Meeting the editors – Munsey & Fiction House

BEFORE I went to New York on this editor-interviewing trip I had a very inadequate idea of the indescribable vastness of our metropolis, in spite of all I had read and heard about it.

For instance, I thought that the job of visiting the editors would be a comparatively simple one, involving at most a brisk saunter from one magazine office to another. I knew that most of the big theatres of Manhattan were in one district, and I suppose I had the impression that all the publishing houses were similarly in close proximity to each other.

Believe me, they are not! The Street & Smith plant, for instance, located at 79-89 Seventh Avenue, is so far away from most of the other publishing establishments that an airplane could very profitably be used in getting from one to the other, provided there were any place to land. Fiction House, Inc., is about the nearest to it, being only four or five miles farther up the island of Manhattan. Then to get to the headquarters of the Clayton Publications, from which emanate Ace-High Magazine, Cowboy Stories, etc., one must trek across the city from 461 Eighth avenue (the address of Fiction House. Inc.) to 799 Broadway, a considerable distance even as the crow flies. And there are no crows flying about New York City.

Everybody who has ever sold a story or who is trying to sell one knows about Robert H. “Bob” Davis. Now please don’t get excited; I must confess right at the outset that I failed to see the notable Bob. He wasn’t in New York at the time. But I conscientiously tried to see him; for Bob bought my first story, back in the early winter of 1917, and gave me encouragement to hope that some day I might actually become an author. Thereafter he bought a whole series of stories from me, and I very definitely suspect that he was the only editor in the whole wide world that would have fooled with me at that early stage of my development. All hail to Bob Davis!

“Two-eighty Broadway” is what the Frank A. Munsey Company inscribes upon its embossed stationery as its New York editorial address.

“That,” I said to myself, “means that it is in the 300-block on Broadway. I am now in the 1100-block. Ergo, I have only eight blocks to go. I might as well walk.”

I started out. About an hour and three quarters later I paused in front of an ornate department store show window and took stock. The number over the main entrance of the department store was “967.” How was this thus?

AND then, belatedly, I remembered what Editor Hawkins of The Author & Journalist had told me before I started from Denver. “New York,” he said, “does not number its streets one hundred to the block. It clings to the old fashioned plan of straight, consecutive numbering, without reference to blocks.”

So I took a Broadway surface car. Just why New Yorkers ride the surface cars is an unfathomable mystery. Held up by cross- town traffic at every street intersection, the progress of a surface car in New York would put the proverbial snail to shame. Walking is twice as rapid, in addition to which the pedestrian does not have to suffer the terrific jolts he is certain to encounter when he rides the surface car. I remained on this one a half hour or so. and then discovered that I had arrived at seven-hundred- and-something! I left the car flat on its back and stood on a street corner for a spell, trying to piece my scattered wits together.

TWO-EIGHTY Broadway, it was evident, was a long, long ways off yet. It was equally evident that ordinary means of transportation would not get me there that day. Should I hail one of the innumerable taxicabs that dashed down Broadway? Or should I walk a couple of blocks eastward and take an elevated?

I decided upon the latter. I might have taken a subway; but for the stranger the New York subway is an adventure. You don’t know where you are. and you don’t know where the subway train is going. It may land you up in the Bronx when you thought you were headed for Battery Park. On the elevated you can at least view the passing scenery. If you don’t see Central Park in the course of your ride, you may be reasonably certain that you are at least headed in the right direction.

I was to make another discovery. New York street numbers do not parallel each other. That is, a certain number on one street will not approximate a similar number on a parallel street. I alighted when the train was in the three-hundreds—and when I had walked over to Broadway I discovered that so far as that thoroughfare was concerned I had progressed only so far as the five-hundreds!

By this time I was desperate. I would find two-eighty if I had to spend the night in a hotel en route. So I walked, sturdily and with set jaws, down twisting Broadway, between skyscrapers that grew in height by leaps and bounds, until I finally came to a pause before an arched entrance having over it the words: “The Sun.” The number, I noted, was “280.”

I had started at a reasonably early hour in the morning, and it was now after one in the afternoon. An elevator discharged me, footsore and weary, at the floor where the Munsey editorial offices are located. A pretty little black-haired, brown-eyed miss informed me that Mr. Davis was not in; that Mr. Titherington of the Munsey Magazine, to whom I had sold a couple of stories, was also out, but that I might see Mr. White if I desired.

Matthew White, Jr! Who hasn’t heard of him? Or who, among the writing fraternity, has not at some time received one of his kindly letter? ’Way back in 1915, I recall, he returned one of my efforts with a letter something like this:

“If your story had been one-half as clever as the letter you sent with it, I would have been delighted to send you a check therefor. As it is—” etc.

To which I replied:

“Well, I see you kept the letter. Why not send me a check for it?”

I had read Mr. White’s clever play reviews for many years. I recalled when his name used to be emblazoned on the old Argosy, then a bright yellow as to cover, the only all-fiction magazine in the country, he must be incredibly ancient by now, I reflected. A moment later the brown-eyed miss was showing me into his office.

A dapper little man was seated at a plain, flat-topped desk at one side of a plainly-furnished room whose broad windows looked out on the roofs and incomparable skyline of lower Manhattan. He had gray hair, modishly cut and carefully brushed, and an almost-white mustache of military trimness. His eyes—no, I can’t for the life of me remember their color, unless they are gray—had the snap and sparkle of a boy of twenty as he rose, held out his hand and bade me welcome.

“Sit down, sir,” he said formally. “What can I do for you?”

I informed him that he could tell me a few things if he were so inclined. Some way or other, that plainly furnished office didn’t look like any arena for mere foolishness. Mr. White tempered its severity, to be sure, but I had a hunch that I had better get to the business that brought me here, as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

“I never sold a story to you,” I said, “but I used to sell quite a lot to Bob Davis.”

One should never, by any chance, refer to that $25,000-a-vear editor as anything but “Bob.” It denotes a familiarity with greatness that, in turn, spells presumed ease in its presence. “He bought my first story, in fact.”

Mr. White laughed. “Bob has bought a good many maiden efforts, in his time,” he said.

“He started me out as an author,” I said.

“He has started a lot of them,” Mr. White came back at me.

I hastened to give a different slant to the conversation. Clearly it is no distinction to have been discovered by Bob Davis. He has, through a long career as an editor, developed a habit of discovering authors.

I ASKED Mr. White something about his requirements, as compared with those of Mr. Davis. The latter, be it remembered, was for years the managing editor of all the Munsey magazine publications, and had the All-Story magazine as his especial charge. Now that he has retired from magazine editorship and is devoting himself mainly to writing a column for The Sun, Mr. White has become the chief manuscript purchaser for the combined Argosy All-Story.

Mr. White’s requirements, it appeared, are considerably different from those of his predecessor.

“I don’t want to get the reputation of being an easy editor to sell to,” he said. “I would rather be known as an editor to whom it is hard to sell stories. To get into the columns of this magazine is not easy for the average writer, these days. I require yarns bearing evidences of extreme care in the preparation of them—and yarns, in addition, that violate the traditions relative to ‘logical development.’

“By this I mean that I do not want the story developed in what is commonly called the ‘natural way.’ I require unexpected development—surprises at every turn it is possible to have them without destroying the convincingness of the story. I don’t want stories so easily developed that the writer has only to say to himself: ‘This is what would naturally follow at this point,’ and proceed to write out that development.

“In other words,” Mr. White concluded, “stories that are a constant challenge to the author’s inventive ability, one situation after another, and that keep the writer perspiring freely. That is what I want in the Argosy All-Story.

So there you are. I have no doubt but that Mr. White sticks to his theory, too; for I haven’t yet sold him a thing, although recently he wrote me that he would have bought a certain story from me had the solution of my problem been more convincing.

“Mr. Munsey’s motto, kept constantly dangling before the eyes of his editorial staff, was ‘Good, easy reading,’ “ Mr. White wrote. “Your ending might be convincing to readers living in Colorado, where the scene of your story is laid; but I am afraid that in other parts of the country it would only puzzle folks.”

There is no set of magazines more prompt with editorial checks than the Munsey group. The decisions of its editors are prompt and irrevocable. It has been my experience that it seldom pays to rewrite a rejected story, in whole or in part, and expect to sell to them. Likewise, I believe it a waste of time to send them stories rejected by other editors; although, of course, there are exceptions to all rules. I merely state my individual experience.

AT THE Munsey offices I learned that Robert Simpson, for many years the editor of the old Argosy, had taken that position with the Mystery Magazine, whose editorial offices are in the St. James building. 1100 Broadway. Mr. Simpson had purchased several stories from me in the old days, therefore I straightway hied myself back up that long, diagonally-travelling artery—this time taking a means of transportation that would get me there before dark.

I found Mr. Simpson to be a handsome gentleman of middle age, inclined to fall back upon a Scotch accent during emphatic moments, and able to set forth clearly and unmistakably his requirements for the magazine he is directing. For a minute or two we talked of the days when he used to buy my stories for Argosy and particularly of his kindly interest in the struggles of a neophyte in this difficult game. I recalled to his mind that he had once purchased a story from me after its seventh or eighth revision as to climax. Once he wrote advising me to “let this yarn lie fallow for six months or so, until it acquires a punch.” I followed his advice, and six months to the day I resurrected the story, read it over, saw where I had got off the track and rewrote the ending. Mr. Simpson retorted with a check by return mail.

As I spoke of these things now he laughed.

“Why don’t you write some stories for me now?” he asked. I looked my horror.

“What—me write a mystery story?” (Lapses in grammar are by no means infrequent even in a New York editorial office.) “I never wrote a mystery story in my life. I wouldn’t know how to begin one.”

Mr. Simpson laid a fatherly hand on my shoulder. Not that I am so much younger than he; to tell the truth, I am several years older. But he appears to be that kind of an editor.

“My boy,” he said impressively, “any good story may be a mystery story. When you get back home, I want you to try something for me.”

“All right,” I responded. “As soon as I get home I’ll get a copy of your magazine and read it over—”

“What for?” he interrupted.

“Why, so as to get some idea of what kind of stories you want!”

“Don’t do it,” Mr. Simpson fairly ordered. “Don’t, by any means, do it! I don’t want you to look at the magazine until after you have written and mailed me your story.”

Well, I failed to obey his orders. When I returned to Denver, in due course I bought a copy of Mystery Magazine and read it from cover to cover. When I had finished I took a plot I had had in my head for some time and wrote the yarn.

“This will hit Simpson as sure as I’m a foot high,” I told my wife. “It’s a mystery, and I have written it in the general style of the stories he’s running.”

I mailed it, and sat back to wait for the check, accompanied by Simpson’s grateful letter of appreciation. Instead, in a disconcertingly short time back came the story. It wouldn’t do. I rewrote it and submitted it again. Same thing. Three times I sent Simpson that mystery yarn, and three times it came back. Then I gave up. Some day, when I have completely forgotten every story I read in the magazine, I am going to try again!

Readers of The Author & Journalist had the pleasure of reading an article, not long ago, from the pen of Richard A. Martinsen—pronounced, by the way, “Marteenson”—setting forth some of the editorial requirements of the magazines published by Fiction House. Inc. These include Action Stories, The Lariat, Northwest Stories and Love Romances.

I called on Mr. Martinsen during my stay in New York, and was his guest at luncheon at the Pennsylvania Hotel. A dignified waiter weighing not less than two hundred and thirty pounds served us, pouring our coffee out of a silver pot with an impressively long snout. A feeling of awe creeps over me yet when I think of the size of that check; I caught a glimpse of it as my host paid the bill. What that waiter did to one of Mr. Martinsen’s crisp ten-dollar bills was a shame.

Author & Journalist readers know Mr. Martinsen’s requirements, from reading his excellent and clear-cut article. (If Mr. Martinsen doesn’t buy my next story after this boost, he isn’t properly appreciative.) He said a few things to me that did not appear in the article. He is the authors’ contact man with Fiction House, by the way. It is his job to meet ‘em when they come to New York, and thus relieve Mr. “Jack” Kelly, the editor-in-chief, of the job. Anyhow, Mr. Kelly was in Europe when I visited New York.

“WE EDITORS know perfectly well that the ‘Old West’ doesn’t exist any more,” he said. “And so does the average reader of Western stories, I believe. We’re not fooling anybody when we publish stories setting forth the West as it used to be, presumably, and trying to give the impression that this same old West actually exists today. They all know better.

“But it is our job to keep alive the romance of it. That is what the readers want. How can it be done successfully save in graphically written stories? Life is pretty humdrum for a lot of folks these days. They are constantly seeking surcease from the monotony of existence and a lot of them find it in reading our stories of a colorful West. Whether such a West actually exists makes no difference to them. It exists for them in fiction, anyway.”

Mr. Martinsen, by the way, is of the younger school of editors. He hasn’t been out of Stanford University so very many years. He is a business man as well as an editor, who keeps an eye on such things as “distribution costs,” etc. When he fares forth from his office he hangs a cane over his left arm, like a bred-in-the-bone New Yorker; but in reality he is a Western product. He has big teeth and a big smile which is seldom out of commission, and when he talks he talks right to the point.

He likes to get personal letters from writers. “It relieves the monotony,” he explained. “When an editor reads over story after story, day after day, he is glad to receive an occasional snappy letter to make him forget the routine. At least I am, and I think the other men on our staff are.”

Fiction House offices are on the umpty-umpth floor of a huge office skyscraper; you get off at the twenty-seventh floor, or something like that, and walk down a long corridor until you reach a heavy, unwindowed door bearing the label of the publishing house. It is a busy place, as a plant publishing four teeming magazines is liable to be. But Mr. Martinsen is the soul of cordiality, full of fine suggestions and eager for material. He has many personal friends among authors, and his needs are definite.

“I do considerable writing myself,” he said. “And I have found that it pays to plan out a story in advance, section by section, page by page. Also, it pays to study the magazine to which you plan to submit your yarn—study it carefully and painstakingly! That is my method, and it works beautifully. Writers who do this with relation to the Fiction House publications are succeeding, too.”

I called at the editorial offices of Adventure that same day; but of this more anon.

1 comment

  1. I’m glad to read about Robert Simpson, one of my favorite Adventure authors. I did not know he also edited Mystery Magazine. Simpson died an early death in the 1930’s.

    Adventure up next! Looking forward to Stone’s visit.

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