Home > Books, Storytelling, Weekend Feature, Weird and Interesting > The secret book sweatshop behind Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

The secret book sweatshop behind Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries Television Series

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have been foiling thieves, smugglers and pirates for a long, long time. So long, in fact, that their authorship is what you might call the Curious Case, or the Mystery, or perhaps the Secret of the Immortal Authors.

The Hardy Boys series was first published in 1927. Nancy Drew debuted in 1930. That’s over 80 years ago, yet every single book has been written by the same authors. Franklin W. Dixon has written about 400 Hardy Boys stories, and the ever-so-prolific Carolyn Keene has penned over 200 Nancy Drew cases.

Turns out that – as you’ve probably guessed by now – Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene are like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride.

Each author is, in fact, many ghostwriters, writing to a pre-defined set of rules to maintain tone and continuity.

Wallace Shawn in the Princess Bride Inconceivable

“Inconceivable!”

Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene are just the most successful pseudonyms to come out of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book packaging company founded in the early 1900s with the sole aim of targeting young audiences with cheap, superficial, and entertaining fiction. Libraries hated the pulpy novels, but kids absolutely loved the many series to come out of the Syndicate.

Edward Stratemeyer kickstarted the Stratemeyer Syndicate with the success of his first series, Rover Boys, written under the pseudonym Arthur M. Winfield. Rover Boys became the first product in what would soon become a book assembly line structured around creating amusing series aimed directly at children. Stratemeyer didn’t want his books to be educational or moralistic, and he didn’t worry about titillating with sex or horror; instead, his books were meant to make kids feel grown up by letting them solve mysteries by themselves.

The Hardy Boys Franklin W. Dixon cover The Secret of the Missing Chums

Some mysteries were… simpler… than others.

The Syndicate – while it sounds like an evil organization – was actually one of the first companies to recognize an appetite for ongoing series among young people. Fiction is escapism for kids and, once they get to know the characters and the worlds in their books, they want to keep reliving that same familiar, fun experience. That’s what the Stratemeyer Syndicate figured out: it wasn’t just about selling an escapist experience, but about selling the chance to escape there again.

Whenever Stratemeyer put out a new series he always released the first run of books all at once to instantly establish a reading list of titles for new fans. He also made sure that individual books were drumming up interest in the rest of the series by putting series recaps at the start of the books and sample chapters for other books at the end.

It seems pretty obvious now, but Stratemeyer was successful because he recognized that when kids love something, they really love it. We’ve seen it with toys, pop stars and books. If they love your book series, they’ll buy everything you publish.

Stratemeyer was a pioneer of children’s fiction in that he made it all about having a series to sell. We’ve seen it recently with the wildly popular Twilight and Harry Potter limited series, but even their predecessors like Goosebumps, The Babysitters’ Club, Animorphs, and Sweet Valley High show that you don’t need high page counts to be successful: you just need a well-defined series kids can fall in love with.

Edward Stratemeyer Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew publisher

Edward Stratemeyer: book publisher and mustache enthusiast.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate churned out roughly 100 different series over the course of its existence, so it’s pretty clear they went for quantity of books over quality of writing. The Syndicate made its money by taking a page from Henry Ford’s assembly line method so they could quickly and cheaply produce titles. They essentially sucked all the individuality out of the writing process and wrote recipes for their books.

Every book title was to be written under a Syndicate-controlled and defined pseudonym. Individual writers were permitted to go for long runs on books, but they were denied creative control and prevented from making any status quo changes. No birthdays, no weddings, and no deaths were allowed. Books had to be cheaper than the other kids books on the market, and they had to be bound as though they were adult books, to make them seem more legitimate.

Whenever a new writer came in, he or she had to match the style and rules entirely. The writer forfeited all rights to authorship, and could not claim credit for any book written during their time at the Syndicate. Each writer was given a flat one-time payment per book, while the Stratemeyer Syndicate pocketed all royalties.

Think about all the Hardy Boys books crammed on the shelves at your local used book store and you’ll get a sense for just how much the writers were getting screwed.

Hardy Boys book series on the shelf

Look familiar?

That said, consider the climate these books sprang from. Both Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys were at their peak in the 1930s – something of a lean time, what with the Great Depression. If you were a Syndicate writer, a slapdash 100-page book was an easy way to make a quick buck, and that proved attractive to many.

Homeless children from the Great Depression

It paid better than posing kids for black and white photos, anyway.

Fast, easy cash is what kept Canadian writer Leslie McFarlane coming back. McFarlane was responsible for most of the early Hardy Boys titles, with 21 credits that would be in his name – if they weren’t in Dixon’s. He wrote primarily during the Great Depression and earned a measly $100 per book: enough to feed his family, but not enough to acknowledge his contribution to the Hardy Boys‘ tremendous success. He raised his family in a rented house with no car, and he never saw a dime of royalty money.

After McFarlane’s death, his son Brian donated his father’s notes to McMaster University and revealed some of the writer’s struggles with the Hardy Boys series. “My father talks about having to write another of those cursed books,” said Brian, “in order to earn another $100 to buy coal for the furnace. And he never read them over afterward.”

Each time Leslie scribbled another of the nuisance books, he would swear off writing juvenile fiction forever. But, every time the bills came due, he was back at it, trying desperately to liven up the dry Stratemeyer Syndicate outlines by adding interesting ideas and characters wherever he could.

Leslie McFarlane Hockey Books Mcgonigle Scores

Curiously, he never made the Hardy Boys play hockey.

Despite being the man behind the original success of the Hardy Boys, McFarlane never complained about not making royalties or getting due credit for his work.

Not so for Walter Karig, ghostwriter for three Nancy Drew titles. Karig was a U.S. Navy captain with many writing credits to his name, so when he was denied credit for books 8-10 of the Nancy Drew series, he demanded that the Library of Congress recognize him as the rightful author.

That made the Stratemeyer Syndicate very nervous, and they instantly launched a legal attack to stop Karig. The Library of Congress ultimately sided with the Syndicate, agreeing that to reveal Karig as the true author would mean destroying the whole pseudonym facade on which the Stratemeyer Syndicate was built.

In fact, Mildred Wirt Benson had much more claim to Nancy Drew than Karig ever did, as she had 23 Nancy Drew books under her belt before she left the Syndicate writer pool to write her own Penny Parker books.

The Syndicate ghostwriters certainly got a raw deal in terms of royalties, but Edward Stratemeyer tried to make it up to them when he died. In his will, he left one fifth of the royalties off his books to the writers who wrote them.

Simon and Schuster now own the Syndicate, and while their writers are paid better, good luck finding out who wrote their latest books, The Hardy Boys Adventures: Secret of the Red Arrow and Nancy Drew Diaries: Curse of the Arctic Star.

Amazon and Google sure won’t tell you.

Hardy Boys Adventures Secret of the Red Arrow cover and Nancy Drew Diaries Curse of the Arctic Star

The Secret of the Immortal Authors: never to be solved.

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  1. March 16, 2013 at 1:02 am

    Fascinating. I’m a Canadian myself, and I was actually relatively familiar with the story of Leslie McFarlane. I love stories about ghost-writers though. Pretty tragic stuff. As always, I love the way you mix humour in to these really informative articles. And you’re spot on about the insight of kids inclination to be obsessive – I also wonder why some people don’t grow out of that. Why do geeks like me continue to hoard onto a ridiculous lust for information about things they’re interested in? Like, when I get into a writer, I immediately read everything they’ve written before I move onto a new book. That’s INSANE! But I always do it. Anyway, great article!

    • March 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying it!

      I’m a southern Ontario boy myself, so it’s always cool to discover a Canadian behind the scenes of something with worldwide appeal.

  2. Lorne Wallace
    March 17, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    If you can get your hands on a copy of “Ghost of the Hardy Boys” which is Leslie McFarlane’s autobiography, you find a lot of detail about his involvement with Stratemeyer and his daughters, who took over after Edward died. It’s a great book about his life in small town Ontario.

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