Since self-published company histories are a fiction genre of their own, it’s hard to know what to take as fact and what’s been left out. Corporate lore is sustained by word of mouth and selective memory. Fact checking seldom plays a role. As written, Fiction Factory is an entertaining and fascinating story, but you keep wondering.
We can be fairly certain that Street & Smith began as two men by that name in pre-Civil War New York on the staff of a weekly newspaper, The New York Weekly Dispatch. As the story goes, they eventually became its owners. Street was the brains behind marketing and sales. Smith masterminded the editorial content. Together they turned the modest newspaper into the publishing powerhouse, Street & Smith.
|Mulberry Street, New York City, c1900
On the one hand, there were the promotional and operational innovations that kept them a step ahead of competitors. On the other were the editorial practices that lured the best writers into the fold and got them writing what a vast audience of readers wanted to read.
Ormond Smith (son of founder Francis Smith) is portrayed as a man of refined taste who nevertheless had an instinct for lowest common denominator storytelling. By Reynolds’ account, he was instrumental in defining the popular genres of detective fiction, romance, sea stories, adventure, and westerns. An early movie magazine, Picture-Play, was also his inspiration.
|Horatio Alger, Jr., 1832-1899
Occasionally, the names of literary notables turn up in the roster of authors, including O. Henry, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. A drama review of a Barrymore play by the young Dorothy Parker is a delightfully wry inclusion. The most prolific writers seem to have been well paid for their efforts. Some “graduated” to higher-brow (“slick”) magazines where they got both better pay and greater respectability.
|Ned Buntline, 1813-1886
Most fun to read is the story of Frederick Schiller Faust, better known as Max Brand. A poet with an alleged love of far more sophisticated pursuits, he churned out a staggering number of stories for Western Story Magazine, starting in 1921. Reynolds describes the feverish pace in which Brand, who’d never been West, produced western novels.
Another adventurer, he was able to contribute with some credibility to several of the popular genres, and under numerous names. He apparently made a handsome living. A look at imdb.com reveals that scores of his stories were adapted into films. He was killed in Italy at the age of 51 while working as a war correspondent during WWII.
|Frank Merriwell story, 28 April 1906
The intent of a company biography becomes more obvious in the closing chapters, which could be titled “Street & Smith’s Ascent to Respectability.” There's a serious discussion of 1950s science fiction, in which Astounding Stories sadly gets only a brief mention. Meanwhile, the long account devoted to Mademoiselle magazine is interesting chiefly for what it chooses to reveal of early modern marketing techniques.
Begun in 1935, as the story goes, Mademoiselle was invented to target a niche market of educated young women interested in careers and affordable fashion. For pulp fiction fans, this story is not nearly so interesting as it wants to be – especially as it congratulates the editors for printing fiction of more “literary” merit.
The more colorful characterizations of the early founders of the company give way to bland portraits of its current corporate officers. The prose here bears the mark of company boilerplate and press releases. I wonder if Reynolds even wrote it.
A glance at wikipedia reveals that Street & Smith lasted only another four years and was purchased in 1959 by Condé Nast. Once a vast publishing empire, it is remembered today chiefly among the fans of pulp fiction. I’m sure that would tickle the likes of the two business partners who got it all started back in 1855.
Fiction Factory is currently available at amazon, AbeBooks, and Powell's Books.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Video, "Read the Book"