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.