I just found out Betty Ballantine passed away recently in her New York home at age 99. Betty, along with her husband Ian, can be credited for creating a real market for fantasy and science fiction with their publishing imprint, Ballantine Books.
Before the Ballantines created their company, paperback books weren’t widely distributed and there wasn’t much market for them. Betty and Ian changed that by improving the quality of the books themselves, making them more desirable for readers, and offering a better selection of titles.
The first title they published in 1952 was Cameron Hawley’s Executive Suite and they blew the industry away. It was the first time a hardcover and paperback version of a book was released at the same time. Houghton Mifflin sold the $3 hardcover at the same time Ballantine offered a 35¢ paperback.
Many worried that a cheap version of the book would hurt the author with lower royalties, but the opposite was true. Ballantine’s sales soon totaled 470,000 copies while Houghton Mifflin sold 22,000 hardback copies. Hawley’s book was so readily and cheaply available, the widespread publicity was a huge boost for the author. The film rights were sold to MGM, and the 1954 film was nominated for four Academy Awards. Paperback books were deemed the new standard. (The story mirrors the ebook debates of today.)
If Betty and Ian hadn’t had the vision and insight to bring excellent literature to the masses, many people would have never become acquainted with authors like Tolkein and Bradbury. They also introduced us to Shel Silverstein and even Tommy Hilfiger shows up on their list of authors. One of my favorite novellas, A Clockwork Orange, was published because of their unflinching dedication to literary excellence. It was the Ballantine’s fearless approach to publishing that built their success, and the success of the fantasy and sci-fi genres.
“We really, truly wanted and did publish books that mattered,” said Betty in an interview with Locus Online in 2002. “And science fiction matters, because it’s of the mind, it predicts, it thinks, it says, ‘Look at what’s happening here. If that’s what’s happening here and now, what’s it going to look like ten years from now, 50 years from now, or 2,000 years from now?’ It’s a form of magic. Not acracadabra or wizadry. It is the minds of humankind that make this magic.”