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The Mystery of the Hardy Boys and the Invisible Authors

30 May 2015

From Atlantic:

In the opening pages of a recent installment of the children’s book series The Hardy Boys, black smoke drifts though the ruined suburb of Bayport. The town’s residents, dressed in tatters and smeared with ash, stumble past the local pharmacy and diner. Shards of glass litter the sidewalk. “Unreal,” says the mystery-solving teenager Joe Hardy—and he’s right. Joe and his brother Frank are on a film set, and the people staggering through the scene are actors dressed as zombies. But as is always the case with Hardy Boys books, something still isn’t quite right: This time, malfunctioning sets nearly kill several actors, and the brothers find themselves in the middle of yet another mystery.

Eighty-five years have passed since readers first encountered both the Hardy Boys and their teen-detective counterpart, Nancy Drew, yet new books continue to be released several times a year. The novels bear the same pseudonyms as the originals: Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene. A few things have changed, though—characters listen to MP3 players and reference science-fiction movies, and Hardy Boys chapters (oddly)alternate between the first-person perspectives of Frank and Joe. But the main modern achievement of the series is simply that it continues to exist.

The secret behind the longevity of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys is simple. They’re still here because their creators found a way to minimize cost, maximize output, and standardize creativity. The solution was an assembly line that made millions by turning writers into anonymous freelancers—a business model that is central to the Internet age.

. . . .

If writing seems like a lonely profession, try ghostwriting children’s books. “You’re usually in touch with one person, the editor,” says Christopher Lampton, who wrote 11 Hardy Boys books in the 1980s. He sent his books not to a publisher but to a packager called Megabooks—effectively a conduit between the writer and the publisher, Simon & Schuster. When Lampton mailed in drafts, they came back with comments written in several colors. “There were other people, looking at your books, making comments. They’re phantoms,” he says.

Book packagers are a kind of outsourced labor, not unlike factories in China or tech-support centers in Mumbai. They develop new story ideas, recruit and manage freelance writers, and edit the first drafts of series books. Then they deliver manuscripts to the publisher, who rewrite and polish them to produce the final book. “Hiring a book packager is a way of hiring staff without putting them on your payroll,” explains Anne Greenberg, who worked for Simon & Schuster from 1986 to 2002, when Lampton was writing. Greenberg edited hundreds of Nancy Drew mysteries after they came in from book packagers, and suspects she worked on more books in the series (approximately 300) than anyone else. “You have to keep feeding the machine,” she says.

. . . .

Readers rarely hear about book packagers, yet they’re responsible for some of the most successful fiction series in existence, from Sweet Valley High to Goosebumpsto For Dummies. Because ghostwriters and freelance editors do most of the work, packagers push down the considerable expenses of literary labor: They don’t need to offer health insurance, vacation time, or office space.

. . . .

Lampton spent about two weeks writing each manuscript, not including the time it took to develop new plots and edit manuscripts. Each book earned him $5000 in the 1980s. Leonhardt was paid $2000 up front and $2000 upon completion of each Nancy Drew book. At the time, giving up royalties and name recognition was just part of the deal. “You know that when you sign on the dotted line,” says Lampton. “I just liked seeing the check show up.”

. . . .

Ghostwriting might constrain writers, but it can free them, too. Writers put their best efforts into the narrative equivalent of a potted plant, but they also work under the comfort of anonymity, which allows them to make a living without being accountable to readers, or without worrying about their reputations. The best and luckiest writers use ghostwriting to carve out the freedom for the kind of bylined writing they care deeply about.

Less fortunate writers often try to do that, too, but they can end up shackled to the mercenary work they intended to outgrow. This was true for the first Hardy Boys ghostwriter, Leslie McFarlane, who was initially relieved that his name wouldn’t appear in the series. But by the time he had written 21 books, many readers knew his name anyway. Before he died, he worried that he would be remembered primarily for his work on the Hardy Boys, instead of the films he directed and the series books that bear his name. Unfortunately, he was right.

Link to the rest at Atlantic and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Big Publishing, Children's Books

12 Comments to “The Mystery of the Hardy Boys and the Invisible Authors”

  1. The Hardy Boys were the first novels I ever owned. I had about fifty of them, and couldn’t get enough.
    I had no idea that they were still making them.

  2. It is a shame that the later Nancy Drew books ruined interesting characters. In fact, they went back and re-wrote the early ones to make them more acceptably sexist.

    Like a lot of kids, they were the first novels I read, happily I had access to originals.

  3. At one point in time, I had a (then) complete set of all of the to-that-date Hardy Boys, Tom Swifts (all THREE (at the time) incarnations… I think they’re on number five or six, now, though), and Danny Dunns.

    Sadly, across multiple moves and various household disasters, that collection has been fragmented, and has not been kept updated in almost thirty years now. They are all series I remember fondly, especially the hunting down of rarer and out-of-print volumes through used book stores with my late father (who was, in his day, a book collector and librarian of some small renown, with a principle academic focus on the American Small Press from 1920-1980… which meant hunting down as many used book stores as he could, wherever we happened to be, in order to “fill in the gaps” of his collection).

    One thing I do remember was that the Hardy Boys books got increasingly formulaic the “newer” they were, and from this description it sounds as if they’ve started dating the works with popular references — a recipe for a declining series. Nevertheless, it seems it’s still going strong all these years later. Odd, as I thought the Tom Swift books would outlast them, but apparently not.

    • Tom Swift was revived in the 90’s. I wrote one of them, and since the revival was short-lived (13 titles), I’m probably partly responsible for his most recent demise :). There was some ham-handed editing going on, as I discovered when I got my proofs back, and in general I’m not sure 90s pre-teens were ever going to embrace the teenage super-science concept, though I have to admit I had some fun with it.

      • I doubt I read yours, given when you wrote in the series, so I can’t judge (heh). Was that the fourth or fifth incarnation? I can never keep it straight.

        I still love the original series and the third series. I grew up on the second series, but while I can still pull out one the odd Tom Swift book from my collection as an old chestnut re-read now and then I can’t (as an adult, especially one who knows just how broken the science was in those books, even for their day) read any of the second series any more. I could never get into the more recent series.

        I still don’t know why the third series died out the way it did. I loved those books as a child in the 80s, and still love them today.

        • I don’t know exactly where mine fit into the Tom Swift canon, but I do see a few offerings on The Zon that were published about 15 years after the batch I was in, so apparently Tom was still breathing as of 2007.

          ETA: My contribution was Tom Swift #12: Death Quake. #13 was the last book in that run.

          • Per Wikipedia, that places you firmly in the 4th incarnation (best known among the swifties I used to associate with as the “Archway Continuity.” Really threw me for a loop when Simon and Schuster decided to appropriate that imprint as the name for their Authors Solutions\Vanity house, as I knew “Archway” as the imprint\nickname for the fourth Tom Swift series. It goes Tom Swift, Tom Swift Jr., Wanderer (based on imprint), Archway (based on imprint), and “the fifth series.”).

            IIRC, there was supposed to be a sixth starting a few years after that last 2007 book came out. It was supposed to be an interactive “enhanced eBook,” but I think that it was cancelled before it came out. At least, I haven’t heard anything about it since the first announcement, and it doesn’t even rate a mention on the wikipedia page.

          • That’s amazing. I read one right around that time, which was coincidentally (to the discussion) his crossover with the Hardy Boys — according to Wikipedia an “ultra-thriller.”

            Not coincidentally, that’s what I’ve always wanted to write.

            I think my grandmother gave me the first Casefiles book not long after it came out. That would have been 1987 or so. For the next few years, I read every one I could find, until finally, in 1990, I read Needful Things, realized I wanted to be a writer, and started trying to write my own.

  4. Interesting to see the “for dummies” books referred to as *fiction*.
    Explains a lot, no? 😉

  5. Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post did a great piece on the original Hardy Boys writer in 1998.

  6. Back in the Fifties, my grandmother gave me a bunch of ORIGINAL Tom Swift books that my dad had when he was a kid back in the Twenties. I loved them — even though they were severely dated — and still have them.

    “Victor Appleton” or whoever it may have really been, had some, uh, rather unique grammar constructions that became a short pun fad in the Sixties called “Tom Swifties.”

    BTW, many — if not all — of the original TS series are available free at gutenberg.org.

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