May 29, 2015


The Mystery of the Hardy Boys and the Invisible Authors : Along with the Nancy Drew series, almost all of the thrillers in the popular teenage franchise were produced by ghostwriters, thanks to a business model that proved to be prescient. (DANIEL A. GROSS,  MAY 27, 2015, The Atlantic)

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.

Alice Leonhardt, who wrote Nancy Drew books for Megabooks, never even met the intermediaries who passed on her manuscripts to the publisher. "I have no idea where they were," she says.

The industry that churns out children's books has changed surprisingly little in the last century. In 1905, a prolific writer named Edward Stratemeyer founded a network of freelance writers and editors. Though you might expect a writer collective to support writers the way labor unions support laborers, the Stratemeyer Syndicate's central aim was simply to produce a huge number of books at the lowest possible cost. "Edward Stratemeyer was a genius," says Greenberg. "He was like an idea machine."

The Stratemeyer Syndicate helped prove that book packaging with ghostwriters could be incredibly profitable--for managers and owners, at least. Writers signed away their rights to royalties and bylines in exchange for a flat fee. (Early on, it was around $100 per book.) The syndicate launched dozens of series, guessing that only a few would be hits. It debuted Tom Swift in 1910, followed by The Hardy Boys in 1927, and Nancy Drew in 1930. That same year, Stratemeyer died in New Jersey, by then not so much a writer as a tycoon.

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 Goosebumps to 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.

There are a few benefits in writing for packagers, of course. First, they free writers from having to market and brand themselves, since they're writing for series that have been established for decades. Leonhardt says it was a relief not needing to do book tours or media appearances.

Second, the pay can be pretty good. 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."

One of the folks here confessed to doing the historical research for a James Patterson book, which was then mutilated by the "authors." 

Posted by at May 29, 2015 4:37 PM

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