Pirating, Prizes, and Hacks
In the early 19th century, most story paper publishers pirated their fiction from England and France, including the works of well-known authors such as Charles Dickens, Frederick Marryat, and Eugene Sue. Pirating was low risk, because there were no international copyright laws, and high reward, because publishers didn't have to compensate any of the authors that they published.
Some of the earliest story papers would occasionally offer cash prizes for original fiction, which was one way that a paper could set themselves apart from their competition. But instead of only printing prize winning stories, they would publish any story submitted, often without paying or even acknowledging the author. Among the contestants to the Philadelphia Saturday Courier's first prize contest in 1831 was a young Edgar Allan Poe, who submitted five stories, all of which were published anonymously and without payment. 1 However, prizes were expensive, so publishers continued to rely largely on pirating from Europe or from one another well into the 1840s. In fact, while it became increasingly less common, dime novel publishers never really stopped pirating European fiction.
By the 1840s, there was a greater demand for fiction, which made competition between publishers much more fierce. Publishing original stories, especially about American themes and characters, was one way for a paper to distinguish itself, but most publishers were reluctant to compensate their authors very well. This led to the rise of the first ‘fiction hacks’, authors who wrote very quickly and in extremely high volumes, mostly for the story papers published in Boston, like Uncle Sam, the Flag of Our Union, and the Universal Yankee Nation. Joseph Holt Ingraham was among the most prolific hacks, writing as many as 20 novels each year.2 But earning a comfortable living was challenging even for the most productive authors, with the majority of contributors writing fiction as a sideline to another career, often teaching or journalism.
The 1850s saw the rise of literary celebrities, authors like Fanny Fern and E.D.E.N. Southworth, who were able to sell papers and pamphlets based on name recognition alone. Some of these authors were, at least in part, the creation of publishers like Robert Bonner, who would offer his authors comeptitive salaries, bonuses, and even paid leave.3 Signing exclusive contracts was one way that Bonner was also able to protect his investment. This would also lead to some fierce competition between publishers towards the end of the decade, as they tried to sign authors away from each other. Many of the earliest dime novels published were written by celebrated authors, like Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, Mrs. Metta V. Victor, and Edward S. Ellis.
Although many publishers would become enormously wealthy from the labor of the story paper author, most authors would struggle to support themselves on their earnings. The most celebrated writers were able to eke out some security in the mid-century under exclusive contracts, until publishers realized that even literary celebrity could be commodified.
By the 1870s, publishers had awakened to the fact that they were losing money by paying large sums to celebrated authors. The good publicity they received when signing an exclusive contract was not worth as much to them as the identity itself, which they would go to great lengths to control. Money that was once paid to authors for their work would instead be used for lawsuits against competitors to protect "house names." Two of the best known examples of this are the authors Old Sleuth and Bertha M. Clay.
Harlan Page Halsey created the character Old Sleuth in 1872, a fictional detective who was later attributed as the author of the stories that he appeared in. Although not initially a huge success, the character eventually took off and became one of that publisher's biggest sellers. Unfortunately, George had a brother named Norman, who was also in the cheap fiction business and would often copy his brother's ideas.
Norman published several detective stories by and about characters like "Sleuth" and "Young Sleuth," which resulted in a lawsuit from his brother. The judge in that case decided that Norman would be "perpetually enjoined...from publishing any stories represented to have been written by Old Sleuth...unless such stories were actually written by" Halsey.4. Of course, this ruling didn't prevent virtually every other publisher from trying to cash in on the "Sleuth" identity, leading to imitation after imitation, then lawsuit after lawsuit. Street & Smith ultimately lured Halsey away from George Munro in 1881, at the height of Old Sleuth's popularity, which meant that the publisher could no longer claim protections for his author against competitors. But this didn't end the lawsuits. In cases against Street and Smith and Beadle and Adams, the New York Court of Appeals found that George Munro had "a certain property right" in the use of the phrase "Old Sleuth" under trade mark law.5 Consequently, Halsey was no longer able to write detective fiction under the name "Old Sleuth," despite the fact that both the character and the pseuodnym were his creation. The author's identity effectively became the property of the publisher.
A similar case was Bertha M. Clay, who was one of the most popular romance authors of the 19th century, orginally attributed as the author of several stories published in Street and Smith's New York Weekly in the 1870s. In fact, many of these stories were actually written by the author Charlotte M. Brame under the initials "C. M. B." for the Family Herald in London. (Street and Smith, who likely were not aware of Brame's identity, tried the name "Caroline M. Barton" first before adopting Bertha M. Clay.) The success of the Street and Smith stories soon led the publisher to use the Bertha M. Clay name not only for pirated fiction by Brame, but also for fiction by Street and Smith's other authors, including John R. Coryell, Frederick V. Dey, Gilbert Patten, and William Wallace Cook, among many others. In October 1884, just two months before Brame's death, Street and Smith announced that they had secured an exclusive contract with Bertha M. Clay, although there is very little evidence that any of the works they subsequently published were actually written by Brame herself. Not long after, these stories begin to appear in competing papers, including George Munro's Fireside Companion (1867-1903). Street and Smith objected to this copyright violation in print, but did not pursue their claim in court, likely because they were unwilling to reveal the identity (or identities) of the authors who had actually written the stories. That said, they would continue to publish stories by Bertha M. Clay well into the early 1920s.
Many of the nickel weeklies published after 1880 are commonly attributed to house pseudonyms, or identities that were attached to a particular series and that would be used by many different authors. Although a series often had a principal author, responsible for writing most of the stories, the name itself was the property of the publisher and could be shared by many real-world authors. For example, the Nick Carter stories in Nick Carter Weekly and elsewhere were attributed to the great detective himself, either as "Nick Carter," the more common "Nicholas Carter," or as transcribed and edited by Nick's protégé "Chickering Carter," but the vast majority of the stories were actually written by author Frederic Van Rensselaer Dey. However, the character was created by John R. Coryell and more than 20 writers would use the name in over 700 stories. William Wallace Cook provides a first-hand account of what it was like to work for Street and Smith at this time in his autobiography, The Fiction Factory.7
- 1. Varner, John Grier. Edgar Allan Poe and the Philadelphia Saturday Courier: Facsimile Reproductions of the First Texts of Poe's Earliest Tales and 'Raising the Wind' (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1933), iii-iv.
- 2. Longfellow, Samuel (ed.). Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence, Vol. II (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1886), 35.
- 3. Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly (New York, Macmillan, 1954), 180-5.
- 4. Munro v. Beadle. 55 Hun, 312.
- 5. Munro v. Beadle, 28, 109 N.Y. 503.
- 7. Reynolds, Quentin James. The Fiction Factory; or, From Pulp Row to Quality Street: The Story of 100 Years of Publishing at Street & Smith. New York: Random House, 1955.