October 4, 2010

Birth of Stratemeyer

Edward Stratemeyer was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on October 4, 1862. Though his major successes would come in the 20th century with the creation of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, he started writing as a hobby, distributing short stories to friends.

The first story which earned him any money was "Victor Horton's Idea" (1889), under the name Arthur Winfield. He sent the story off to a children's newspaper in Philadelphia and was happy to receive a check for $75 shortly after (six times his weekly salary). He continued writing, churning out story after story, often under various pseudonyms. His first book was Richard Dare's Venture (1894), and he continually published through the end of the century, with The Rover Boys in 1899.

After the turn of the century, he formed the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate. Under that banner, he produced series after series of works using ghost writers. Each writer was paid a flat rate for their work but Stratemeyer retained all copyright. Because of the anonymity of all these writers, there has been some confusion in determining how much work is really Stratemeyer's.

The theme of his earliest works often had something to do with sudden success. As one scholar noted, Stratemeyer had stumbled upon a formula that would come to define juvenile fiction. He also followed popular interest: airplanes, cars, radios, movies, the North Pole, miners in the Alaskan frontier, and even a cameo by Thomas Edison. These adventures implied instant rags-to-riches stories were possible — if not, likely.

*For further reading, see The Essential Edward Stratemeyer Collection or the biography Edward Stratemeyer: Creator of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew by Brenda Lange.


  1. "Victor Horton's Idea" was published in 5 installments in November 1889, not 1888. He was not "surprised" to receive a check for this since he negotiated with the publisher, James Elverson, for the payment rate for the story in late February 1889.

    I don't think anyone knows his weekly salary at the time so this is someone's guess--yours or one of your source's.

    "Richard Dare's Venture" was a periodical serial for a "story paper" (Argosy) first in 1891 and later published as a book (1894) so it just happened to be his first book along with a couple other story paper serials so issued in 1894-5. He did not write specifically for books for a few more years (1898).

    Edward Stratemeyer had 160 of the stories he personally wrote which were published as books. Between 1905 and 1985 the Stratemeyer Syndicate produced some 1,300 series books in addition to his own productions. Many lists carelessly combine books like the Rover Boys (a personal writing effort) with the Syndicate books. This is inappropriate since the methods were different.

    The ghostwriters were paid well for their work. Rates were about equivalent for two months' work as a newspaper reporter (the most common day job for a ghostwriter) which is not bad for four weeks' work in one's spare time. The ghostwriters were satisfied with the arrangement. Testament to this is how many years (sometimes 30+) and books (up to 315) that some ghostwriters wrote for the Syndicate.

    Despite many modern claims, there was not a "secrecy clause" in these releases. They were a handful of sentences that simply transferred rights for the story to the Syndicate. The closest is a sentence that indicates that the ghost may not use the Syndicate-owned pen names on their own. Ghosts were allowed to tell publishers that they had written for Stratemeyer but discouraged from providing too many details because multiple people were often involved in a given series or sometimes a single book. It would not be well for the public to think that every "Victor Appleton" story was a Howard Garis production when others had done work under that name.

    Plus, this is no different than a software writer being paid a salary or piece work rate that leaves rights for the work with the employer.

    Publishers also paid outright for stories. The difference was that they delayed payment for months until publication. If an author did a royalty arrangement, the delay could be much longer since statements were issued only twice a year by a publisher. Stratemeyer paid promptly upon acceptance of the manuscript. This kept many writers coming back book after book and year after year.

    "Cameo by Thomas Edison"? I think you should explain to what you refer.

    James Keeline

  2. James: Thank you so much for all your corrections and added tidbits! I had a heck of a time finding accurate information for Stratemeyer - my sources are listed at the bottom. Most made a big deal of the $75 payment, specifically noting it was unexpected. The 6x note comes from another writer.

    Some of your responses, however, seem a bit defensive. For example, you imply that mentioning Stratemeyer's first book published in 1894 was a potshot against his earlier published serialized stories. That was not intended; I just happened to point out his first book so that I could focus on books rather than serials. I also never implied that his ghost writers were poorly paid or dissatisfied with their arrangement. Oh, and I had never heard of a "secrecy clause" until you yourself brought it up!

    As for Edison, one of Stratemeyer's stories Bound to be an Electrician features Edison himself, riding by in a wagon: "Franklin instantly recognized the man as Thomas A. Edison, the world-famous inventor of electrical appliances." The character notes shortly after, "I wish I could become a second Edison." I left it purposely vague to inspire an interest in Stratemeyer and his work (I hope you don't think that's a bad thing).

  3. Although I have read and own Bound to be and Electrician, I didn't recall that reference. It was fairly normal in the story paper and dime novel world to create characters or adopt pen names to evoke the name of a famous person. For example, Stratemeyer wrote or owned stories using pen names like "D.T. Henty" (George Alfred Henty); "P.T. Barnum Jr.", "Richard Barnum", "Vance Barnum" (P.T. Barnum); and "Theodore Edison" (Thomas A. Edison). As I recall, Henry Ford is mentioned in one of the later Tom Swift books. Generally the allusion was indirect except when it came to names of well-known military figures.

    Brenda Lang's book is good but because of the intended audience, it is brief. I gave her a little information for it. Some other books include:

    Johnson, Deidre. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (Twayne, 1993). Best before the Syndicate records became available at NYPL.

    Johnson, Deidre. Stratemeyer Pseudonyms and Series Books (Greenwood, 1982). Very good bibliography. A few more series and singles have been added to the known works of Edward and his Syndicate but this is a great start.

    Greenwald, Marilyn. The Secret of the Hardy Boys, Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005). A good reference on the ghostwriter for the early Hardy Boys books that makes use of the NYPL materials and other recently-uncovered resources.

    Rehak, Melanie. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Focusing on Nancy Drew, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and Mildred Wirt Benson, this book also has a good chapter on Edward Stratemeyer. NYPL materials were extensively used for this book as well.

    In time I will have my own biography of Edward Stratemeyer. The goal is an early 2012 release. In the meantime, I have articles in magazines such as Fine Books & Collections (Apr 2010) ("Edward Stratemeyer's New York (and New Jersey)"); "The Nancy Drew MYTHtery Stories" in Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths (McFarland, 2008); and annual presentations at the Popular Culture Association conferences since 1995.

    My reaction to the work-for-hire aspect may be a bit more than required for your statement. The usual presentation on this topic is that the ghostwriters were misused and treated unfairly by the Syndicate. A figure like $125 for a 1927 Hardy Boys will be cited with an emphasis of no royalties and no fame for the work on stories that became famous if not best sellers in the modern sense. The reality is that these were smart men and women who felt that they were fairly treated by Stratemeyer else they would not have done it for so long.

    It is unfortunate that most of the biographical information we have about Edward Stratemeyer is more in the class of myth and legend than truth supportable by evidence of the period. The "Nancy Drew MYTHtery Stories" article addresses some of this.

    In the near future I will release "Victor Horton's Idea" as a Lulu book. Few people have had a chance to read this story since it was only issued in periodical form in 1889 with a reprint in the same periodical, Golden Days, in 1905-6. I will reprint some other stories by Edward so that more of his work can be read and discussed beyond what is conveniently available on Project Gutenberg or Google Books. The former seems to be the basis for the "Essential" collection cited based on the list on the Amazon link provided.

    James Keeline

  4. I'm having a hard time believing that the reference to Edison is not really Edison, as the above commenter suggests ("to evoke the name of a famous person"). I'm not familiar with Stratemeyer or even his works (though I've heard of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I don't recall reading either) but I did look at this story, somewhat curious by the tease here. The story clearly notes: "Franklin instantly recognized the man as Thomas A. Edison, the world-famous inventor of electrical appliances." At least twice in the story, "Franklin" notes he wants to be a "second Edison" and even applies for a job at Edison's labratory. Are you telling me this is all just coincidence in a book titled Bound To Be An Electrician?