Have Laptop — Will Travel

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.

TowerTreasureCoverArt1It 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.

Et tu, Francine Pascal?

Et tu, Francine Pascal?

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.

Not that kind of Ghostwriter!

Not that kind of Ghostwriter!

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?


16 Responses to Have Laptop — Will Travel

  1. Lotis May 30 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    I read Francine Pascal when I was a tween, and when I found out she hadn’t written all of them, my world shattered. But then I dusted myself off and read the rest of them haha. Other books I didn’t know were work-for-hire were a series called The Samurai Girl by nonexistent author, Carrie Asai and recently L.J. Smith. I gobbled their series in grade school and high school. I was so unhappy with the mismatched ending to Samurai Girl I went looking for the author’s e-mail address online and found out it was a group of writers contracted to write the series. I was gutted.

    • E.C. May 31 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      I’d kind of like to see more packaged series emphasize the writer’s identity more, as media tie-in books do. We also watch television shows which are written by multiple writers, usually working together to plot out stories, and that system works out fine. Some book series for middle grade readers, like The Infinity Ring, give the different authors credit instead of making them write under one identity–though they all have established fan bases, so maybe it’s a strategic decision as well. But obviously most readers are never the wiser and will keep reading the books as long as they enjoy them, regardless of who wrote it or came up with the idea.

  2. Julie May 30 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I love the way this post clarifies the world of book packagers. Thanks EC!

    • E.C. May 31 2014 at 4:44 pm #

      I’m glad it was helpful, Julie! I think there are still many mysteries around book packaging, which we can hopefully explore in other posts.

  3. Joséphine Jun 1 2014 at 9:04 am #

    To this day, I have never been able to remember the authors’ names printed on the Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew covers. I pretty much figured out that ghost-writers were behind these books when I was 12 or so, so it didn’t matter to me. They were always easy to find because my library had a separate shelf on the side just for those two series. They were so popular, they didn’t shelve them with the read of the books.

    I do remember the name Francine Pascal because I did have to look for the Sweet Valley books myself. But somehow I also figured that Francine Pascal couldn’t have written all these books herself. If didn’t seem possible because there were so many spin-offs but the author’s name printed on the covers remained.

    Oh and then there were all those Mary-Kate & Ashley books as well. I can’t even remember if there were any author names printed or if the books were simply shelved under Olsen.

    I think for readers such series are great because there’s always more to be read and those books are perfect for binge reading. Fly through one book, grab the next. They don’t usually require a lot of thought because they’re not all too deep but over time, the characters grow on you.

    Credit-wise though, I sometimes wish I knew who the real authors were, even if the names don’t tell me all that much.

    • E.C. Myers Jun 13 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      I would occasionally get partway through a Hardy Boys book and realize that I had read it before. There were so many of them, and they were so similar, I couldn’t keep track of the individual stories! But I kept reading them.

      One day, when I have a bit more time and money, I’m planning to collect all the original Hardy Boys books. The 1923 editions were heavily revised, and in some cases rewritten entirely, for the 1950s, which are the ones that I read. I think the older books were better written.

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