Saturday, April 30, 2016

Erle Stanley Gardner: Independent Author?

Scott D Parker

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was talking shop with my friend David, the graphic designer who helped design the cover of ALL CHICKENS MUST DIE, the latest Benjamin Wade book. I gave him a list of books that helped me along. The books that I mentioned was one that doesn’t usually show up when we talk about famous writing books. It’s called The Secrets of the World’s Best–Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis L and Roberta B Fugate. The book was published in 1980. It’s the story of how Gardner went from merely a lawyer to, at the time of his death in 1970, the world’s best-selling writer. It is a fascinating book. When I first discovered it a few years ago, I checked it out from the Houston Public Library and read through it very quickly. I took copious notes. I mean a lot of notes. I ended up reading it a second time and now, I’m reading it through for a third time. There is little about Gardner’s personal life; instead, this is a “biography” of how writer practiced, honed his skills, and ultimately, was successful.

The Erle Stanley Gardner papers are housed at the University of Texas at Austin at the Harry Ransom Center. When I attended school there, I never knew it and, let’s be honest, I had never read any of Gardner’s books. The two Fugates scoured through all of Gardner’s papers and pulled out a wonderful history — complete with many of Gardner’s own notes — of the steps he took to become the writer he became. The appendices are wonderful and there are even a few photographs of Gardner’s own handwritten notebooks complete with descriptions, timelines, and all the other things he needed to craft his mystery books. A particularly neat thing is the transcription of a lecture he gave to the writers of the Perry Mason TV show back in 1959. And when I say transcription, I’m talking about an 8 to 10 page block quote. He basically summed up everything you needed to know about how he wrote all his books in this single transcription.

So how do the writings of Gardner and independent authors collide?

As independent authors in 2016, we are urged to publish regularly and frequently. This helps us build up an audience as quick as possible and, if one can maintain a certain writing production, it will give our readers a constant flow of our work. There are many different definitions of “publish regularly and frequently.” I’ve seen estimates that can range from two books a year to four books a year or more. If you think about it, even a moderately paced writing schedule of 1000 words a day can yield, more or less, four books a year that you can then publish. Anything more is gravy (or flooding the market, depending on your mindset).

The reason I bring up Earl Stanley Gardner when talking about independent publishing is his publishing schedule. Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m only talking about his novels. He honed his skill as a pulp writer in the 20s and early 30s, writing short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seem to remember one statistic from the book which stated that he wrote up to 1 million words a year. I know some modern-day writers who can achieve this feat — James Reasoner being one of them — but the mere fact of writing a million words a year is incredibly staggering. But with the writing and publication of Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Gardner turned toward writing more books and fewer short stories.

Get a load of the statistics. In 1933, he published two Perry Mason novels. In 1934, he published three. In 1935 and 1936, he published two each. So that’s nine books and four years. Starting in 1937, things get more interesting. In 1937, he published three novels, two Perry Mason’s and one of his Doug Selby, DA, series. In 1938, same thing: two Perry Mason books and one DA book. Now comes 1939. We get two Perry Mason books, one DA book, and the debut of the Cool and Lam series. That’s four books in one year! He tops himself in 1940: two Cool and Lam books, two Perry Mason books, and one DA book. So, if you do the math, in the first eight years of his novel writing career, Erle Stanley Gardner published 24 books in three different series.

So yeah, Erle Stanley Gardner pretty much published like an independent author. The only difference between him and what we do in 2016 is that he had a traditional publisher. And it was the 1930s, so things were different. And he was able to devote all his time to writing. And he dictated everything. Famously, he dictated the first Perry Mason book in three days. He said it took him a half a day to come up with the plot and 2 1/2 days to dictate the entire book. Wow. I’m majorly impressed.
And if you want one more little tidbit from the mind of Erle Stanley Gardner regarding how he thought about his readers and the editors of the pulp magazines in the 1920s, there is this: “My own approach to the question is different from that of the critic. I am a writer. I serve the reading public. The reading public is my master.” And, according to the Fugates, “After that, he became an outspoken exponent of the idea the publisher of the magazine was simply acting as a middleman in purveying merchandise — story supplied by writers — to readers, the ultimate consumers.”

Erle Stanley Gardner. He acted like an independent author when such a thing rarely existed. Now it does. I wonder how many authors can replicate his success over the nearly 40 years of his novel-writing career? I have my own answer. I aim to try.

BTW, the book is now available as an ebook.

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