Back in my school days we had to write book reports. It would involve choosing a book and writing about the plot, the characters, and what you liked about it. Pretty simple stuff really. This was meant to encourage us to read new and interesting books. The problem was I didn’t really read what you would call novels. I would mostly write about non fiction books with the occasional kid’s book thrown in much to the annoyance of my teacher. I’m pretty sure she was expecting us to read stuff like War and Peace and give a detailed explanation of its subtle meanings. So when I once read and reported on Enid Blyton’s Riloby fair, a story involving thieving monkeys and a circus, she was not amused. I had to find new material to read. It was while searching in the library children’s section, that I stumbled across a Hardy Boys book. It looked like an interesting read. The cover looked fresh and modern, and the characters appeared to be present day sleuths. It had a similar vibe to other books I enjoyed, but when I wrote my report on it I was expecting the usual roasting from my teacher. I received the marked report back with bated breath, what score had I been given for reading another kids book?
I was surprised to read my result. I’m struggling to remember the exact score, but it was better than most of my other efforts. I wondered why she hadn’t given me my usual low number. I read further to see a note at the bottom of the page. It said she used to love reading the Hardy Boy books as a child. It appeared I had accidentally made her nostalgic and my high score was a bit of a fluke. Then it suddenly occurred to me, my teacher was in her 60s, and I was in my teens. My new, modern Hardy Boys books featured mobile phones, flat screen televisions, and recent pop culture references. How had she read the same books as a child? This was before I had realised who the Hardy Boys were and how famous their books were. I did a bit of digging to find the Hardy Boys characters had been around since 1927. It was pretty surprising to find the books I had read were from 2005. I was even more shocked to see that the books from the 20s were written by exactly the same guy – Franklin W. Dixon. What a great career this chap had had. He had been writing for over 80 years, that’s some serious dedication to children’s literature. I wanted to know more about this inspiring man. Who was he, how did he get into writing, and why was he still writing at his age. The whole mystery surrounding Franklin would fit well into the pages of a Hardy Boys book.
The whole story starts with one man, Edward Stratemeyer, an entrepreneur from New Jersey. Edward was a canny sort of guy, and noticed the amazing sales of serialised books. These were series of books, often based around one or two characters, that would appeal to adults, and with each new addition, would encourage them to continue buying the rest. They were often cheap and used poor quality paper making them expendable and fairly inexpensive to collect. While there were hundreds of books aimed at adults featuring all sorts of genres, no such books were created for children, and this is where Edward had his brainwave. If he could take the same business model of the adult books and have the same success with children’s books he could easily become very rich. In 1899, the Stratemeyer Syndicate was founded and their first series, The Rover Boys, was created. The Rover Boys were written by Arthur M. Winfield, had 30 volumes between 1899 and 1926, and sold over 5 million copies. Not bad for their first series. And this is where we learn the pattern of all subsequent releases by the Syndicate.
Edward set out rules for any series that he would publish:
- All books would be part of a series. No one offs. Each book was to play on the success of its predecessors.
- To gauge whether a series was likely to be successful, breeder books would be used. This means the first few volumes would be published at once to learn their fate quicker.
- The books were made to be reminiscent of the similar adult books available. The same bindings and typefaces of the adult books were also used in order to draw the eye.
- All books would be a predictable length, and none went on too long.
- Cliffhangers in between chapters would be used to encourage the reader to continue and keep them engrossed.
- Every book in the series would begin with a recap of the previous book and might end with a preview of the next book. This was used to encourage the readers to buy the next books.
- The books were priced cheaply at 50 cents instead of the usual 75 c , $1.00 or even $1.25
- There would be no character progression between the books. The characters would not marry or age. Every new book was the start of a new slate.
With these rules, you can see why the Stratemeyer Syndicate had such success. Their main aim was to create cheap, popular, and engrossing titles, and they certainly achieved that goal. Edward’s plan was working, so he built on that success. Two more series were brought out, the Bobbsey Twins written by Laura Lee Hope in 1904 and Tom Swift written by Victor Appleton in 1910. These too were highly successful. A mystery series was also launched around 1911 and featured 7 different volumes written by Chester K. Steele. This is when Stratemeyer started to specialise in mystery books; a genre that would take them right to the top of the children’s book world.
Many other book series were published after this until we get to our favourite teenage sleuths; the Hardy Boys. Written by Franklin W Dixon the new books followed the same patterns of the Syndicate’s other successful collections. The books sold so well that a female counterpart for the Hardy Boys was devised and written by Carolyn Keene named Nancy Drew. Since reading and researching the characters, I’ve realised how big these characters are in American culture; which makes their humble beginnings even more impressive. 190 Hardy Boys have been written between 1927 and 2005; quite a collection!
All the books published by Edward Stratemeyer and his Syndicate seemed to do well in sales and popularity. Everything Edward touched turned to gold. He was a shrewd operator and knew exactly how to market to children and what styles of story, setting, and character appealed to them. He was however hiding a bit of a shady business. You might have already guessed what Edward was doing. Especially if you work out some of the ages of the authors.
It turns out that every single author was using a pseudonym and every book was written by a ghostwriter. All books in the Syndicate’s library were a sham. Edward himself wrote a few of the books. The whole series of the Rover Boys was written by him under the pen name Arthur M Winfield. He also created many of the other books, and even wrote many of the story outlines. He would then pass these onto his ghostwriters. The Bobbsey twins were really written by a number of people over its run including Lilian Garis, Andrew Svenson, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Edward’s daughter. They all wrote under the name Laura Lee Hope. Tom Swift’s author, Victor Appleton, was a pseudonym of Howard Garis. The early Hardy Boys books were written mainly by a gentleman named Leslie McFarlane.
Charles Leslie McFarlane, to give him his full name, was born in Canada in 1902. After leaving school he became a freelance writer and later a newspaper reporter which took him to Massachusetts. While in the US he answered an ad for the Stratemeyer Syndicate to work on the books they were publishing. He wrote seven novels initially for the Syndicate before he started work on the famous Hardy Boys. He wrote 21 books in all for the sleuthing brothers between 1927 and 1946. Leslie always somewhat resented his books as just a way to earn money. It’s said he regarded them as a nuisance and never reread the books after he had finished them. The Syndicate gave him as little as $85 per book he wrote during the Great Depression. Leslie only kept writing the books for Edward to pay for coal to keep his family warm. His daughter recounts her dad’s attitude towards the books “They’d give him an outline, but to make it palatable, he’d come up with different characters and add colour and use large words, and inject his wonderful sense of humour. And then he’d finish and say, ‘I will never write another juvenile book.’ But then the bills would pile up and he’d start another.” Although you would think Leslie’s talents were being exploited he took a rather different view. He didn’t mind not getting the credit or a larger proportion of the sales. He was just happy to have the deal and there was no ill will towards his bosses. Leslie went on to become a TV and film writer, and one of the documentaries he wrote was even nominated for an Oscar.
We can finally see the end of this mystery. We can finally work out why Frank W Dixon was so old and still writing the same books. He never existed and many people wrote under the pseudonym. Edward was a sneaky guy. Most of the people he hired to write his stories worked for his newspaper. At times he paid them about two months’ pay per book written. Which in those days was a very good deal for the writers compared to their newspaper salaries. Edward knew, however, that he would be raking in the big bucks by selling the books. He made his writers sign contracts that pretty much cut them out of any royalties now or in the future from sales of the books. He even made deals with libraries to make sure that the writer’s real names never got out into the public.
Edward built an empire with his syndicated books, and the Hardy Boys were just the icing on the cake. It’s amazing how the characters have lasted all these years and are still going strong. But spare a thought for those poor writers who could have been famous authors and earnt millions for their work, but instead had to hide behind a random pen name well into the 21st century.