Dedicated to the legacy of Edward Stratemeyer, author & founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate

Ghostwriting in the Mega-Books Era 2

A 2015 post collected some information about Mega-Books, the book packager that succeeded the Stratemeyer Syndicate when the earlier firm was purchased by Simon & Schuster.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate supplied outlines, often very detailed, to its ghostwriters.  However, Mega-Books (and Simon & Schuster afterward when they took the work in house) required writers to supply their own outlines, chapter titles, and even book titles.  This significant change altered the types of writers who could best work on the series.

Of course, even when the writers are given a free hand and required to be the primary source of creativity in the production of the books, the publisher still had an interest in keeping the books consistent with others and the way they wanted to brand and market the series.

To achieve this, the publisher provided a “bible” with descriptions of characters and guidance on what kinds of plots and details were allowed or prohibited.  Some of this follows the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s “Formula for Outlines” [1, 2, 3] but it also updated and expanded the scope of what would be part of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys story.

Examples of 1980s and 1990s Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books produced by the Syndicate (left) and afterward.

One of the changes which occurred after the Stratemeyer Syndicate was purchased by Simon & Schuster in August 1984 was a pause in publication where no new Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books were issued in 1986 (after the in-progress books were issued).  This gave the publisher and its new book packager, Mega-Books, time to plan how to move forward.

The result of this planning process was to produce two Nancy Drew series and two Hardy Boys series.

The larger paperbacks, called digest-size by the trade, were numeric and thematic continuations of the Wanderer series, this time issued under the Minstrel imprint.

The small paperbacks (“pocket size”) were geared for an older readership and featured more action and adventure elements for the Hardy Boys Casefiles series and more relationship / romance elements for the Nancy Drew Files series.

One example of the change was seen in the Casefiles where Joe Hardy’s long-time series girlfriend, and sister to the Hardy’s friend Chet Morton, Iola Morton was famously killed off in a car bomb explosion.  This was mentioned, but not generally dwelled upon, in the stories.  The enduring effect is that Joe is said to carry in his pocket a lump of melted and deformed metal from the car.  However, in the stories, Joe is more available to find a romantic interest in each story locale. Meanwhile Frank is mainly attached to Callie Shaw except in the Super Mysteries series where Frank sometimes is paired off with Nancy Drew.

Because they were such a departure from the Syndicate books produced for Grosset & Dunlap or the Wanderer imprint of Simon & Schuster, prospective writers were warned of the differences in the new Nancy Drew from the books they may have read before.  While early writers of Nancy Drew stories had no prior connection with the books, they knew that by the 1990s most writers interested in working on the series had read some of the books, often the yellow-spine hardcovers from Grosset & Dunlap.

The differences in the series even included some fundamental canonical information such as the color of Nancy Drew’s hair.  The early original text books showed and described her as a blonde.  However, the 1950s art showed a red tint to her hair that was described as “titian” after the famous artist who had many red-haired women as his subjects.  However, the Nancy Drew Files version abandons this term.

The books have a stepped-up scope of violence and the types of crimes that can be included.  In the Stratemeyer Syndicate series, murder was one of the “taboo” subjects that would not be accepted.

However, in the new series, it was possible within certain limits.

The bible gave guidelines for who could be killed and what was allowed.  In an Agatha Christie traditional murder mystery, at least one of the victims is disliked by several of the characters, providing multiple suspects with motive and the story evolves over which ones had means and opportunity.

These rules are similar to what one might see in an action-adventure TV show of the era.  No matter the level of mayhem in a 1980s show like The A-Team or Miami Vice, few people are shown to actually die or be shot.  When they are, it is a major plot point.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate planned out the different types of chapter endings by the time they produced their “Formula For Outlines” document in the 1960s.  They were supplying the very detailed outlines and wanted their writers to provide a variety of different “cliffhangers” or “holding points” as Edward Stratemeyer and his editors would call them.

The Mega-Books bible was not as prescriptive about the actual distribution of these but they did want some of them because they knew that a tense chapter ending would cause a reader to want to read “just one more chapter” long after bedtime to see what would happen next.  This kind of stimulation is somewhat addictive and probably there’s some study of the brain chemistry involved in producing endorphins associated with reading exciting books that readers want to repeat as often as they can.

Mainly Mega-Books editors wanted writers to be thinking of the broad range of holding points so they did not end up with something like a “Perils of Pauline” movie serial with one physical cliffhanger after another.

With that thought, the next installment in this series will look at some topical moral and social topics for the character of these books in the Mega-Books era.

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Keeline

James D. Keeline has been researching Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate since 1988. He has written many dozens of articles and conference presentations on these topics and has several books in progress, including a Series Book Encyclopedia, a full biography of Edward Stratemeyer, and Stratemeyer Syndicate Ghostwriters. He has also edited and published several Stratemeyer texts in illustrated and annotated editions under the 24 Palmer Street Press imprint at Lulu.com.

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