Sunday, July 16, 2017

Conan and the OAK, Part 4 - 1936 by Bobby Derie

1936 brought a few ruffles to the Kline-Howard relationship, beginning with a letter from Howard to agent August Lenniger, dated 27 December 1935:

I have received your letter of the 17th, and read it with much interest, together with the literature that accompanied it. Mr. Otis Adelbert Kline handles most of my work, and I have no reason to be dissatisfied with him. However, there’s no harm in having more than one string to a bow, as in the case of my friend, Ed Price, who does business with both yourself and Mr. Kline, and seems to be doing very well indeed. I notice that in your ad in the December issue of the [Author & Journalist] you state that, in the case of a professional who has sold $1,000 worth of stuff within the last year, you will waive reading fees and handle his work on straight commission. Well, I sold considerably more than a thousand dollars worth of stories. If you are willing to handle my work on a straight commission basis, I’ll be glad to send you some yarns and let you see what you can do with them. Of your ability as an agent there is of course no question. As to my yarns, I write westerns, adventure, fantasy, sport, and occasionally detective. I have been a contributor to Weird Tales for eleven years, and a 70,000 word novel, The Hour of the Dragon is at present running in that magazine as a serial. Action Stories is running a series of humorous western shorts, one of these stories having appeared in every issues of the magazine for about two years now. In the past few months I have made three new markets, Western Aces, Thrilling Mystery and Spicy Adventures. In addition to the magazines above mentioned my work has appeared in Ghost Stories, Argosy, Fight Stories, Oriental Stories, Sport Stories, Thrilling Adventures, Texaco Star, The Ring, Strange Detective, Super-Detective, Strange Tales, Frontier Times and Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine. (CL 3.395-396)

Western Aces
October 1935
Gus Lenniger was, strictly speaking, Kline’s competition, although the two were on friendly terms, and by unusual circumstances shared a client in E. Hoffmann Price, whose situation combined with the non-exclusive nature of Howard’s agreement with Kline probably precipitated the confusion. As Price tells it, he had Lenniger as his agent, but wasn’t getting sales, so:

I wrote Otis, and sent him a novelette with which Lenniger had no luck whatsoever. All I expected, in my ignorance, was some advice which I could utilize. After all, Otis and I had drunk from the same barrel. He suggested a revision, and a second revision, and then, a substantial cut. It was only then that I learned about his agency business. As a friend, he was giving me a hand. He was not looking for another client. He never once suggested that I dump August Lenniger. He took my much revised script, sold it, and also, a short story which had got nowhere. Each salvage operation was in the crime field. And then, August Lenniger got his stride. I had never had any cause for complaint. That it had taken him awhile to express himself in terms meaningful to me was natural. [...] Stories for Kline went to him as “Hamlin Daly” yarns. My “official” agent got E. Hoffmann Price stuff. Oddly, each sold to publishers which the other was not selling. An arrangement of this sort could not, and of course, should not last long. It did not. (BOD 33)

Kline had a slightly different take on events, in a letter to Otto Binder dated 14 May 1936:

I really gave Price his start in the detective story field. When he wanted to branch out he came to me, and at that time I told him I was busy with my own writing and didn’t want to take on anymore clients. I recommended Lenniger. He sent him four or five novelettes and a bunch of shorts, and Lenniger didn’t sell a damn thing for him over a period of six months. He then asked me if I would check up and see what was wrong for him. I agreed to do so, and he wrote Lenniger for a couple of the novelettes. He revised them under my directions, and I sould them right off the bat to Dell for 1 ¼ ¢ a word. He then wrote for some more, and during that six months period I sold, all told, five novelettes which Lenniger had been unable to sell because he didn’t demand revisions, and three or four short stories. With all all of these sales editors began to notice Price’s name, and Lenniger began to sit up and take notice. He sold a short story for Price, and started going around to editorial offices trying to get assignments. Then he sold a novelette, and some other stuff, and kept getting Price more assignments. In spite of that fact, I solde twice as much for Price over the period of a year as did Lenniger. I continued this record for another year. [...] Lenniger,  however, kept boring in, using the assignment method. He kept contacting new editors, asking for assignments for Price. Then he would wire or airmail Price, and naturally he wouldn’t turn down any orders for stories if he could possibly dill them, on the “bird in the hand” theory. This ran down my stock of Price stories, and of course ran down my sales. I got him the Pawang Ali assignment from Tremain, and if I had been in New York regularly could have gotten him a lot of others and beaten Lenniger at his own game. As it is, he is cashing in on a man I trained for the work, and the only way I can beat him is through the New York end. (OAK 16.6-7)

Howard had also dealt with Lenniger briefly in 1933, when Lenniger, Price, and Kirk Mashburn had the idea for an anthology that never materialized. (CL2.240; 3.14, 41) The extent to which Howard intended to use Lenniger as an agent isn’t clear, but the issue was further complicated by a letter from Howard to William Kofoed, dated 8 Jan 1936:

Glad that Bloomfield can use “Fists of the Desert”, and congratulations on your ability to persuade him to take it without cutting it any. Of course you were quite entitled to your commission. You mention that Bloomfield wants some dope about me to use when the yarn is published. Well, there’s not much to tell; I’ve lived a pretty ordinary life; however, I’m inclosing such data as there is on another page. I feel very gratified that Bloomfield should be, as you say, interested in my work, as that’s a market I’ve tried in vain to make for years. I haven’t any westerns or adventure yarns on hand just now, as those I have written are being submitted by Mr. Otis Adelbert Kline, of Chicago, who handles a great deal of my work, though not all of it. However, I’m working on a short sport yarn now which I’ll be glad to send you to try with the Popular Publications, as you suggest. Also, if you’ll send me the three Costigan yarns that were rejected, I’ll rewrite them in the third person as first person slang would seem (judging from the letter you enclosed) to be the main objection, and let you try them with Bloomfield again, if you care to do so. (CL 3.399-400)

Jack Kofoed was the former editor of Fight Stories and Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine; after the latter magazine folded in 1934, Kofoed sought to act as agent for the stories that had been accepted but not published; “Fists of the Desert” (published as “Iron Jaw” in Dime Sports Magazine, Apr 1936) was presumably one of these. For his part, Howard was not trying to go behind Kline’s back, and wrote to his agent on 8 Jan 1936:

And now about another thing: When the sport magazine Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine went off the stands the editor, W.H. Kofoed, had on hand three shorts and a novelet which I understand he had intended using. Not long ago, when it became evident that the magazine was not to be revived, he offered to show these stories to the editors of other sports magazines for me, and I agreed. Today I received a check from him for the novelet, which he sold to Dime Sport. The shorts were rejected. He tells me that Bloomfield is interested in my work, and suggests that I let him have something else to submit. Popular Publications is a company I’ve long yearned in vain to crash. So I’m re-writing “Sailor Dorgan and the Jade Monkey” in the third person for him to try. This one, you know, you placed with Wright for the Magic Carpet, and recently returned to me to be re-written when Magic Carpet was abandoned as a publishing project. If Kofoed sells this, you’ll receive your commission just as if you had sold it, for you’ve handled the yarn and are entitled to it. Kofoed says: “A number of the boys at Popular Publications are old friends of mine who worked at Fiction House when I was editing Fight Stories. I therefore feel pretty much at home with them. This of course doesn’t hurt any, though it can’t make up for unsuitable stories.” A few sport stories placed with Popular Publications might rouse a little interest in my work, and help our chances with the adventure yarns. Just between you and I, I’m afraid I’m burnt out on sport stories, but Popular Publications is a market worth shooting at. I trust that my intention of letting Kofoed try to place “The Jade Monkey” meets with your approval. If it sells, I’ll send you a check for your commission on the next mail. And by the way, I notice that Fiction House is reviving Fight Stories on a quarterly basis. That doesn’t offer much of a market, but you might offer them the Costigan yarns again. Most of them were rejected formerly by Byrne, but three or four have been written since the magazine went out of business. I’ve got the first draft of a fifteen-thousand word orientale and will rush it to you as soon as I’ve polished it up. At present it’s full of kinks and wrinkles that iron out slowly. (CL 3.400-402)

Kline’s response is not preserved for posterity, but probably echoed Price’s sentiments that such a situation could not last long, and replied promptly, apparently asking it Howard was displeased with his services. Howard responded on 13 Jan 1936:

Just read yours of the 11th. I gather you aren’t too pleased with the idea of Kofoed offering some of my stuff to Dime Sport. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, for I certainly had no intention of doing so. When I agreed to let Kofoed show Bloomfield the yarns he had left over when Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine went out of business, I did not mean to imply any dissatisfaction with your agency. Emphatically not. I’ve already let Kofoed have the three Costigan yarns he had on hand, and the re-written “Jade Monkey” but if you feel that it’s not fair to you, I won’t send him any more. I certainly don’t want to do anything unethical. Living off out here with no contact with the literary world, I’m not always exactly clear on the proper procedure in various cases, and am always glad to be advised by anyone in position to know. I was under the impression, though, that some writers do business with more than one agent. Please let me repeat that I had no intention of taking away from you any of the work you are handling, to give to Kofoed or anyone else. Concerning the Dorgan series, under the name of Patrick Ervin, I don’t think they stand a chance with anybody (except possibly Fight Stories) in their present shape. In a letter from Bloomfield which Kofoed sent me, Bloomfield expressed a dislike for first person slang, and I believe there is a trend away from that style of yarn in most of the other magazines. Obviously, there isn’t a chance for them clicking with Dime Sport. But I believe we might sell a few if they were re-written in the third person, with some of the dialect in conversation cut out. If you’ll send me the whole batch I’ll rewrite them that way. There are a few which I believe I can turn into Spicy Adventures. You remark that Bloomfield might think I’m sending you the weaker yarns and Kofoed the stronger ones. No chance of that. The novelet he bought wasn’t a Costigan (Dorgan), being one of the only two fight novelets I ever wrote in my life, and in no way resembling the Costigan series, as it was planned to use it in Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine under a pen name. As for the three Costigan yarns Bloomfield rejected, you have several I consider as good or better. Thanks for the dope about the needs of the Dells. Their rates sound particularly intriguing. I’ll have to read some of their magazines to get the slant, though. P.S. As the Dorgan yarns were re-typed in your office, you can send me the carbons if it’s handier, and I’ll rewrite the yarns from them. (CL 3.402-404)

Otis Adelbert Kline
Kline wasn’t happy, and Howard was apologetic—but having already promised the stories to Kofoed, seemed determined to keep it; though Kline’s response appears to have aborted whatever work Howard might have placed with Lenniger. As Howard wrote to Kline on 18 Jan 1936:

Just read your letter of the 15th. I can see your point of view, and thanks for enlightening me. No, I don’t remember that Price ever mentioned to me the circumstances by which both you and Lenniger came to be handling his work. When I let Kofoed show those yarns to Bloomfield it did not occur to me that it would be to your disadvantage. I sinned entirely through ignorance. You will remember that you had never asked for the exclusive rights on my stuff. You remember when I began selling the series to Kofoed, for Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, I wrote offering to pay you your commission just the same, but you declined to take a commission on a story you had neither read nor handled. You said at the time that you did not demand exclusive rights on my yarns. I somehow considered that understood from the start; a year or so before I got in touch with you, I had rejected the offer of what I think was a very reputable agency because they wanted me to sign a contract giving them exclusive rights to all my work. I couldn’t see my way clear to it, because I was at the time making at least a living with markets I had built up myself, and entirely by my own efforts. One thing that recommended you to me was the fact that you didn’t demand all my work; that of course, together with your unquestioned ability as an agent. However I can see that you are quite right in desiring exclusive rights as far as other agents are concerned. [...] I’ll be governed entirely by your wishes in this matter. I’ll let Kofoed submit the four yarns he has now, and give you your commission on any he manages to sell; or I’ll have him return them to me, send them to you, and protect Kofoed on commissions on any of these four you might sell. Let me know what you want me to do. In any event, I won’t send him any more stories. And I am quite willing to give you exclusive rights to the New York territory, as far as any other agent is concerned. I certainly have no reason to be dissatisfied with your agency, and see no reason why I should give work to other agents. I have already explained the special circumstances — and my own ignorance — which led to the business with Kofoed. I do retain the privilege of submitting an occasional yarn myself to some new market — that is to say, some magazine which has not bought any of the stories you are handling for me — if I happen to write a yarn that isn’t connected with any of the series you are handling. Since you get almost a hundred percent of what I write, anyway, an occasional short slanted at a new market couldn’t cause any of the complications you point out as result of working with more than one agent. (Naturally I wouldn’t take advantage of your market-ties.) As for first-person dialect, I think the best argument against that sort of story is the fact that the Costigan yarns have been on offer for some years now, without success. As for the Elkins yarns, it must be remembered that I built up what I feel justified in considering at least a fair-sized following of Fiction House readers, years ago when there was less prejudice against that type of yarn. I first started slanting at the Fiction House magazines when Fight Stories first appeared, back in 1928 I believe it was. I wrote story after story before I clicked. I found the editors kind and helpful, and they seldom rejected a yarn without a note giving reasons and helpful suggestions. At last I created Sailor Costigan and the series followed, which ran for a long time, and which I have every reason to believe was popular with their readers. (The editor of Sport Story once asked for the series, but the Fiction House boys wanted to keep it exclusively, and I felt it was their say-so; I sold a few yarns of the Kid Allison series, also firstperson dialect to Sport, then they developed a bias against firstperson stuff.) But what I started out to say was that the Costigan series built up a following with Fight Stories readers, and the readers of Action Stories in which some of the yarns were published. When Fiction House revived Action Stories, there was a market ready-made for the Elkins stories. I believe the only chance of selling the Dorgan yarns would be to re-write in third person — and then I have my doubts. However, you might try them on Fight Stories first. It won’t do any harm, and Byrne might be able to use a few of them. (CL 3.404-406)

Novalyne Price (Ellis)
This response appears to have mostly placated Kline, as Howard wrote to Novalyne Price on 14 Feb 1936:

Yes, Kline’s still my agent, and I’m doing a little business with a fellow named Kofoed, of Philadelphia, former editor of Fight Stories, and now editor of Day Book, who does a little agenting for me on the side, much to Kline’s disgust, I fear. (CL 3.418)

Kline’s emphasis on the “New York territory” was important to him; many of pulp publishers had offices in New York City, and Kline himself would move across the country and establish a New York office for his agency. In the meantime, Kline relied on an associate to cover the New York beat: Otto Binder. One half of the pulp writer Eando Binder (the other being his older brother Earl), in late 1935 Kline hired Otto to replace his brother Allen Kline as the agency’s representative—which included shopping around Howard’s manuscripts. (OAK 5.18, 16.3) Binder had a difficult time of it; as the commission on his sales did not nearly begin to cover his costs, and ended up writing to Kline on 11 May 1936:

As for the loss of John Scott Douglas, perhaps the favorable outlook for Robert E. Howard’s work will tend to make up for that. I would appreciate your comments on this. [...] Obviously, in my opinion, the volume of business itself—and especially the amount of salable material by the better authors (Ward, Price, Howard, et al.)—must increase, before this N. Y. end can promise to support an agent. (IMH 35, OAK 5.8, 13-15)

Kline replied to Binder right away, on 14 May 1936:

Howard, too, has had his troubles. He wrote me some months ago that his mother was very ill. They live in a small town, and he took her to doctors, hospitals, etc., for observation. While he didn’t tell me the details, I judge that she must have some lingering, incurable disease like cancer, as he has been so worried about her he has not been able to do full justice to his writing, and also has had most of the care of her, which took his time from his writing. For several weeks he didn’t touch his machine, and only now is trying to get back into the harness. (OAK 16.4)

Kline likewise restated this belief that Howard’s mother was dying of cancer to Carl Jacobi (IMH 68), although her actual illness was tuberculosis.

True to Kline’s predictions, Howard’s sales in the first half of 1936 were picking up; the year began with a check from Weird Tales for “The Grisly Horror” (IMH 366, CL 3.400), Binder’s list of sales beginning in December 1935 includes eleven stories from Howard (OAK 5.18), which overlaps with data in the ledger (IMH 367-372). However, the division of payment appears to change in 1935—instead of Kline taking 10% and his associate 5%, leaving Howard with 85% of the sale price, Kline appears to have split his 10% commission equally with his associate (usually Otto Binder), so that Howard gets 90% of the sales price. This would resolve some of the discrepancies between the ledger and Binder’s commission list; for example, Binder lists a commission of $2.70 for “Murderer’s Grog”, while the ledger says this was a 5,400 word story that sold for $54.00 (1¢ per word), of which Howard was paid $48.60 and the commission on it was $5.40 (10%)—which figures only makes sense if Kline was splitting his commission with Binder. (OAK 5.18, IMH 371-371)

So assuming no errors were made in either the ledger or the commissions list, the Kline agency sold “A Elston to the Rescue” ($54.00), “A Man-Eating Jeopard” ($49.50),  “Murderer’s Grog” ($48.60), “A Gent from the Pecos” ($72.00), “Gents on the Lynch” ($76.50), “The Purple Heart of Erlik” ($46.80), “The Dragon of Kao Tsu” ($47.70), “Sons of the Hawk” ($216.00), “Black Winds Blowing” ($72.00), “The Dead Remember” ($31.50), and “Sons of the White Wolf” ($90.00) before July, and counting the check for “The Grisly Horror” ($99.00) Howard was looking at $903.60—his best year yet, and that not counting “Graveyard Rats”, “Pistol Politics”, “Desert Blood”, and “Evil Deeds at Red Cougar”. This also does not take into consideration the novel A Gent from Bear’s Creek, which sold to Herbert Jenkins in the United Kingdom, or everything outside of Weird Tales or Dime Sport which Howard sold outside the Kline agency, and would jive with Dr. Howard’s comment that “He has collected more than $1400.00 since January[.]” (IMH 60)

Of course, many stories didn’t click. “Guns of Khartum,” “Daughters of the Feud,” and “Ship in Mutiny” proved too spicy for the spicies. (CL 3.400-401) Binder couldn’t sell “Ring Tailed Tornado” or “Fists of the Revolution,” and struggled to move some of Howard’s adventure stories, but the Kline agency continued to push Howard’s material and Howard himself, as the Texan mentioned in a letter to Lovecraft dated 13 May 1936:

I have become so wrapped up in western themes that I have not, as yet, written a follow-up yarn for the last Oriental adventure novelet bought by Street & Smith, though Kline’s been urging me to get one in circulation. (CL 3.461, MF 2.953)

Likewise, Howard wrote to Jack Byrne on 21 Apr 1936:

My agent, O.A. Kline, tells me that you have suggested that I try my hand at a series of humorous yarns for Argosy, on the general type of the Breckinridge Elkins stories. I have in mind a new character, Pike Bearfield, of Wolf Mountain, Texas, about as big, dumb, and ludicrous as B. Elkins. (CL 3.435)

Argosy Weekly
October 17, 1936
This resulted in “A Gent from the Pecos,” “Gents on the Lynch,” and “The Riot at Bucksnort,” which appeared in Argosy later that year. Binder wrote to Kline 21 May 1936:

Was down to see Jack Byrne today. I left with him a list of Howard’s adventure stuff, with word lengths and type, and asked him if he would like to keep it handy in case he needed something in that line pronto. I’ve been trying to figure out some way of getting Howard’s adventure stuff in there, and this may result in something. When meeting a deadline, editors are liable to pounce on the nearest thing, just so it’s half-way decent, and once in a author has plenty of chance to stick. [...] it seems that Howard has already submitted two Westerns, shorts, in accordance with last month’s interviews, and says he is accepting them, although he has not yet informed Howard. So at least Howard is in Argosy with Western shorts. But I won’t be satisfied until Howard is in there with some longer adventure stuff. That list may and may not result in something. If not, we’ll have to figure out something else. (IMH 35, OAK 5.15-16)

Otto Binder wrote to Howard on 5 June 1936, congratulating him on the sale of the Pike Bearfield stories to the Argosy, and asking if he would accept the sale of “Vultures of Whapeton” to Smashing Novels at the low rate of ½ ¢ per word; Howard replied in the margin of the letter:

1/2 a cent is O.K. if you can’t get more; I think this yarn has been turned down by most of the better paying mags, anyway. (IMH 37n6, CL 3.464)

This brief note would be one of, if not the last, of Howard’s letters. He committed suicide on 11 June 1936.

Works Cited

BOD    Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others
CL       Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda)
CS       The Conan Swordbook
FI         Fists of Iron (4 vols.)
IMH     The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard
MF       A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E.                                Howard (2 vols)
OAK    OAK Leaves: The Official Journal of Otis Adelbert Kline (16 issues)
WT50  WT50: A Tribute to Weird Tales

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