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books, but in 1979 Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had a falling out with them. The publisher had insisted on the earlier rewrites, and their ideas on how the Syndicate should be run often differed from Harriet’s vision. She switched publishers and began working with Simon & Schuster. But Grosset & Dunlap sued over “breach of contract, copyright infringement, and unfair competition.”
The Stratemeyer Syndicate’s secretive world of author pseudonyms and ghost writers was dragged into court over who really owned what. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had been claiming she’d written all Nancy Drew books, but hired writers testified under oath, and brought documents proving Harriet’s claims were false.
When the dust settled the court decided that Grosset & Dunlap had the right to continue publishing all books in print up through 1979, but they could not update them, or publish any new books using characters created by the Syndicate. And a different publisher would be free to bring out new book titles.
When Harriet Stratemeyer Adams died in 1982 her heirs sold the Syndicate to Simon & Schuster, who began publishing new versions of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew adventures. In one of the series-within-a-series Joe and Frank Hardy worked for a government agency and carried guns. In The Nancy Drew Files romance was added to the plots, and the series Nancy Drew on Campus had the heroine attending college.
Grosset & Dunlap continued to publish pre-1980 books, and many consider these to be the only “real” Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. The company has been purchased by Penguin Random House, and Penguin Books still publish a selection of the older volumes in both print and audio versions. (They are also keeping a few of the Bobbsey Twins books in print.)
The Stratemeyer Syndicate, with dozens of book series, is no more, and the never-ending new versions of the last of Edward Stratemeyer’s creations may seem far removed from what he had envisioned. But Mr. Stratemeyer had come up with the idea of publishing attractive low-cost books that would appeal to young people – and he wanted to make money. Books featuring makeovers of Frank Hardy, Joe Hardy, and Nancy Drew continue to entertain and earn profits, and I suspect that would meet with Edward Stratemeyer’s approval.