Previous installments in this series can be found here.
There are many ways in which the world has changed in the last century: polio vaccinations, personal computers, removal of anti-miscegenation laws, the new iterations of the endless generational cycle of boy bands required to soothe the Old Ones in their slumber. But perhaps one of the most indicative of how the world has shifted, particularly in the labor market and in publishing, is that people used to write books to make money as a last resort. People like Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Before he began writing fiction, Burroughs had: worked as an instructor of geology, cavalry, and Gatling gun at a military academy; joined the army and chased after outlaws; been honorably discharged from the army for a heart murmur; owned a stationery store in Pocatello, Idaho; worked on a ranch with his brothers; worked at the American Battery Company with his father (for whom, as an advertisement, he drove the world’s first electric car through the Columbian Expo in Chicago in 1893); mined for gold along the Snake River; worked as a railroad policeman, construction company timekeeper, accountant, and clerical manager; sold light bulbs to janitors, candy to drugstores, and bound volumes of lectures door-to-door; served as office manager for a company that made a snake-oil “cure” for alcoholism that the FDA briskly shuttered; wrote and sold pamphlets on expert salesmanship; managed the stenography department at Sears, Roebuck; and sold pencil sharpeners. At one point, he applied to join both the Rough Riders and the Chinese army (he was rejected on both counts). When checking his pencil sharpener company’s ads in pulp fiction magazines, Burroughs read some of the work and, as he put it later, he figured, “if people are paid for writing such rot … I can write something just as rotten.” That’s a bit of clever branding-in-retrospect; in reality, he’d been writing on the side for a while for his brother’s kids (and to distract himself from his professional difficulties).
Regardless of his origin story, Burroughs’s first foray into professional storytelling was “Under the Moons of Mars,” serialized over six months in 1912 in pulp magazine The All-Story. “Under the Moons of Mars” is what we now know as “A Princess of Mars,” which Disney presented as John Carter last year, to the delight of literally dozens of us. The Barsoom books, as the John Carter series is known (“Barsoom” being the Martian word for Mars), are ridiculous, filled with dumb, unbelievable interpretations of masculinity and reductive, racist segmenting of the Martian population. They can also be, once you unpack all the offensiveness, so much fun to read, in large part because literally nothing bad can happen.
Yeah, John Carter gets into fights regularly with “the worthiest foe” he has ever faced (he’s prone to hyperbole), but he’s always going to win. Friends that we thought were killed in battle will show up later to save the day. The love interests will always end up together. Gore Vidal nailed it, I think, in his 1967 article for Esquire, in which he argues that Tarzan and John Carter are “daydream figures” for bored adults; avatars for the “dreamer [that] ceases to be an employee of I.B.M. and becomes a handsome demigod moving through splendid palaces, saving maidens from monsters (or monsters from maidens: this is a jaded time).” Indeed it is, Gore.
Burroughs received an impressive $400 for the serialization of “Under the Moons of Mars” (adjusted for inflation, that’s nearly $9,500 today), and by the time the “Moons” serialization was complete, he had written another two novels, including Tarzan of the Apes. And thus begins Burroughs’s golden period of hustling.
Despite Rudyard Kipling’s probably-not-far-off-the-mark comment that Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes just to “find out how bad a book he could write and get away with it,” Tarzan earned Burroughs $700 in initial serialization and was an immediate cultural sensation. Imagine if we had all read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as soon as it came out in 1997 and were clamoring for The Chamber of Secrets in 1998 the same way we actually were when The Deathly Hallows came out in 2007.
Even though he was new to the publishing and magazine industry, Burroughs’s history in sales primed him to do it right. By the time the third Tarzan book, The Beasts of Tarzan, was ready to be serialized, Burroughs was playing the editors at The All-Story and New Story magazines off each other to drive up his per-word payment; he ended up selling it for $2,000. In the summer of 1913 alone, Burroughs’s income was $4,600 in story sales and $6,000 in syndication commissions. On top of the serialization and book sales, movie rights soon came in, too.
The first Tarzan film came out in 1918, and even though the initial film stuck to the plot of the book, subsequent films spun further into the grunty, “Me Tarzan, you Jane” caveman schlock that most casual viewers associate with the character. Burroughs intensely disliked this, as his Tarzan was a multi-lingual member of the House of Lords. But the movies further expanded the audience for his books, and afforded him the ability to start living in the style to which he hoped to become accustomed (read: he was constantly running out of money).
With his history of slick salesmanship and job-jumping, Burroughs knew a good opportunity when he saw it, and he grabbed on tight to the growing Tarzan empire. Over the years, he published more than two dozen Tarzan books, but it is his control over his content, rather than the content itself, that is remarkable.
Burroughs incorporated himself in 1923 (he’s not a businessman, he’s a business, man), the first American writer to do so, and by 1931 had cut out the middleman and was self-publishing his Barsoom and Tarzan sequels, as well as his many other series and one-off genre pieces, though nearly everything was still serialized in the pulps first. Incorporating lowered his income taxes (Dame Agatha should have thought of that), and crucially, he also retained licensing, if not always creative, control of non-book usage of his characters, including the Tarzan films, the syndicated Tarzan comic strip, radio show, and comic books. And all this income made it possible for him to make some big investments—we have Burroughs to thank for the Tarzana neighborhood in Los Angeles, which grew up around his ranch of the same name. Here, perhaps, it is worth noting that in Burroughs’s made-up ape language, “tarzan” means white-skinned, which may have been appropriate for the character, but was a little on-the-nose for a whites-only planned community.
The restrictions on who could live in Tarzana were far from the only documented instances of racism in Burroughs’ lifetime. During the start of the first World War, his distaste for Germans figured prominently in his “Caspak” books, in which nefarious German U-boat sailors are enemies on par with the prehistoric killer animals discovered in a “lost continent;” and in Tarzan the Untamed, which was translated unsympathetically into German as Tarzan der Deutschenfresser (Tarzan the German-Eater—that definitely tanked his German sales). While he did not support the Nazi regime, Burroughs was a big fan of eugenics; he also advocated on behalf of Japanese-American internment camps during the second World War. In fact, offensive portrayals of members of other races in his stories are too numerous to fit here.
Burroughs wasn’t much better when it came to gender. His female characters aren’t typically shrieking or helpless, and occasionally they even fight alongside their male counterparts, but largely they serve as motivation or reward for the male heroes. However, it wasn’t his depictions of women, I think, that got him in the most trouble—it was his particularly virulent take on masculinity. His main characters are typically super-athletic, fish-out-of-water fighters who are loners (except for a handful of trusted friends and advisors). They are most comfortable when nearly naked (it sure is hot in this jungle/on Mars/on Venus/in the center of the Earth/on this undiscovered volcano crater-continent) and armed with a blade, and they are devoted to demonstrating chivalry through actions, not words, like some effeminate courtier.
This vision of manliness was perfect for the generalist pulp magazines, but it eventually backfired on Burroughs. He wanted to branch out as a writer, but his readers didn’t want histories or romances or melodramas—they just wanted their manly, “clean-limbed” men. Burroughs wanted badly to be like Jack London (hence the ranch), and to transcend from “genre fiction” into “literary fiction,” but, to his lifelong chagrin, it wasn’t to be. One evening, when he and his second wife were on their honeymoon in Hawaii, Ernest Hemingway and his new wife Martha Gellhorn happened to be at the same restaurant. Florence, Burroughs’s wife, saw Hemingway across the room, and encouraged Burroughs to go introduce himself. Embarrassed by her fangirling and perhaps his own stature in the literary world compared to Hemingway’s, Burroughs refused, preferring to sit and stew. Hemingway and Gellhorn left without even knowing the Burroughses were there.
As seen in that non-encounter with Papa, Burroughs brought some of his misery upon himself. But there were plenty of external stressors, as well—for example, the Depression wasn’t great for pulp writers (or anyone, I guess). The magazines had less and less money to pay for serialization, and the “popular” editions, precursors to paperbacks today, of Burroughs’s books sold for just fifty cents apiece, of which he got five cents. However, once Burroughs, ever the hustler, decided to cut out the middlemen and publish his books himself, contracting with warehouses and distributors through Edgar Rice Burroughs, Incorporated, his profits started to go back up. He explained his process thoroughly in the May, 1937, edition of Writer’s Digest; it’s still worth a read for any aspiring self-publisher.
In addition to the media endeavors, ERB, Inc., also licensed Tarzan bread, Tarzan ice cream cups, Tarzan clay action figures, and even the Tarzan Clans of America network, modeled on the Boy Scouts. Marketing experts warned that flooding the market with too much Tarzan would create internal competition, but, in a rare sound business decision, Burroughs was right—more Tarzan just created a demand for even more Tarzan.
Burroughs continued to write, and rake in the cash money, and, after enjoying his honeymoon there, spent some time living in Hawaii. A witness to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he became the country’s oldest war correspondent at the time, writing, among other things, a morale-boosting column called “Laugh It Off.” It took until his mid-sixties, but he finally got to see some of the front-line action that he’d be writing about for more than half his life.
After the war, Burroughs moved back to Encino, California, where he died in 1950. Per his wishes, his ashes were buried at the foot of a walnut tree outside of his Tarzana offices—the final request of a man dedicated to his work. Burroughs left behind two ex-wives and five children (three biological from his first marriage, and two stepchildren he adopted after his second marriage); eventually, the family tree would produce another notable public figure and artist who would explore issues of modern masculinity: director Wes Anderson, Burroughs’s great-grandson.
Burroughs wrote what are, by today’s standards, often misogynist, racist pieces aimed at glorifying a certain perception of white American manhood and perpetuating a neo-colonial Manifest Destiny of western arrogance and (weirdly, welcomely) occasional goofiness. And by the time he died in 1950, he was a best-selling author. While we nimbly set aside the tightly proscribed, white-male action hero narrative and back away swiftly, what general lessons can we learn from Ed to improve our own writerly hustle?
There’s always a chance you could do something big.
Burroughs went from pawning his wife’s jewelry to buy ginger snaps for lunch to owning a 550-acre chunk of Los Angeles within a decade. Don’t throw in the towel just yet.
You don’t have to be good at everything.
Gore Vidal asserted in his Esquire article that while “Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly.” And that’s Vidal speaking as a fan—way harsh, Tai. But he was onto something: you don’t have to be a perfect writer. You just have to be an interesting writer. If someone in your workshop group just really nails dialogue every time and you just can’t take dealing with their effortless talent any more, remember that they maybe feel the same way about you and setting.
Self-publishing is not what it used to be/is what it used to be.
Self-publishing is no longer relegated to the land of vanity presses and print-on-demand copies of retiree memoirs, which Amazon is eager to remind authors of on a regular basis. But that “old” version of self-publishing isn’t the whole story; when the publishing industry was still coalescing into the behemoth we know it as today, authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mark Twain would self-publish their work to have better access to the sales and control of the content. Self-publishing is absolutely a legit path—just be sure to read the fine print so you understand what percentages you’ll be handing over and what choices you’ll actually have control over.
Rework your content.
Most of us will never be in the position of managing a pan-media brand like Tarzan, which is good, because that sounds exhausting. But we can practice that sort of content herding on a much smaller level. Say, for example, you’re going to participate in NaNoWriMo in November, and you have your basic characters nailed down and a general outline. You won’t start on the novel itself until November, but in the next couple months, you could sketch a couple comics or write a short film script that deals with the same characters and/or setting—this would give you a new view of your novel, and potentially material that you can reuse.
Or, directly from the man himself, from an article in The Writer’s Monthly: “Don’t get the idea that you’re through with a basic plot when you’ve written one story from it…keep it and sprout another—or three or four. It’s easy!” Like the sourdough starter school of writing.
A People’s Guide to Los Angeles
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The “Barsoom” Series (Indiebound | Amazon)
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The “Tarzan” Series (Indiebound <—OMG, what is up with that cover illustration | Amazon)
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The “Caspak” Series (Indiebound | Amazon)
John Taliaferro, Tarzan Forever : The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan (Indiebound | Amazon)