More on Writers Syndicates: Stratemeyer
Learn about the most successful Writers Syndicate of all time
In my last post I outlined how a Writers Syndicate works by employing multiple contract writers to publish under an author or brand name.
Today, we’ll take a look at Edward Stratemeyer and his Stratemeyer Syndicate, which began in 1899 and was prevalent in the early 1900s, a time when there were about 300 syndicates in operation. The Stratemeyer Syndicate is perhaps the most famous example of such structures, and the huge success of its children’s paperbacks solidified their influence on the American identity, and the Syndicate’s place in publishing history. For example, their Nancy Drew series was selling 1.5 million copies a year and since its launch in 1930 sold more than 70 million copies.
Edward Stratemeyer was born in New Jersey in 1862 and became known early in his career as a prolific writer, penning several juvenile fiction stories that were serialised in a number of publications. But in 1897 Stratemeyer began to have trouble distinguishing himself in a crowded market. He sought out the copyrights on his serialised stories until he eventually owned the rights to the text and accompanying pictures of nearly twenty of his stories that had initially been published as serials. He was able to approach publishers to on-sell the stories, then buy back to copyright again to sell to another publisher later. By this method, Stratemeyer was able to earn money from his work long after its initial publication and it became the king pin of the Syndicate model: creating content that could be ‘continually repackaged and resold to new generations of readers.’
In 1897 Stratemeyer was offered the opportunity to finish writing some of the works of Horatio Alger, Jr. who was unwell and unable to write himself, and Stratemeyer agreed. Alger died in 1899, and in the same year, his sister Olive approached Stratemeyer saying that Alger had been commissioned to write 3 stories for a juvenile fiction publication before his death. Stratemeyer negotiated to buy the rights for those stories so that they could be published under the name ‘Horatio Alger, Jr.’ but be written by a different author, and this is what allowed him to write eleven novels under Horatio Alger’s name (both before and after the man’s death). Stratemeyer came to a realisation that formed another aspect of how he operated his Writer’s Syndicate: when it comes to book series, whoever actually writes a book is irrelevant if the book can be published under an already successful brand name. Indeed, the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s success ‘depended on having a cadre of authors who were comfortable with the idea of relinquishing all rights to their work in exchange for a lump-sum payment.’
Stratemeyer began to build a brand by publishing book series that ‘appealed to specific groups of children – e.g., younger children and older children, boys and girls – that spoke to children’s sense of adventure and their love of familiar characters.’ The children’s novels sold the ideals of American Identity and the American Spirit, with characters that were hard-working, honest, and fearless (although they also strongly reflected the negative ethnic and socio-economic biases of their era). The Syndicate’s stories made their mark on multiple generations of young American readers.
Stratemeyer quickly realized that the key to turning a profit in the juvenile book market was volume. He pressured the publishers of his own novels to lower the prices of his books to 50 cents a-piece to gain an edge in the market. Then he hired writers to produce more novels that could be published under the same pseudonyms and sold at that lower price.
He would come up with the concepts for new series, then outline the novels in 3 pages before sending them on to the contract writers to be drafted and completed. Stratemeyer paid them outright for the rights to their work so that the Syndicate could publish the books directly, thus entitling the Syndicate to all the work’s subsequent profits. Since the Syndicate, and not the authors themselves, was earning royalties for the novels, by 1930 Stratemeyer was able to pay his authors between $50-$250 (approximately $900-$4400) for a book of two hundred pages.
The Syndicate became the creator of many successful book series, the most well known of which were The Rover Boys and Tom Swift, (both of which sold millions of copies), and also included The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys. The series’ ‘authors’, names like ‘Laura Lee Hope’ and ‘Carolyn Keene’, became renowned household names that lasted nearly a century. ‘Victor Appleton’, for example, was the nom de plume under which Tom Swift was published from 1910 to 1993.
The establishment of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its profitable formula set Stratemeyer apart from the rest of the publishing industry. Over the course of his time as a writer and publisher, Stratemeyer wrote and oversaw the production of more than 600 successful children’s books.
Interestingly, his Syndicate also became a proving ground for writers who went independent or set up their own syndicates after working for Stratemeyer for some time. The most successful were the Garis family. Howard Garis contracted to Stratemeyer as Victor Appleton and wrote the Tom Swift series. Lillian, his wife, contracted as Laura Lee Hope and wrote the Bobbsey Twins. They then went independing and their two children also picked up the family tradition, turning their household into a ‘fiction factory’, turning out about a thousand books between them. Howard’s most famous series was Uncle Wiggly, about a rabbit and his friends. From 1910 he wrote six Uncle Wiggly stories a week and published these in the Newark News for an astonishing fifty years.
Writers Syndicates had sure come a long way since Alexandre Dumas set up his studio in the 1830s.
Stay tune though, as we will soon be bringing you the adventures of a modern day Writers Syndicate in the first in the Writ Large series of books being published here on conked.io.