When I discovered that two of my favorite childhood authors, Franklin W. Dixon (The Hardy Boys) and Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew), didn’t actually exist, my world turned upside down.
If this is a shocking revelation for you, I’ll give you a moment to take it all in.
Okay, still breathing? Good. Granted, the news may not be all that surprising considering that Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books are still being published today, around ninety years after the series first appeared in print. Not impossible, perhaps, but highly improbable that “Dixon” and “Keene” are still with us and churning out these adolescent adventures, though Frank, Joe, and Nancy haven’t aged much.
It turns out that the true creator of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and a host of other classic characters from Tom Swift to the Bobbsey Twins, were dreamed up by a man named Edward Stratemeyer. He pioneered the concept of “book packaging,” hiring freelance writers to pen books under pseudonyms, according to his plot outlines. The first to write books as Dixon and Keene was a man named Leslie McFarlane.
A writer “ghostwriting” as another author is one of many ways a novel can be written as a “work for hire.” Sweet Valley High fans, I have more bad news for you: Francine Pascal did not write all those books herself! If you’re skeptical whenever a celebrity “writes” a book, you have good reason to be.
But there are many other kinds of projects that are considered “work for hire,” some of which even allow the author to claim what glory they may, including your favorite media-tie-in novels. The authors behind those Star Trek novels are real people! In fact, some of them are friends of mine, and I vouch for their authenticity.
It gets a little trickier to know who the creator is when a publishing company develops a series in house and hires a freelance author to write the books, either under their own name or a new pseudonym. You might be surprised when you check the copyright page of a book you love: If the copyright is given to the publisher instead of the author, chances are it was a work-for-hire novel, and the author doesn’t own the rights to the plot or characters.
You might experience a moment of disillusion, but does it really matter? Probably not. The author did write the book after all, and hopefully well, and most writing is a collaborative process between authors and publishers, as well as with other writers, editors, and agents. The important thing is whether the book is any good — as with any book.
In some cases the freelance author might have been given a very detailed outline and set of characters and been tasked with connecting the dots; in other cases, she might get minimum direction and have to come up with a story and characters to fit the premise on her own. There are projects that fall somewhere in between. Moreover, most writers pay the bills by writing lots of things other than their own books — that’s simply called getting “work.” Blog posts, speeches, thank you letters, greeting cards, instruction manuals… Credit can’t always be given where it’s due, and sometimes the only place a writer needs his name to appear is on the “Pay to the Order of” line on a check.
If you’re a writer, you might be interested in getting a work for hire assignment of your own. So how does that happen? Typically a publisher will reach out to an author directly or through an agent, or you might get the opportunity through your network of contacts. If you are invited to audition for the project, you would need to submit a sample chapter or two, following guidelines from the publisher (which were developed internally by one or more people). This gives the publisher a sense of whether your approach and writing style are a good fit for their vision, and to compare what you can bring to the project versus other authors vying for the job. I’ve auditioned for a few of these, and I like to write a chapter from very early in the book and one from the middle, which is a chance to show some growth in the protagonist and introduce a variety of settings, characters, and relationships.
If you’re given some freedom regarding the plotting of the book, you may also have to draft an outline on your own — not unlike what you would submit in a book proposal when writing on spec. This outline might include a high-level Synopsis of the whole story, descriptions of the Style and Theme you imagine for the book, a list of Characters, and finally a Detailed Outline telling the story. Later, you may need to develop a chapter-by-chapter outline as well.
Work-for-hire books generally have a tight turnaround time from first draft to publication — we’re talking months instead of years — which can be very appealing in terms of getting your books on shelves and money in your bank account. But it also means you have to write both quickly and well, so it might not be for everyone. On the other hand, for some it could be a dream come true. Once I found out that Franklin W. Dixon was actually a bunch of different authors, I wanted to be one of them. And hey, I’m pretty sure I have at least one great Star Trek novel in me…
What are your favorite work-for-hire books or authors? Have you written a work for hire, or would you like to?