Last weekend, by accident, I turned on the TV around five on a Saturday afternoon to take a short nap. I love cooking shows for this reason. Nothing puts me to sleep faster. Instead of finding a cooking show, I wound up at PBS watching a half hour interview with the late Mildred Wirt Benson. She was one of the authors who wrote the Nancy Drew books that left such strong impressions on more than one famous woman. These Nancy Drew books were all written by ghostwriters and published with one grand pen name, Carolyn Keene, and no one ever knew it. In fact, this pen name was so well guarded the truth didn’t come out until many years later.
A good deal of the PBS show focused on Edward Stratemeyer, who founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He was a prolific author himself who figured out a way to get all his ideas into print, making money at the same time. The SS was responsible for other books like The Hardy Boys series. Mr. Stratemeyer would solicit authors with a short synopsis or plot outline and then contract them to write these books for a flat fee. The SS never paid them a dime over that flat fee and kept all royalties. This isn’t all that unusual, unfortunately. The ghost writers were paid a $125.00 flat fee, and during the depression the fee was reduced to $100.00. Small presses are still doing this today, so don’t be too stunned by this. I’ve been in more anthologies than I can count that paid a flat fee of $50.00, without mention of e-book royalties, and two free copies. At one point, about eight years ago, one small press actually sent out a mass e-mail informing the contributing authors they were reducing the flat fee from $50.00 to $25.00 due to economic hardship. I continued to submit work to them without complaining. As an author who only cares about writing I didn’t have much of a choice and the publisher was slick enough to know this. The authors who contributed to the Nancy Drew books had even less choices and they were happy to get their flat fee.
These authors who wrote books for the SS were all very prolific and they wanted to be career writers. I’m emphasizing this on purpose, because I see a lot of talk on the Internets these days that slam authors who have the ability to write fast. The speed with which it takes an author to write a novel…or any fiction…has nothing to do with the quality of the fiction. And in genre and sub-genre fiction the authors who can write faster usually get more work. The key word here is genre. Not every author is as lucky as Jonathan Franzen and can spend ten years writing a literary mainstream novel and make millions of dollars. Most career authors in genre fiction produce at least four new novels a year, which is a conservative number. It’s not because they are pressured or forced. It’s because they CAN do it and that’s what they LOVE doing.
I could spend days writing about the Stratemeyer Syndicate and all the good and bad it did for both authors and readers. But what I found most interesting was that a man, Walter Karig, wrote at least three volumes of the Nancy Drew series. Once again, Mr. Karig was considered very prolific and he wrote everything from military history to TV scripts. I doubt anyone who read the Nancy Drew books he wrote at the time would have guessed a man had written them. Good writers have little tricks they build with experience. And we’re talking about fiction, not non-fiction based on fact and real life. The Nancy Drew books, regardless of who wrote them, all did one thing: they provided entertainment to young women who couldn’t get enough of them.
The youtube video below is interesting because it gets into a lot of what I just mentioned with a little more clarity. I do find it interesting how surprised the guy is when he talks about how poorly authors were treated back then. Things haven’t changed all that much for career writers. Although I have to admit indie publishing and Amazon have given us more choices than ever before, authors do what they have to do in order to write. This is the main focus and the goal. Those of us who have been there, and are still there in many cases, fully understand why people like Walter Karig and Mildred Wirt Benson did what they did. And these authors prove, more than any other example I can find, that a good career writer can author any book, in any genre, he or she is contracted to do.