fortune - april 1934
"for it was indeed he"
The fifty-cent juvenile, which Anthony Comstock included among his "traps for the young." The publishers (principally three), the authors (one in particular), and the profits (fabulous) of literature for adolescents.
"Satan adopts ... devices to capture our youth and secure the ruin of immortal souls ... Of this class the love story and cheap work of fiction captivate fancy and pervert taste. They defraud the future man or woman by capturing and enslaving the young imagination. The wild fancies and exaggerations of the unreal in the story supplant aspirations for that which ennobles and exalts ...They forget the sweet poet's admonition, 'Life is real, life is earnest.'" - Traps for the Young by Anthony Comstock
If Messrs. Grosset and Dunlap, book publishers, were so inclined (which they certainly are not) they might erect on the grave of Anthony Comstock in Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery a monument 700 miles high composed exclusively of the 45,000,000 fifty-cent juveniles that they have sold during the past quarter century despite opinions set forth in Traps for the Young. By definition, every one of those books is pure, wild fancy, exaggerations of the unreal; in short, what reformers, intent upon ennobling, dub "cheap." And that is no reflection on the price.
Unobtrusively, like so many Guy Fawkes' heaping gunpowder in the cellars of Parliament, three publishing firms annually unload well over 5,000,000 explosive fifty-centers on the American adolescents, the foundation stones of human society. Or that would be the version of the American Library Association. For pious people is the bitter statistical pill that in profitable but godless years like 1927 fifty-centers outsell Bibles two to one. Collectors of best-seller figures will find that the 9,000,000 copy sales of Harold Bell Wright novels, although supposedly a record for quantity production of one man's work, are a mere drop in the bucket beside the 20,000,000 copies of fifty-cent juveniles turned out by the late Mr. Edward Stratemeyer - for practical purposes the inventor of the business.
Obviously the fifty-cent juvenile is no hothouse sport, but a perennial of the hardiest variety, and still blossoming. Of this there is no better proof than the U.S. Government biennial census of book manufacture (figures given in round numbers):
1925: Adult fiction . . . . . . 30,600,000 - 15 per cent* Juvenile . . . . . . . . 25,200,000 - 12.5 per cent
1931: Adult fiction . . . . . . 19,200,000 - 12.4 per cent Juvenile . . . . . . . . 22,400,000 - 14.5 per cent
* - Of all books manufactured in that year. That the largest portion of these juveniles are fifty-centers is the final blasphemy that adolescent readers have flung in the beard of Mr. Comstock.
The fifty-cent juvenile is, precisely, a book for boys and girls between the ages of ten and sixteen. It has few literary pretensions; it is a flat-footed account of the superhuman exploits of adolescent Ubermenschen - and if it is successful it may have sequels that ramble on for as many as thirty-six volumes. It is a fortuitous cross between compound interest and perpetual motion. The Rover Boys is its quintessence; a substantial profit for author and publisher is its only, unblushing purpose.
In literature, the fifty-center takes its place between the dime novel and the "juvenile of distinction." The ten-cent thriller, with the exception of Frank Merriwell (of whom more later), is a stirring account of Homeric deeds accomplished by straight-shooting, hard-hitting, clean-living he-men. Decorous "juveniles of distinction" are pseudo novels in terms a child theoretically finds interesting and comprehensible. The fifty-center has its outward appearance of decorum, even in format, but the characters speed unflinchingly through adventures that would make even the ten-cent Deadwood Dick blanch. Most important is the rule that every fifty-cent hero must remain an adolescent in whose shoes the reader may easily imagine himself. But his accomplishment must surpass those of the bravest and most sagacious men. In other words, the fifty-center has a glorified dime-novel plot involving boys or girls, but is decked out in cloth covers to resemble Stalky & Co.
The nucleus of the fifty-cent theme is the fact that a hero cannot fail. With the definitive finality of a chemical formula, The Rover Boys at School is the pattern of elements from which every succeeding fifty-center has been compounded. Holding each volume together are the threads of some hair-raising adventure. Poverty empties the pockets of dastards only. Lack of funds in anyone so middle class as a Rover Boy would be something of a sin. Virtue and success are synonyms, for virtue is resolved to the business of thwarting the villains in their frantic efforts to appear greater men than the heroes. Women's place in the male fifty-center is to invoke manly strength, not venery. In a long series they serve another purpose: they bear the young for a junior set if popularity warrants it.
In order to hold the reader breathless, the fifty-cent plot whirls lickety-split from the first to the last chapter like an express train. Even the characters rush about at a breakneck rate in airplanes, racing cars, rocket ships, anything capable of breaking the speed limit. When Rover Boys are reduced to such slow means of locomotion as the horse, the reader is assured of at least one runaway. That idea is carried into the very names of the books: Tom Swift, Dave Dashaway, The Motor Boys, Jack Ranger.
On the surface none of this is insidious enough to undermine the morals of the nation. Then why the great hue and cry against the fifty-center? It is the embodiment of success-story idealism. If not exactly literary, it makes up by action for what it lacks of art. Certainly it will not fill the adolescent mind with ideas that adults might think too mature for it.
The reformers answer to all this is that the fifty-center is overexciting. A child intoxicated with Tom Swift would be not only intolerable but permanently warped by an overstimulated imagination. At least that was the cry of one Franklin K. Mathiews whose enmity for the fifty-center will be particularized later.
Of all the scalps Mr. Mathiews would liked to hang on his belt, that of Mr. Edward Stratemeyer would have pleased him most. Grosset & Dunlap would be well justified in placing atop its whimsical 700-mile-high spire a monumental bronze of this Mr. Stratemeyer - for he alone produced 250 miles of it. He was the father of this fifty-cent literature. He wrote the first of it (The Motor Boys, or Chums Through Thick and Thin), the most of it (under literally hundreds of pseudonyms), its best seller (Tom Swift), its worst failure (The White Ribbon Boys), its latest success (Nancy Drew). With rare justice, he made the most money. When he died in 1930 he had hung up a record of having written, or conceived for others to write, more than 800 fifty-cent juveniles. He also left an estate worth a million dollars. That was his reward for discovering in the late nineties that, like many another natural resource of the time, the reading capacity of the American adolescent was limitless. As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer.
Today, librarians and champions of "better books for children" would like to think that the fifty-cent thriller was interred with Mr. Stratemeyer. But that is a reformers dream. They forget the Writing Garises - Howard, Lilian, young Roger (Princeton '24) and Cleo - who today thump out fifty-centers faster than ever. They forget the Stratemeyer Syndicate founded by the late great Edward and lustily carried on by his daughters, Miss Edna Stratemeyer and Mrs. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (Wellesley '14): as well as many tenaciously prolific oldsters and newcomers. Barring acts of God, Grosset & Dunlap will go right on publishing its three million copies annually. Its competitors, A.L. Burt Co. and Cupples & Leon, will sell their million or so apiece.
If the generation brought up on Tom Swift were to dip into such currently popular works as The Outboard Motor Boat Series, few readers would notice any change in diet. The machinery of the story might seem strange but the eternal verities of plot and character would have a nostalgic familiarity. Superficially, time has wrought only two differences in the fifty-center. First, modern writers attempt to tell their stories with something more than the formal adequacy of The Rover Boys school. Airplanes, radio, television are no longer discussed with the cavalier nonchalance of total ignorance. Today, books concerned with such contrivances are written or revised with the greater authority of such men as Noel Sainsbury, a practicing pilot, or Jack Binns, a radio expert who in 1909 had the distinction, as "wireless operator" on the sinking S.S. Republic, of sending the first Marconi "CQD" message ever to bring about a major rescue at sea. The second change has to do with the mold in which the story is cast. The same jellies are poured in but the final form is, for the moment, a detective story. This matter of shaping the plot is a result of the discovery that adolescent reading tastes run about two years behind that of their elders. Thus the fifty-cent heroes went to War, thus they took up science seriously, and thus today they set about solving murders, apprehending international thieves.
Keeping the fifty-center close, but not too close, to adult fiction is perhaps the greatest problem of its publishers. In an earlier day sixteen-year-olds were unsophisticated enough to consume Tom Swift with real relish. Now, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, and the spicier thrillers claim the adolescent at four-teen. The average child is still initiated to the fifty-centers at ten, and therefore his exposure to them is cut from six to four years. Because the publisher knows the percentage of children who buy these books is practically constant, he figures his anticipated sales in terms of the number of years boys and girls spend in the fifty-cent reading period. Consequently, when their appetites are sated two years earlier, he faces a loss of one third of his custom. It was to sustain interest after the crucial fourteenth year that Bomba the Jungle Boy was made in the youthful image of Tarzan, and Nancy Drew in that of Philo Vance.
Nancy is the greatest phenomenon among all the fifty-centers. She is a best seller. How she crashed a Valhalla that had been rigidly restricted to the male of the species is a mystery, even to her publishers - for "Tomboy" rings like praise in the adolescent female ear but "Sissy" is the anathema of anathemas to a boy. Thus it is that girls read boys' books, but woe betide the boy caught with a copy of The Motor Girls at Camp Surprise! It was the simple arithmetic of a census taker that boys' books should outsell girls'. Yet Today, Nancy Drew tops even Bomba, the most popular of modern male heroes. The speed with which the public consumes this fabulous series is shown by the sales figures of one of the larger retailers, R.H. Macy & Co. In the six weeks of the last Christmas season Macy's sold 6,000 of the ten titles of Nancy Drew compared with 3,750 for the runner-up, Bomba, which had fifteen volumes to choose from. And Macy's would be disappointed if, during the holiday period, it did not find buyers for 50,000 fifty-centers.
Yet originally this half-dollar bonanza was something of an ugly duckling. In the flamboyant half of the nineteenth century successful publishers of juveniles issued the works of Harry Castlemon, Edward S. Ellis, Oliver Optic, and Horatio Alger Jr. at prices near a dollar. When The Rover Boys and The Old Glory Series came their way the price remained unchanged, and sales followed the usual pedestrian course of all books. Among publishers it remained for one American, two Scotsmen, an Englishman, and a German to fashion the fifty-center and make it a national phenomenon. The American was A.L. Burt, a pedagogue with publishing ambitions. His first ventures were a cheap edition of the classics entitled The World's Best Books, the few Algers he could lay his fingers on, and several nondescript juveniles. Today his house is rich, potent, and respected. Even more successful were the Scotsmen. They began as thrifty young men intent upon making their fortunes with the U.S. Book Co. When that firm failed, Bookkeeper Alexander Grosset and Salesman George Dunlap hit upon the idea of peddling the paper-bound novels left in the U.S. Book Co.'s warehouses. As a special attraction they rebound them in cloth and boards. Demand at once exceeded supply. New grist for their mill they secured by renting plates of passe novels from the original publishers, and re-issuing them in cheap editions. Thus the highly profitable reprint business was born. They next added cheap juveniles to their list, and profits began to soar.
Then came the Englishman and the German, Cupples and Leon. They were book salesmen casting about for an opportunity to make real money too. They saw the firms of Altemus in Philadelphia, Donohue in Chicago, Grosset & Dunlap and A.L. Burt in New York selling juveniles at whatever price struck their fancy, all the way from $1.25 to twenty-five cents. One day Cupples & Leon were visited by Edward Stratemeyer, and from that meeting came a juvenile costing fifty cents but looking as if it were worth much more. The adolescent public at once decided that here was the place to get your money's worth. It did not take the other publishers long to follow Cupples' lead. Burt and Grosset, who had popular writers on their lists, rose merrily with them to opulence. Doubters like Donohue and Altemus slipped slowly but surely from the juvenile field.
Today virtually all fifty-centers are published by the Big Three - Grosset, Burt, and Cupples. Grosset is the biggest reprint publisher, and fifty-centers account for one-third of its business. Cupples does no reprinting, but is second largest publisher of fifty-centers. Burt, third in fifty-cent ranking, concentrates today on reprint fiction. How much money these firms have made from fifty-centers is their secret, and they hold on to it tenaciously. But a breakdown of fifty-centers could be estimated thus: twenty cents to fifteen cents, estimated margin of profit to retailer; five cents to three cents, royalty to the writer or producing syndicate; seven cents to twelve cents, allowance for overhead; five cents to three cents, profit for the publisher; thirteen cents to seventeen cents, cost of manufacture. All of which adds up to fifty cents willingly paid by approximately 75,000,000 customers in the course of twenty five years.
Some publishers would jack up the overhead and allow themselves but one cent profit. Writers say that a five-cent royalty is the happy exception. But the above is a fair and average estimate.
When beginning a series of fifty-centers it is the convention to issue the first three volumes at once. Such a set must be a breeder, that is, go on for at least seven more volumes if it is to make money. It is a peculiarity of these that they usually do come through with the progeny expected of them, which indicates one of the outstanding differences between fifty-cent and other publishing where even a single sequel has slim chances of success. Another condition that the average half-dollar usually meets is that each edition sells about 7,500 copies, a minimum for profit. Usual printings are from 10,000 to 20,000. Editions of 2,000, usual in adult light fiction, would mean a good-sized loss for fifty-centers.
Once he has a sure-fire series, the publisher's next imperative is adequate distribution. Grosset & Dunlap owes much of its success to thirty salesmen who dash about finding outlets for books in department, drug, cigar, notion, and book stores. They sell their wares to newsstands, station lunchcounters, holes-in-the- wall, trading posts. They are over the country like a plague of locusts. Similarly ubiquitous are Cupples & Leon and A.L. Burt. It is no mere accident that the executives of the Big Three - Harry Burt, George Dunlap, Arthur Leon - have all been star salesmen.
But there is more to marketing fifty-centers than putting them under the customers nose. When competition jammed the shelves with The Rover Boys and the ilk, demand had to be stimulated. Conventional book advertising was useless. The potential customers were too busy shooting marbles to look at book announcements. Actual distribution was brought about by relatives giving fifty- centers as presents. In cases where parents objected to them they were handed around from boy to boy by a grapevine. And, typical of boyhood economics, fifty-centers acquired a set of values. Thus, The Boy Allies at Liege might be worth two of The Rover Boys, or Tom Swift and His Motorcycle might purchase a baseball bat with a white doorknob thrown in for good measure. Sales promotion was restricted to verbal recommendation by one boy to another. And there was no way to have boys praise, for example, only Cupples books. So Cupples decided to compile a colossal list of children's names. Included on the jacket of each of its books was a coupon which, when filled out with the names and addresses of ten friends, entitles the whole group to Cupples illustrated catalogue. The catalogue was an insidious narcotic with the habit forming properties of opium. In it were printed fetching bits from the more popular series. Cupples estimates that all in all 500,000 names have been on that list.
When the age of adolescent reading discretion began dropping from sixteen to fourteen, the increasingly rapid turnover of these names made the list too expensive to keep up-to-date. Cupples & Leon now issues a dollar omnibus book in which is included the first volume of four fifty-centers. This aperitif is just as effective as the catalogue. Such a volume presents, among other things, the best means of reviving a series that has dropped out of the adolescent eye.
Unlike some successful publishing ventures, the fifty-center was not pulled from a hat. The trick was to exploit a venerable part of the book industry. As early as 1767 Mein & Fleming of Boston was advertising "A great variety of Entertaining and Instructive Books for Children." Later on came the famous pirated John Newbery books written for the most part by Oliver Goldsmith, illustrated by the Bewicks, and very much sought after today by collectors. Cheap books pandering to the imagination of the maturing child did not appear until 1860 - June 15 to be exact - when Beadle & Adams of New York issued the first dime novel, Ann S.W. Stephens' Malaesk, or the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. So quickly did the germ spread that in the same year Edward S. Ellis' Seth Jones, or The Captives of the Frontier was bought by 750,000 avid readers.
By the eighties the demand for dime novels was raging like a forest fire. Nick Carter and Buffalo Bill were national heroes. Street & Smith succeeded Beadle & Adams, and through the American News Co. began to distribute well over a hundred thousand different titles, old and new, in weekly editions. One of their most successful writers was William Gilbert Patten, who was probably the first man to exploit the self-perpetuating series for boys about boys. Previously there had been the goody-goody Rollo books in which the hero always did just as mother said or quickly came to grief. For red-blooded adolescents there was only Deadwood Dick or Ouray Jack, bad hombres from the Sunday School point of view. Patten, at the suggestion of Street & Smith, wrote a dime novel about a boy every bit as exciting as Jack, but without the barrier of mature age that separated the adolescent from Jack as a person. The book was Frank Merriwell, or First Days at Farwell, written in 1896 under the name of Burt L. Standish. Before he had finished, Patten wrote 775 more Merriwell books that had an aver-age weekly sale of 125,000 copies.
It was the success of Patten that lighted the fifty-cent juvenile blaze. Today, from the Orange Mountains of northeastern New Jersey still comes 90 per cent of the fuel for that conflagration. A literary geographical survey would reveal vast deposits of fifty-cent authors centering around East Orange, with the few remaining scattered deposits no farther away than southern Connecticut. Noel Sainsbury, the major creator of airplane boys and girls, works in the Connecticut field. Eustace L. Adams, a nephew of Temple Bailey, and another writer of air stories, although in Florida at present, is a product of the same area. But East Orange itself is the real center of the lode. There live the Writing Garises. All but young daughter Cleo have worked for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and since the decease of Edward Stratemeyer they are well on their way to becoming a syndicate in them-selves. Certainly Howard Garis who has written 400 juveniles including the famous Uncle Wiggily books is as well qualified as anyone to head any such company.
But the overwhelming colossus, past, present, and in all probability future, the Roan Antelope of this field, is the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Actually it is not a syndicate; it is merely an office at which hack writers call for and return pieces written to the Stratemeyer order. It was founded by Edward Stratemeyer about 1906, and since his death his daughters, Harriet and Edna, have been its jealous and able custodians. Smoothly, without interruption, the Stratemeyer plant turns out book upon book on a conveyer-belt system. Upon leaving the Stratemeyer brain, a fifty-cent is crammed into a three page, typewritten outline in which the time elements, names of characters, and their destinies are logically arranged. Then comes the writer who is given the outline and anywhere from a week to a month to fill it out into a book. Upon completing his job he is promptly given from $50 to $250, releases all claims to ownership of the piece, and the manuscript is thrown once again into the Stratemeyer hopper where it receives a final polishing. At the end of the chute stands a representative of the publisher who, acting like a U.S. Government meat inspector in a packing plant, certifies the manuscript as factually fit for consumption. The finished product is a set of electrotypes for a fifty-center, ready to be turned by the printer into thousands of books for waiting adolescents. Some books are shipped to England, Canada, Australia. A few, like The Rover Boys, are translated into German and Czechoslovakian. The whole process takes perhaps forty days, although on occasion books have sped from Stratemeyer brain to the immortality of print in considerably less time.
The chief reason for the continued dominance of the Stratemeyer Syndicate is the fact that it owns all of its copyrights. (Of the Big Three, Burt alone does no business with the Stratemeyers. It has never published a Stratemeyer book because it is Burt's policy to buy manuscripts out-right.) In the days of the great Edward the publisher never even saw a manuscript. Instead he was shown electrotype proofs. He was given the opportunity of either renting the plates or letting some other publisher make a neat profit from them. Today, however, publishers frequently like to make minor corrections. No longer will they accept the plates. They rent the rights to the manuscript for a royalty of around five cents, do their own electrotyping. But they are no nearer to owning a Stratemeyer opus than they were twenty-five years ago.
For the Stratemeyer daughters have inherited from their father not only the genius peculiar to the fifty-cent juveniles, but his business acumen. After his death they moved the office from New York City to the top of East Orange's Hale Building. There they sit at their ponderous roll-top desks dispatching the affairs of fifty-cent juveniles with a sincerity and belief in their work equal to that of the most serious adult novelist. Obscured in a fern-filled corner is a secretary. The only other occupants of the office are the immortal: Tom Swift, The Motor Boys, The Rover Boys, Dave Dashaway, and dozens of others who exist in the 800 fifty-cents that line the wall.
One who did not know that it is this office that keeps some twenty hack writers busy filling out the lives of superhuman heroes and heroines might readily mistake the Stratemeyer Syndicate for a private detective's office. As a source of open- handed information about fifty-cent juveniles it might as well be just that. Miss Edna, who stays at home managing affairs, waggles her bobbed gray head emphatically and says that their business is their business. Mrs. Adams, who takes care of personal contacts with New York publishers, smile graciously and says the same. What, the sisters demand in amazement, would their clients think if they knew the great gallery of juvenile authors, Roy Rockwood, Victor Appleton, Lester Chadwick, Laura Lee Hope, May Hollis Barton, and so on, was nothing but a waxworks invented by their father? So greatly do they feel the need of maintaining the illusion of these fictitious literati that, in spite of the great veneration in which they hold their father, they have refused to authorize any of the many attempts to write his life history. Once when Stratemeyer's readers insisted upon knowing the details of the life of his May Hollis Barton, a publishers assistant took it upon himself to satisfy the demand. Little did the readers of this work know that she was a nervous, kindly, nearsighted stocky man who looked like a deacon, and from whom books came forth like an interminable string of sausages; that his business genius and literary horse sense earned for him a steady $50,000 a year.
Beyond the fact that he was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, of middle-class German stock on October 4, 1862, and died in Newark May 10, 1930, Stratemeyer's real life is guarded as a trade sec-ret. Actually, it was the antithesis of the lives about which he wrote. He never went to preparatory school or college. His sporting activity was confined to an avid interest in big-league baseball and mediocre bowling at the Roseville Athletic Association around the corner from his house. When he was not inventing plots, his recreation was reading travel books or going, like Dave Dashaway, to distant places. Modern fiction and problem novels he abominated as trash. Mr. Stratemeyer created his fraternity of heroes out of dime novels, thin air, and the prompting of his own desires. His heart was the heart of Richard Rover.
When he was a boy he read the works of Alger and Optic with something akin to passion. His youth was the heyday of the success story with a moral and of the dime novel. It was the heroic age of American literature when any dime novelist could grind out his 100,000 words a month (at perhaps one-half cent per word) without turning a hair. It remained for Stratemeyer to inaugurate the golden age. With the rib of Deadwood Dick, and the soul of Tom the Bootblack, he fashioned middle-class Richard Rover who made money for himself, his creator, and his publisher. And in all three cases it was a sizable sum.
Stratemeyer's first story was a piece of 18,000 words which, just as Alger would have had it, he wrote on a piece of brown wrapping paper in between waiting on customers at his brother's tobacco store. Golden Days, a boy's magazine in Philadelphia, paid him $75 for it. Such success young Edward decided warranted a non de plume. After casting about for one with the proper ton he hit upon Arthur M. Winfield which was explained thus: "'Arthur' was chosen as the nearest approach to author, while 'Winfield' expressed the hope of winning in his chosen field, and 'M' representing 'Million,' was adopted as a suggestion that some day he might see a million copies of his books in print."
In the beginning, Golden Days, Munsey's Golden Argosy and his Argosy consumed Stratemeyer's products as fast as he put them on paper. But pay was irregular. He drifted to Street & Smith where he edited Good News, another boys' weekly, which he built up to a circulation of over 200,000. There he learned the art of mass production, and there he wrote his first dime novel, Crazy Bob, the Terror of Creede. Hundreds of others followed: Cool Dan, or the Sport's Wonderful Nerve, Ouray Jack, The Collis Express Robbers, Dead Shot Dave. They were signed with such names as Jim Bowie, Nat Woods, Jim Daly, and anything that popped into his head. The bibliography fills a big, black book in Street & Smith's offices. Between times he wrote women's serials for the New York Weekly as Julia Edwards, did weekly pieces for the famous Old Cap Collier Library, and even ran a boys' paper of his own called Bright Days.
With Stratemeyer at Street & Smith were all the great dime novelists of the day. Doyen of the lot was Frederick Dey in whose veins flowed a goodly portion of Van Rensselear blood. Characteristic for his trade, rather than his forebears, Dey's pleasures were simple. That he was the one and only Nick Carter was his proudest boast. Upton Sinclair was there too, writing under the nom de plume of Ensign Clark Fitch, U.S.N., to turn out such gems as Through the Enemy's Lines, or Cliff Faraday's Dangerous Mission, for the True Blue Series. And then the aristocrats of the business would drop in occasionally, particularly H.R. Gordon (Edward S. Ellis), William T. Adams (Oliver Optic), and most famous of all, Horatio Alger Jr., author of, among other things, the 1853 Harvard Class Ode. Stratemeyer, was still with Street & Smith when Alger died, and it was he who finished the posthumous works of Alger, probably the most pleasant duty of his life. Thus was he baptized in the dime novel, and thus was he fortified to write The Rover Boys.
Stratemeyer's first attempt at a serial was a book about boys on a battleship. He sent it to Mr. W.F. Gregory of Lothrop, Lee & Shepard in Boston. Mr. Gregory promptly put Dime-novelist Stratemeyer's manuscript in his safe and went on worrying about Lothrop's pressing financial problems. It was a great stroke of luck that Dewey chose that moment to defeat the Spanish fleet at Manila. It was equally fortunate that Mr. Gregory, upon reading the news, should suddenly re-member the manuscript so summarily dumped in his safe. He got in touch with Stratemeyer. Could he change his book to something about Dewey in a few days? Could he indeed! Almost before the smoke of battle had cleared away, Stratemeyer had produced Under Dewey at Manila. And as the popularity of the Little Admiral swelled and soared, so the book sold edition upon edition. It established Stratemeyer as a writer of juveniles and it re-established Lothrop's financial standing.
Thus began the Old Glory Series, which grew lustily until 1907 and which Lothrop still publishes. But more important than this were three books Stratemeyer dashed off betimes in 1899. The Rover Boys at School, The Rover Boys on the Ocean, and The Rover Boys in the Jungle. The immediate sire of The Rover Boys was Gilbert Patten's Frank Merriwell. But between Patten's immortal Frank and Stratemeyer's immortal Rovers there is one essential distinction. Merriwell appeared in the Tip-Top Library and sold for a nickel (most "dime" novels did). He was the first great boy hero, but the format in which he appeared naturally associated him with such dime-novel hill-billies as Rattlesnake Dick. This, for a squeamish middle class who appraised literature in terms of what it cost them, made Frank an undesirable. Smart Mr. Stratemeyer, who wrote the same thing, put his dime novels in board covers and sold them at prices varying from a dollar to twenty- five cents. At once he gained the reputation of doing "refined books," while Street & Smith, although it goes on publishing many dime-novel magazines a year, is still persona non grata in houses on the right side of the railroad tracks.
But in the early days The Rover Boys showed no sign of reaching the million mark Stratemeyer had set for himself. By 1906 he was ready to try another idea. Under the name Clarence Young he wrote a series for Cupples & Leon. They talked it over and decided to sell the books for fifty cents. This series, like dime novels, was designed to be sold directly to the consumer without the divine intervention of parents, but with parental approval. The crux of the plan was that Stratemeyer took a small royalty, the publishers a minimum profit, and both earnestly prayed that the volume of sales would atone for the picayune return per book. It was like Noah praying for rain. That series was the now famous Motor Boys. The first twenty-two volumes of the first fifty-center have gone through thirty-five printings, with the smallest of no less than 5,000 copies a title.
But that was just the beginning. When Grosset & Dunlap purchased the rights to publish The Rover Boys in 1908, Stratemeyer's star shot up like a rocket. The firm added more titles and followed Cupples' lead in reducing the price. Aided by its tremendous sales activity, The Rover Boys broke out upon the country like measles. By 1930, 5,000,000 copies of the thirty volumes of that series had been sold. The Rover Boys had bred a second generation, become a tradition, made Stratemeyer wealthy. Modestly he reiterated in his prefaces: "I hoped that young people would like the stories, but I was hardly prepared for the very warm welcome the volumes received." Actually, he was more than prepared. By the time The Rover Boys Series was an assured success he had at least ten parallel stories under way, had formed his Syndicate to set other people to writing new books as fast as he could think of plots. Thus began the Stratemeyer deluge.
On working days from nine to five he sat in his little office around the corner from Grosset & Dunlap in New York dictating two chapters a day, outlining plots to his hirelings, driving bargains with publishers. Second in command was Howard Garis who filled in (from Stratemeyer's outlines, of course) all but the first few Motor Boys, every Tom Swift, Great Marvel, and hundreds more that even he forgets. Mrs. Garis was the Syndicate's first woman writer. St. George Rathbone, a dime novelist who wrote pieces for Sunday School papers, Stratemeyer brought him from Street & Smith. There were many others, about twenty in all, but no one was any more than a cog in the Stratemeyer machine. So unrelenting was his dominance that his writers were never allowed to meet one another in his office. They saw the master by appointment and the appointments never overlapped.
Just who were the authors of the Stratemeyer books may someday be a matter for historians to wrangle over. But one point is clear: every work signed Arthur M. Winfield, Captain Ralph Bone-hill, Edward Stratemeyer, was the property of Edward Stratemeyer lock, stock and barrel. None of these were, properly speaking, the property of the Syndicate, for Syndicate books were outlined by Stratemeyer but filled in by writers like Garis. Yet Stratemeyer was the author of even Syndicate books, in the sense that he conceived them. The supplementary work of hired writers constitutes a claim to a sort of literary foster parenthood. And certainly the names under which the Syndicate employees wrote were as indisputably Stratemeyer's as his shoes. They were assigned to whoever suited his fancy. Half a dozen people might use the same one in the course of a series. His reason for such tactics was obvious. It was good for business to be able to replace a writer without losing a potent name like Victor Appleton. It was bad for business for the public to know it.
And just how good the business was, the Winnetka Survey of 1926 revealed. This investigation was made under the auspices of the American Library Association and directed by Carleton Washburne, superintendent of the Winnetka, Illinois, public schools, who asked 36,750 pupils in thirty-four representative cities what they read. Ninety-eight per cent replied with titles of fifty-centers, and most of them added that they liked Tom Swift best. By 1913 Tom Swift had passed The Rover Boys as best seller and was not routed from this eminence until 1931 when Nancy Drew made its astounding spurt. Today the sale of Tom Swift is the record of all time: 6,500,000 copies of thirty-six volumes and still lusty.
Librarians frothed at the mouth, banned the books from the stacks, but Stratemeyer merely shrugged his shoulders and went on piling up profits. If a child could not get his books free from the library he would have to buy them, and that was just so much more money in his pocket. Yet the opposition had a champion who gave Stratemeyer a run for his money. He was Franklin K. Mathiews chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America. And more than Dan Baxter and all the great gallery of black hearts, he hated the guts of Richard Rover.
Mr. Mathiews is a kindly gentleman and not likely to go about looking for trouble. But the state of adolescent literature in the early nineteen hundreds demanded action. In the five years that the Boy Scouts had been founded, over 5,000,000 cheap books about Boy Scouts had been sold. Excellent publicity for the young B. S. of A. though this might have been, these fifty-cent hair-raisers would lead small boys to sniff at anything so mundane as building campfires or tracking woodchucks. To purge the world of this infection, Mr. Mathiews shortly took effective steps.
After a few preliminary negotiations with Ralph Henry Barbour, Joseph A. Altsheler, William Heyliger, and other writers of approved and expensive juveniles, Mr. Mathiews put a list of their works in his brief case and marched into the very citadel of the fifty-center, Grosset & Dunlap. To Mr. Louis Reed of that office he expounded an idea that would first, he insisted, make money and second, improve adolescent reading habits. Briefly, he had compiled a list of acceptable juveniles that could be sold for fifty cents like the thrillers. Grosset & Dunlap was to reprint them, the Boy Scouts of America would inaugurate "Safety First Book Week" to publicize the series. Smart Mr. Reed liked the idea. The books were prepared and on November 1, 1913, appeared the first "Safety First" pamphlet, sent to all booksellers. Grosset's new list was on the back with, among other titles, Williams of West Point by NRA Hugh S. Johnson, then a budding young litterateur of great industry. Since that time this collection has had a checkered career, becoming finally "Juvenile of Distinction" costing a dollar. Grosset has sold over 2,000,000 copies of the books thus advertised and other publishers adopting the idea have had similar success.
Mr. Mathiews second blow was an article for the Outlook entitled Blowing Out the Boy's Brains. "One of the most valuable assets a boy has," he announced, "is his imagination ... Story books of the right sort stimulate and conserve this noble faculty, while those of the ... cheaper sort, by over-stimulation, debauch and vitiate, as brain and body are debauched by strong drink."
Blowing Out the Boy's Brains became a tract that swept the country. Women in Portland, Oregon, stood beside the counters of bookstores discouraging would-be buyers of fifty-centers. Disgusted booksellers packed up their Tom Swifts and shipped them back to the publishers.
Naturally, Stratemeyer was furious. He threatened to sue but was told by Grosset & Dunlap, notoriously considerate of its authors, that such a maneuver would necessitate choosing sides, and the firm was not sure whose side it would be. In a calmer and more practical frame of mind he issued a pamphlet of his own in which he included only Syndicate books as worthy of adolescent attention. The result of this counterattack was Mathiews' decision to fight Stratemeyer on his own ground. He persuaded Percy Keese Fitzhugh, who was working on historical encyclopedias for Harper's, to write the Tom Slade scout series. It was the fifty-cent material but presumably put together more adroitly than a Syndicate yarn. Over 3,000,000 copies of that work have been sold to give Fitzhugh claim to fame as the only man whose books have been more popular that all but three Olympians of the Syndicate (Tom Swift, Rover Boys, Motor Boys).
Today, as fitting for a reasonably successful St. George, Mr. Mathiews is no longer rabid about the dragon fifty-centers. He admits that perhaps they engender the reading habit. But Stratemeyer never conceded that his books were, as Mr. Mathiews had suggested, "of the cheaper sort."
The fact that they were so financially successful made excuses superfluous to Stratemeyer's mind. But he did attempt to justify them by making his later stories suggestively instructive. The flower of this idea was the Don Sturdy books in which the hero follows explorations of the moment to find phenomena even stranger than those described in Sunday supplements.
Until the moment he took to his bed with fatal pneumonia he was devising new series. And the "great juvenile" he was always going to write was forever lost in the deluge of his 20,000,000 pot-boilers that bestow upon him the fame of a colossus he never wanted to be.
But the fifty-cent juvenile is not dead. Not by a long shot. Publishers will tell you today that even such moss-backed old standbys as The Rover Boys are Rip Van Winkle-like, coming back to life. For a while the movies, then the depression, damaged them, but the fifty-centers have never really lost their place in the literary sun. Tripe they were in the beginning, tripe they are now, and tripe they will always be. But a wise publisher knows to his profit that they are pap to a maturing mind, and from the customers point of view, most delectable pap to boot.