Saturday 6 November 2021

Inside look: How Street & Smith handled manuscripts in the early 1920s

AFTER the author has hopefully dropped his manuscript in the mail-box, what happens when it reaches the offices of the Street & Smith Corporation, the largest publishers of fiction periodicals in the world? We will assume that your story has been addressed to one of the nine magazines—Popular, Ainslee’s, People’s, Top Notch, Love Stories, Detective Story, Western Story, Picture Play, Sea Stories—published monthly, fortnightly or weekly as the case may be.

Street & Smith building, New York
Street & Smith building, New York
First it goes to Harry, the red-headed office boy, who passes it on to the editor to whom it is addressed. Manuscripts directed to no particular magazine are read by a special reader, but it is always well to send your story to the magazine to which you think it would be most suited. If, however, you wish your story handed over to other magazines in the group, in the event of its being rejected by the first, the editor will gladly do so if you inclose a note requesting it.

All manuscripts reaching the Street & Smith offices are carefully entered in an immense book with the date, title, and name of the author. This system is an effectual guarantee against the loss of manuscripts or undue delay in giving a decision upon them. After the editor has opened your envelope he glances first at the name in the corner of the manuscript. If it is familiar to him and if he happens to be in need of the kind of story you write, he may read it at once. Otherwise it will probably go into a box labeled “To be Considered,” and there it will have to take its turn. If the box is full, you may have to wait two weeks for a reply, exclusive of the time it takes in the mails.

While several of the Street & Smith magazines will take a detective story, it is obviously useless to send a tale of that type to, for instance, Sea Stories or Picture Play. Each magazine has a policy which the author can easily ascertain by reading several numbers.

DOES each and every editor read everything that is submitted to him? No; for it would be impossible. Too much material comes in for him to read individually. He has an associate editor, maybe two or three, who have the authority to read and discard. There is generally one person who does the “weeding,” that is, throwing the hopeless material into a box marked “To be Returned.” Into this class come the unskilled person who thinks the story of his life is quite as interesting as anything he has seen in print, stories written on soiled paper, stories from young people who have the “itch,” stories from those who are slightly demented or have a mental aberration of some kind. Fully sixty per cent of the material submitted is impossible.

After the weeds have been weeded out, the “likelys” are passed on to the associate editor. In none of Street & Smith’s offices is the round-table discussion conducted. The associate editor reads your story, and if he likes it he writes a brief summary of its perfections and defects, and hands it to the editor. If the editor doesn’t like it he will turn it over to someone else on the staff and finally get a consensus of opinion. In this way he will often buy a story he doesn’t like himself, but which he thinks will probably be popular with his readers.

Besides the associate editor, there is the person who merely “edits” ; that is, corrects punctuation, spelling errors, and sees that the story “hangs together,” that there are no “holes” or discrepancies in it. If your hero has blue eyes on the first page, he must have blue eyes all the way through the story; if his name is Jones, he must continue to be Jones to the end of the story. Too; the person who edits must have a sharp and retentive memory for figures and dates; he must watch the time element, something which the author sometimes overlooks. Eradicating grammatical errors and seeing that nothing of a libelous nature gets into the magazine also make part of the copy-reader’s job.

Right here a word may be said of the effect of material that is sent in carelessly typed on cheap and often soiled paper. If the writer could only visualize the psychological reaction which bad copy has on the editor, copy-reader, and all who handle his manuscript, he would probably be more painstaking with his manuscript. It is amazing to see how many writers are careless in this respect. A good story will often sell in spite of the way it is typed, but sooner or later the author will wonder why his manuscripts meet a chilly reception. The writer becomes unpopular with the editorial staff because he makes the same errors week in and week out. The copy-reader complains to the editor, and one day, when the editor isn’t feeling too well and happens to pick up a manuscript badly typed, badly punctuated, and slovenly thrown together, he is going to turn it down flat. The composing room must also be considered, for complaints often go to the man higher up, and sometimes the copy is so poor it is impossible to edit properly.

Galley Proofs

After your story is “set up,” it comes back to the editorial department in galley proofs. If the copy-reader has failed to do his job thoroughly and there are many errors in the proofs, the line or paragraph, as the case may be, has to be reset. If there is much resetting to be done the foreman of the composing room is apt to complain to the business manager, and so it reacts eventually on the editor.

Back to the composing room go the galley proofs, to reappear in the editorial offices as “page proofs.” Even a mistake overlooked in the galley proofs will often be pounced upon in these last pages. Then the man in the composing room pats himself on the back. An occasion of this kind occurred recently. It escaped the editor and copy-reader, but was triumphantly discovered by the proof-reader. The author had the clock in the Metropolitan Tower striking sonorously the midnight hour when it only flashes after ten o’clock. Too, there is sometimes a “line over.” This means that somewhere a sentence has to be “cut,” sometimes a whole paragraph, when it oc- curs at the end of the story. On the whole, “editing” is a serious and punctilious, and often a thankless job.

THE editors themselves are all a most amiable and approachable lot, and they are nearly always in the market for material.
Charles Agnew MacLean, editor of The Popular Magazine

Charles Agnew MacLean, editor in chief, when he isn’t wistfully trying to find a story as good as “The Prisoner of Zenda,” can wax very enthusiastic on the science of pugilism. An air of generosity surrounds him. He has a rather large mouth, a prominent nose, frank-looking eyes, and it is said that Popular pays the highest rate of the Street & Smith publications.

Helen L. Lieder, editor of Ainslee's

Miss Helen L. Lieder, of Ainslee’s, although she lives in Brooklyn, likes high-brow literature, and is well posted on the moderns and the classics. She is trying to get away from the flippant type of fiction, but is anxious to obtain sophisticated stories of interest to women.

Henry W. Thomas, editor of Top-Notch

It would be hard to guess how old the editor of Top-Notch is, but he looks like a veteran, with his battleship jaw, his confident attitude, and if you should happen to have a funny story to tell him, his eyes light up before you can get to the humorous climax. He gives you the impression of having heard all the funny stories there are to tell. He always relishes a joke. But mention Robert Louis Stevenson and you'll see his eyes brighten. An ardent admirer of Robert Louis is Henry W. Thomas. Arthur E. Scott, his assistant, writes poetry on the side and—murmur it low—plays rather a canny poker hand. He is only six feet seven in his stockinged feet.

Frank E. Blackwell, editor of Western and Detective, was for several years a newspaper man. He has a pear-shaped head, almost bald, and isn’t sensitive about it. He dignifies a derby, and if destiny hadn’t designed him for an editor, he might have been a detective. This is the feeling he gives, but, outside of delving into detective and Western yarns, he is chiefly interested in horses. He lives out on Long Island, and at the mention of the equine his ears shoot back and an alert gleam dances in his eyes.

A. L. Sessions, editor of People's

A. L. Sessions, once editor of Ainslee’s and now editor of People’s, has been with the firm twenty years. He is a scholarly, gentle-appearing man, who would put a penny in a blind man’s can just as graciously as he would greet a prospective contributor. He is always ready to assist anyone who wants to verify a quotation from Shakespeare, and owns the only reference book of that kind in Street & Smith’s.

Amita Fairgrieve, first editor of Love Story Magazine

Miss Amita Fairgrieve, whose name might be fictional, but is not, just as her hair might be henna’d only it isn’t necessary, is editor of Love Stories. She is very much interested in baseball.

Charles Gatchell, editor of Picture Play

Last, but not least, Charles Gatchell, of Picture Play, who, when he isn’t finding out all about a famous picture star’s present, past, and future, is something of an artist. He is married, and his wife, Fannie Kilbourne, sells a story every little while to The Saturday Evening Post. Lucky man! I’ve met his wife.

CONTACT with editors is often a great help to writers; moreover, editors like to get in personal touch with their contributors. Very little formality is observed at Street & Smith’s. All the aspiring author has to do is to inquire of a face at the window for the editor. If the editor knows of you indirectly, or if you have sold him or want to sell him a story, he will be glad to meet you, or send someone almost as influential as himself to consult you. If you have a pleasing personality, there is no doubt that a personal interview is of great value. Street & Smith pay promptly for all material purchased. Checks are mailed out every Friday without fail. It might also be helpful for the writer to know that Street & Smith punctuate and spell according to Mr. Webster.

An illuminating story as regards a personal interview is told of Mr. Thomas, the editor of Top-Notch. A very young author once asked Mr. Thomas what kind of a story he wanted. Mr. Thomas explained patiently and to the point, and added a number of don’ts for the benefit of the prospective contributor.

“Don’t write a morbid story,” he cautioned among other things. “Don’t write a story with an ambiguous ending. Don't write an unpleasant sex story.” And so on and so forth.

The young author went hopefully on his way, and a few days later he mailed a story to the editor. Still a few days later he appeared in the Street & Smith offices and inquired about its fate.

“Won’t do,” declared Mr. Thomas with the brusqueness that sometimes masks his inherent kindliness.

“But I observed all your don’ts,” protested the crestfallen author.

“I should have added one more,” was Mr. Thomas’s reply. “Don’t send me a rotten story.”

From The Student Writer, May 1922
By Heather Landon 
Recently With the Street & Smith Editorial Staff


  1. Thanks for this interesting article on the Street & Smith editors. But I wonder why no photo for Frank Blackwell?

    1. He's one person for whom I've not been able to find a photo in about a decade of searching. I'm sure one will turn up eventually. Do you recall seeing one?

  2. What a great article, thanks for posting it.

  3. Is this most excellent blog discontinued? Say it ain't so please.