Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Stratemeyer Syndicate

My youngest daughter recently discovered Nancy Drew - specifically, the "Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew" series, a re-launch of the Nancy Drew Notebooks series, both of which are aimed at a younger set (Nancy is 8 in these books). I noticed that the author was Carolyn Keene, just as in the original series, and I was impressed that Ms. Keene was still writing new books after all these years. So I decided to check her out, figuring it must be a Dear Abby sort of thing, with the new books being done by Carolyn Keene Jr or something like that.

If only...

It turns out Carolyn Keene isn't a person, and never was. It's a pseudonym used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate (I'm not making that name up). Mr. Stratemeyer died in 1930, after launching a mechanical book writing empire which produced Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, among many, many others. And according to Wikipedia, the Syndicate hid its existence until 1980. Yikes!

The books were written according to a strict formula, and the ghostwriters were paid $125-250 for each manuscript, signing away all authorship rights to future royalties, etc.

It makes me want to not let her read these books. I would much rather pay money for a book written by a real person than by a committee. I want the author to be identified and paid royalties. I'm not so interested in books pumped out by a secretive syndicate that treated authors like cogs in a wheel. Maybe it's because I write kid's books. Maybe it's because I have friends who write kids books. Maybe it's because the word "Syndicate" sounds evil. But something about this whole Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys thing just doesn't seem right...


Mark said...

Wow! This gives me visions of a secret island bunker, full of henchmen in lab coats and/or paramilitary uniforms all clicking away at computer screens, while a giant conveyor belt churns out series after series of nearly identical books.

Perhaps with a little gray man as the leader?


Kim said...

You two crack me up.

I have the feeling that there are many authors out there who have really enjoyed being a part of the ND/HB phenomenon. Obviously they will have a different writing experience than you have with the Boomer Sisters, but that's okay. I wouldn't lose too much sleep over it. They are fun books that kids have been loving for quite a long time, so Mr. Stratemeyer had a plan that worked, don't you think?

Kim said...

BTW, this is unrelated, but in the book Animals in Translation, the author touches on some stuff related to simplicity that I think you might appreciate.

Mark said...

Oh no! It looks like the brainwashing has already set in on our sister! (must have been all those Bobsey Twins books she read as a kid)


Kim said...











keeline said...

You seem to have some misconceptions about the word "syndicate" and the Stratemeyer Syndicate in particular.

In 1900, as today, a "syndicate" was an organization to produce news stories and have them published in multiple newspapers. Newspaper comic strips are routinely syndicated.

You attach a sinister definition of "syndicate" to these books which is connected with "crime syndicates". Although the practice probably existed earlier, this connotation was in common usage in the 1930s and later connected with organized crime groups.

Wikipedia is wrong about the Stratemeyer Syndicate on a number of points. This is why it is always dangerous to use it as a sole source of information.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate did not hide its existence. References to it in sources available to the general public can be found as early as the 1910s. There were some in-depth articles in the 1930s which even mentioned Nancy Drew (eg Fortune Apr 1934 article "For It Was Indeed He").

The Stratemeyer Syndicate did hire ghostwriters to expand their outlines into book-length manuscripts. For this they were paid a one-time fee for their efforts in this "work for hire."

You mention some specific dollar figures which were used during certain time periods. However, these sums changed over time according to the conditions of the book market and general inflation.

If a story was worth $150 to the Syndicate in 1927 (the year the Hardy Boys started) that sum would be worth $1,743.34 in 2007 dollars.

In the 1980s the Stratemeyer Syndicate was paying as much as $5,000 for some stories.

To cite $125-$250 for complete rights to a story sounds unfair until you bring in a historical and economic context.

The ghostwriters who worked for the Syndicate were often journalists who wrote for the Syndicate in their spare time. The amount received for a story was equivalent to about two months' wages as a newspaper reporter.

It was also larger than many writers received for book sales on royalty. Recall that in the 1920s the series books sold for about 50c retail but the royalty for them was about 2c or 2.5c per copy.

Many of the ghostwriters wrote on their own as well (eg Mildred A. Wirt Benson for Nancy Drew and Leslie McFarlane for the Hardy Boys). Sometimes they sold their own stories outright to publishers for sums which were similar to what the Syndicate paid. Other times they opted for royalty. In many cases the royalty payments were a tiny fraction of the amounts for outright payment. Book sales for any given title were much smaller than they are today.

One difference between the Syndicate's and a publisher's outright payment for a story was that the Syndicate paid in full when an acceptable story was turned in. The publisher did not pay until the book was published. When royalty payments were made, they were 6 months or a year after the book was published.

The 1980 date referred to in Wikipedia concerns a lawsuit between two of the Syndicate's publishers (Grosset & Dunlap vs. Simon & Schuster) over which should have the right to publish the popular Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Edward's eldest daughter, died in 1982. He ran the Syndicate for some 25 years (1905-1930) but she guided it (initially with her sister Edna from 1930-1942) through periods of the Great Depression, World War II, and the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Through out this half century she managed to keep the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew successful stories which are still worth reading today.

After her death, the remaining partners decided to sell the Syndicate and the rights which remained in the books to Simon & Schuster. That publisher produces the books today.

You might decide that having authors get a flat fee of payment for their work is a standard for whether your daughter should read. However, how many other books are produced by book packagers or are by authors who get only a single payment from a publisher? What is left? You'll have your hands busy researching the contracts between authors and publishers.

The concept of a literary syndicate was fairly new when Stratemeyer created his but it is quite normal in publishing circles today.

James Keeline
Stratemeyer Syndicate on

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Nancy Drew:Boomer Sisters::General Mills:Local Farmer's Market