3. Nancy Drew and the Best-seller Secret
Nancy Drew Mystery Stories have sold 200 million books all over the world since their release in 1930. When the books were relaunched in 2004, they hit the "New York Times" best-seller list. Many factors have contributed to make the adventures of the girl sleuth a success. Let's see them.
Edward Stratemeyer realized there was a huge, untapped market for children's books. In Stratemeyer's view, it was the thrill of feeling grown-up and desire for a series of stories (an "I want some more" syndrome) that made reading attractive to children.
The most important thing is that all the books follow a formula. Edward Stratemeyer himself said, in an interesting interview published by the "Newark Sunday Call" on December 9, 1917, and before he started the Nancy Drew series, when he was writing books for boys: "They look for a certain something in my books, something I can't describe […] Horatio Alger once told me that the critics accused him of a sameness of writing – that all his books were pretty much alike. ‘I've found out what the boys who read m books like', Alger declared to me, 'and I'm going to put it there. I'm not going to risk disappointing my books and having them feel that I've fooled them for the sake of winning a reputation for versatility' […] We feel cheated if we pick up a favourite author's new book and find it like nothing he ever wrote before".
Stratemeyer was, therefore, conscious of the necessity of discovering a successful formula and following it in a book series. Accordingly, he wrote his first series, called "The Rover Boys" under the pseudonym Arthur M. Winfield, in which he established some key practices that he would follow in all his productions, including Nancy Drew:
The books would be in a series and several volumes should be published at once to see if the series was likely to be successful.
The books would be written under a pseudonym. Edward Stratemeyer might die, but Carolyn Keene didn't have to.
The books would look as much like adult books as possible.
The books would be of a predictable length.
Chapters should en mid-situation, and also pages should as much as possible, to increase the reader's desire to turn pages and his reading speed. After finishing one book, the reader would want another, with the same type of story.
Each book would begin with a quick recap of all previous books in that series.
And there is no doubt that this formula worked: a poll conducted by the American Library Association in 1926 indicated that ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed listed a book written by the Stratemeyer Syndicate as one of their favourites.
Apart from the keys used in every series, girl sleuth's series have other formulas that are followed in every book:
Teenager heroine is motherless, fatherless or orphaned.
Characters do not age and there is little character development.
Common plots involve restoring missing inheritances and identities.
Setting is a vague location unable to be pinpointed on a map.
Clues often involve jewels, maps, diaries, wills or letters.
Gothic and mysterious elements feature in the location and plots.
Cliff-hanger chapter endings are common.
Typical villains are low-life characters, bullies, social climbers or foreigners.
Stories refer to previous and following books in the series.
Lists of all the books in the series and other series books from the publisher are listed on the book covers.
Betsy Caprio, author of "The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch" (Trabuco Canyon, Calif. Source Books, 1992), has elaborated a chart showing the formula as it appears in all the Nancy Drew stories. We cannot insert it here for copyright reasons, but you will find it at Nancy Drew and Friends .
There are other factors that led to the success of Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer also realized he couldn't write all the new stories for the many different series books he was creating. So he devised a system where he delegated writing stories to ghost writers, while he kept editorial control and all the rights to the stories. He wrote a few pages of plot following a formula but it was Mildred A. Wirt Benson, who wrote twenty-three of the original thirty Nancy Drew books, that breathed a feisty spirit into Nancy's character. Her characterization helped make Nancy an instant hit.
The original publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, also played a huge role in the success of Nancy Drew. They chose Russell H. Tandy to illustrate the series. His illustrations brought to life the character of Nancy and, without doubt, they helped sales as children were attracted to the glamorous covers. Nancy was portrayed as bright and adventurous, sophisticated and glamorous, the embodiment of an all-American girl.
Stratemeyer also convinced publishers to drop the price of his hardcover books to fifty cents, making them affordable and attractive to a broader audience and boosting sales.