Obituary: Ian Ballantine

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The Independent Online
Ian Ballantine, publisher: born New York City 15 February 1916; married 1939 Elizabeth Jones (one son); died Bearsville, New York 9 March 1995.

Book publishing is a business which has produced many great characters, but there are few who have become legendary for both their personality and their achievements; the American Ian Ballantine was one. He was the founding father of mass-market paperbacks in the United States.

In a career spanning nearly 60 years (he was still active at the time of his death) Ballantine started no less than three companies, all of which are still pre-eminent in their field today. In 1939 he opened Penguin USA, importing British paperbacks from the house created by Allen Lane in 1935; in 1945 he founded Bantam Books (whose offices were closed last Friday as a mark of respect) and, in 1952, Ballantine Books, the house which still bears his name.

Born in New York City in 1916, Ballantine showed an early fascination with publishing when, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, he wrote a paper in which he described paperbound books as the great hope of publishing. On the eve of the Second World War, as Pocket Books prepared to launch one of the first American paperback lines, Ballantine, fresh out of the London School of Economics, arrived back in his native country with a stack of paperbacks recently published by Penguin in England.

Like all great pioneers, Ballantine had a vision and drive that seems simple and obvious in hindsight, but which departed courageously from the conventional wisdom of the day. In the later 1930 and 1940s the US book business was dominated by hardcover publishers whose books were sold in less than 3,000 bookshops, mostly in urban areas. Ballantine's firm belief was that the vast American public would very much like to buy and read a great quantity and variety of books if they could be made affordable and accessible. The "paperback revolution" which followed was a profound cultural contribution to life in the second half of the 20th century and Ballantine's role in its inauguration and development in the US was unrivalled.

Probably as a consequence of his early days working for Penguin, Ballantine was always a strong supporter of British writing. In 1939 he imported popular authors of the day such as H.G. Wells and P.G. Wodehouse and in later years published, for the first time in the US, writers as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke and Ruth Rendell. At Bantam he early on reprinted in paperback the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, amongst many others, thus establishing the tradition of a widely available backlist of essential writing in remarkably cheap editions. At Ballantine Books he placed increasing emphasis on original publishing in paperback and specialised in categories such as war books, science fiction and fantasy, and in the late Sixties popular ecology with titles such as Diet for a Small Planet and The Population Bomb.

As a personality Ian Ballantine was remarkable for the energy and the enthusiasm with which he kept in touch with the grassroots of his business. He was undoubtedly the best known and loved publishing figure amongst a vast host of independent booksellers across America. He travelled tirelessly, talking with and listening to the people who actually sold his books, promoting sometimes improbable causes and constantly gathering new ideas about what people really wanted. I first met him in 1969 when I was a young and unknown editor making my first trip to New York: Ian Ballantine identified me as a suitable case for adoption and indoctrination (against the latter one had to be wary, for his zeal could be positively Jesuitical) and there followed 15 years of professional association and a lifetime of friendship.

I mention this because it typifies a central characteristic of Ballantine's career - a generous espousal of new people and new ideas which gave such an original and creative quality to so much of his publishing. He was a man who to some degree or other influenced two complete generations of fellow publishers.

Ian Ballantine was not a man for corporate boardrooms, preferring to spend his time with authors, editors and booksellers. In his later years he specialised in publishing a fine range of illustrated books in association with Bantam and editing projects of particular interest with people like Shirley Maclaine and Chuck Yeager.

A workaholic, Ballantine was especially blessed in his marriage; his wife Betty, a fine editor herself, was both his professional and personal partner for more than 50 years. Just last month they were jointly honoured with the prestigious Literary Marketplace Lifetime Achievement award.