What was the Stratemeyer Syndicate?
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Book wrapping and ghostwriting is a booming industry, but where did it start? One of the earliest packing companies was the Stratemeyer Syndicate, established by Edward Stratemeyer in Newark, New Jersey, in 1905 or 1906 (sources differ on date), and run by his daughters after his death in 1930. The Syndicate continued operations under Harriet Stratemeyer Adams with Edna Stratemeyer Squier, a mostly silent partner in the business, until the 1980s. Upon Adams’ death, Simon & Schuster purchased the business and incorporated it into their operations. In the years that followed, the Syndicate produced popular book series, including Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, The Dana Girls, The Bobbsey Twins and The Hardy Boys. But what was the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and how did it produce so many popular book series?
Edward Stratemeyer was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on October 4, 1862. His father Henry Stratemeyer had immigrated from Germany in 1837, had been a ’49er – gold rush prospector – and returned to Elizabeth, where he married the widow of his brother Anna, who had three children. They had three more children, the youngest of whom was Edward.
An avid reader, when Edward was a teenager he started printing original stories for his friends – we would probably now call his pamphlets zines – on a printing press in the basement of his father’s tobacco shop. He sold his first story at age 26 and went on to write novels, westerns and magazine serials. In 1890, he moved to Newark and opened a paper mill which he managed while continuing to write, often under pseudonyms.
In 1899, Stratemeyer, then married with two children, began writing The Rover Boys, a series of adventure novels, under the name Arthur M. Winfield. A total of 30 tracks were eventually released in the series, all believed to have been written by Stratemeyer. (My library has several; they’re terrible, but even in just a few pages I can see why they were so popular – during his lifetime they sold 5 million copies.)
Two things seem to have been the main factors that caused Stratemeyer to switch from writing his own stories to creating a content mill: first, the books that bore his own name didn’t sell as well as the books written under pseudonyms and second, he simply had more ideas than he could write. He determined that he could be much more successful and get more books into children’s hands if he created series and hired ghostwriters to write them.
He planned the series and each book, writing a plan that would be given to a ghostwriter. These writers were paid per book and signed contracts that prevented them from publicly claiming authorship (essentially an NDA). The copyright belonged to the Syndicate, which sold the books to various publishing houses, including Grosset & Dunlap, for distribution.
The authors were paid between 100 and 200 dollars, or two months’ salary as a journalist at the time. It is no coincidence that many of the Syndicate’s earliest writers were journalists and/or novelists. The books were initially sold for 50¢, which was significantly less than other hardcover “children’s” titles, and they were immediately popular. In addition to creating and overseeing book series, Stratemeyer was very active in book sales, creating promotional material for booksellers to encourage them to carry the Syndicate’s work.
In 1914, Stratemeyer opened the Syndicate’s first office, moving operations from his home to a high-rise near Madison Square Park in Manhattan. He hired Harriet Otis Smith as his secretary, although his job was more that of a second-in-command. Business was booming, and Smith was reading manuscripts sent in by authors, writing editorial notes for rewrite requests, and in some cases rewriting herself and drafting outlines for new books. There’s no evidence I can find that suggests she came up with any new series ideas, but she’s credited with creating two of literature’s greatest sidekicks, Nancy Drew’s friends Bess Marvin and George Fayne.
Edward Stratemeyer died on May 10, 1930, of pneumonia. The first four Nancy Drew books, one of the Syndicate’s most successful series, had just been published. He left the operations to his daughters, who relied heavily on Smith to teach them the trade. When they closed the Manhattan office and moved operations to New Jersey, Smith quit, not wishing to commute that far. Agnes Pearson was hired to help the sisters; Squier moved to Florida in 1942, leaving operations to Adams.
Like her father, Adams was savvy in business. She oversaw operations, ensuring the books remained up to date in style and moral quality, and even rewrote many of Nancy Drew’s early titles to modernize them. The Syndicate remained successful for decades, and their series of books were in such demand that in 1979, when Adams made the decision to sell new books from the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins series to Simon & Schuster, the former publisher Grosset & Dunlap. for follow-up. After a long battle in court, a judge ruled that the Syndicate could sell books to any publisher it chose, but that Grosset & Dunlap had the right to sell their already acquired titles – in hardcover only.
Adams died on March 27, 1982, and the syndicate was left to financial partners who eventually sold it to Simon & Schuster, ending a nearly 100-year reign for Edward Stratemeyer’s company. Today, there are many book packaging and ghostwriting companies, but Stratemeyer was the first.