Thursday, June 22, 2017

Conan and the OAK, Part 1 - 1933 by Bobby Derie

"Until recently—a few weeks ago in fact—I employed no agent."
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Jul 1933 (CL 3.82, MF 2.605)

For the first years of his pulp career, Robert E. Howard acted as his own agent, dividing his working time between writing and revising stories and poems, and drafting letters to submit those stories to markets both new and established. The Texan’s access to market news was largely limited to what he could read on the pulps in the stands, industry scuttlebutt from his letters to Lovecraft, E. Hoffmann Price, and August Derleth, and the occasional guidance from editors. In early 1932, Howard supplemented this by joining the American Fiction Guild, a professional organization aimed at freelance writers, whose organ Author & Journalist contained advertisements for upcoming pulps and other market news. (CL 2.337) Around the same time, an unknown agency offered to represent Howard:
Hundreds of part-time authors have been dumped on the market, and that makes competition tougher. The part time writer is often more efficient than the professional; he’s had more time to study style and literature. An agency wrote me wanting to handle my stuff for a year or so. They bragged on what they’d done for Whitehead; I wrote Whitehead and he replied cryptically that he considered himself heap damn fortunate to have gotten out of their talons as soon as he did. (CL 2.368)
Otis Adelbert Kline
Howard turned them down, but the idea had merit: an agent devotes their energies to selling your material, freeing the writer to writing, allowing them to produce more; a good agent had representatives and connections in more markets than a lone pulpster might be aware of, and could handle the complicated issues of anthology reprints, overseas sales—or even radio serials and movie adaptations. Perhaps this is why in the spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard signed on with an agent: Otis Adelbert Kline.

Kline had been a writer in the pulps in his own right, today most remembered for his Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque serial novels like The Planet of Peril (1929), Jan of the Juggle (1931), The Swordsman of Mars (1933) for Argosy, but he was also an early contributor to Weird Tales, and anonymously edited the May-Jun-Jul 1924 issue. (WT50 84, IMH 175) Robert E. Howard was aware of Kline as a writer, and considered him a good one (CL 2.123, 302); Lovecraft was more critical, considering Kline’s fiction among “the pallid hack work of systematically mercenary writers[.]” (MF 2.560) Whatever his merits as a writer, Kline fell into being an agent; in his own words:
In 1923, I helped another writer, an old timer who had quit for eight years and with whom I had previously collaborated on songs and movie scenarios, and one musical comedy, to come back. He quickly told others of the help I had given him, and they told others, so presently, I had an agency, international in its scope. Soon I was selling the work of other writers as well as my own in foreign countries as well as the US. Presently, also, I was representing foreign publishers, literary agents and authors in this country, and similarly representing US publishers, authors and syndicates in foreign countries. (OAK 15.4)
The foreign angle was Kline’s United Sales Plan, as detailed by his friend and occasional client E. Hoffmann Price:
In addition to domestic marketing, Otis developed his Unified Sales Plan: every story which he accepted for handling in the States went to his foreign representatives. Although Otis did not by any means originate the foreign rights angle, he was a pioneer among his competitors in that he regarded every story as having foreign sales potential. He is not only increased his clients’ income—his approach won him new clients. (BOD 36, cf. OAK 5.9-12)
While much of the correspondence between Howard and Kline is no longer extant, the few letters that remain give an outline of their business relationship. Kline waived reading fees (a fee for reading a manuscript and trying to sell it), and worked on a straight commission: 10% of whatever the story sold for went to Kline. Kline, who was centered in Chicago, also had associates in other cities: if he couldn’t sell a story, himself, Kline would send it out to an agent. If they sold a story, they got a 5% commission, on top of Kline’s 10%. The checks generally went directly from the publisher to Kline, who subtracted his (and his associates’) commission, then cut a check to Robert E. Howard. So, for example, “Guns of the Mountain” (5,000 words) was sold to Action Stories by Kline’s associate V. I. Cooper for 1¢ per word, for a total of $50—of which Kline got $5, Cooper got $2.50, and Robert E. Howard received $42.50. (IMH 363) This practice was not always strictly followed, as magazines sometimes paid Howard directly, and he would cut a check for the commission to Kline. (IMH 372)

In a letter dated 11 May 1933 mentions four stories: “The Yellow Cobra”, “The Turkish Menace”, “The Jade Monkey”, and “Cultured Cauliflowers,” and asks how often Howard can pump them out. (IMH 18, OAK 10.11) These were boxing stories, part of a series starring Sailor Steve Costigan, who had featured regularly in Fight Stories until that pulp suspended publication in May 1932; “Cultured Cauliflowers” had even been written at the suggestion of editor Jack Byrne. (CL 2.196-197) Kline dutifully began circulating the tales, starting with “Turkish Menace” at Argosy, where it was rejected. (FI 3.317)

Magic Carpet Magazine
January 1934
Howard then sent Kline a new Costigan story, “Alleys of Darkness,” which was accepted by Farnsworth Wright for the Magic Carpet Magazine (the successor to Oriental Tales), and eventually appeared in the January 1934 issue—as by “Patrick Ervin” (since Howard already had another story in that issue, “The Shadow of the Vulture,” under his own name) and starring Sailor Dennis Dorgan instead of Steve Costigan. Wright bought “The Yellow Cobra”, “The Turkish Menace”, and “The Jade Monkey” as “Dorgan” tales, though Magic Carpet folded before they saw print. (FI 3.318) In May 1933, Howard sent Kline another Costigan tale: “Sailor Costigan and the Destiny Gorilla”; according to the manuscript list, Kline sent this out to multiple markets, but it failed to sell. (IMH 358, cf. FI 3.318-319).

In June of the same year, Howard sent Kline three westerns: “The Devil’s Joker,” “Knife, Bullet & Noose”, and “Law-Shooters of Cow Town” all of which featured similar results. In a letter dated 16 June 1933, Kline returned as unsuitable Howard’s story “Wild Water” (IMH 19, 359), and opined on the other stories:
The other Westerns you sent me are short, and can get by with light plots in all probability, but I believe that if you are going to write in this length or longer you should develop more complicated plots, with intrigues, counter plots, and two or more principal characters, each with some definite purpose to accomplish, the purposes forming the basis for the plot conflict. The best lengths to aim at in the Western field are around 5,000 words for shorts and 10,000 to 12,000 for novelettes. Personally, I would like to see you try a novelette or two. I have an idea that they are just as easy for you to write as the shorts, and they bring in more money. You are doing some splendid novelettes for Weird Tales, and with your knowledge of the West, there is no reasons why you shouldn’t do equally good ones in that field. (IMH 19)
Mar-Apr 1934
Action Stories
Whether or not Howard took this advice to heart, in July he sent Kline “Mountain Man,” the first Breckinridge Elkins yarn, which sold in October, and would appear the following year in Action Stories (Mar-Apr 1934). (IMH 360) Howard wrote to August Derleth that “I hope to work out a series, as I used to in the past with Steve Costigan, the fighting sailor.” (CL 3.148) If Howard was following his own head in regard to Westerns, he was following Kline’s advice in at least one respect: trying to crack the detective pulps:
Lately I’ve been trying to write detective yarns, something entirely new for me, and haven’t had much success — in fact none, so far, except for a short yarn, “Talons in the Dark”, written in San Antonio last spring, and which Kline, as my agent, sold to a magazine called Strange Detective Stories. Kline has been a big help in teaching me the technique of detective story writing; whether I am able to profit by his teaching remains to be seen. (Kline marketed another yarn for me since I wrote the above.) (CL 3.108, MF 2.634)
“Talons in the Dark” was submitted to Kline in July 1933, and after being rejected by Real Detective received some rewrites and was accepted by Strange Detective Stories, where it would appear under the title “Black Talons” in December 1933.

“A New Game for Costigan” was sent to the Kline agency in August 1933, but like the “Sailor Costigan and the Destiny Gorilla,” it failed to place. (IMH 360) Howard at this point had about a dozen stories in circulation by Kline, but only a couple sales to show for it. He acknowledged that Kline had cracked him into a new market, but admitted he didn’t “know how it’ll pan out.” (CL 3.132) Lovecraft was more positive:
Glad you have begun to place detective tales—Kline seems to be a great teacher of formula, judging from the help he has given Price. He is also a marvellous aid in marketing. (MF 2.655)
Feb. 1934
Strange Detective Stories
Strange Detective Stories accepted Howard’s next submission through Kline, the novelette “Lord of the Dead,” as well as “The Teeth of Doom” (published under the byline “Patrick Ervin” and the title “The Tomb’s Secret” in the Sep 1933 issue), and “The People of the Serpent” (published as “Fangs of Gold” in Feb 1934); however, in the March 1934 issue of Strange Detective never came, and “The Lord of the Dead” was returned, unpublished and unpaid for. All of these tales featured a new series character, weird detective Steve Harrison—but Harrison himself wasn’t enough of a draw; Howard sent Kline “The Black Moon”, “The Voice of Death”, and “The House of Suspicion” in the same line, all of which were rejected. (IMH 361-364)

Howard next sent Kline the adventure novelette “Hawks Over Egypt” and the Steve Costigan boxing short “A Two-Fisted Santa Claus,” neither of which sold, though Kline marketed them broadly. (IMH 362-363) Breckenridge Elkins did sell, however: “Guns of the Mountains” would appear in Action Stories (May-Jun 1934). The end of the year would see similar results, with Howard submitting “The Ghost With the Silk Hat,” “Swords of the Hills,” and “The Gold from Tatary”, with only the latter selling (to Thrilling Adventures, where it appeared as “The Treasures of Tartary” in Jan 1935).

So in the first year of their business, Howard had submitted about two dozen stories and Kline had sold eight—although “Lord of the Dead” would ultimately fizzle and “Alleys of Darkness” and “The People of the Serpent” paid in 1934, so Howard was only paid for five in 1933. “Mountain Man” ($46.75), “Talons in the Dark” ($55.25), “The Teeth of Doom” ($72.25), “Guns of the Mountains” ($42.50), and “Gold from Tatary” ($42.50) accounted for a total of $259.25 after the Kline agency’s commissions. (IMH 358-364) This was in addition to what Howard was selling to Weird Tales on his own, and unpaid material in The Fantasy Fan.

Here are links to part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

This series won the 2017 Robert E. Howard Foundation's, Cimmerian Award, Outstanding Achievement, Essay (Online) (tied with Karen Joan Kohoutek – “Queen by Fire and Steel and Slaughter: Bêlit’s Hymn”)


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

No comments: