Friday, March 24, 2017

FFB: THE BANTAM STORY: THIRTY YEARS OF PAPERBACK PUBLISHING by Clarence Petersen (Bantam 1975)

Bantam first commissioned from Clarence Petersen a not quite (but somewhat) potted history of their corporate adventure in 1970, and then had him do another edition five years later...I haven't seen the earlier edition, but the second volume is engaging enough and only in part a more literary Annual Report to the stockholders. Some of it is almost candid, in describing various missteps, and Petersen, at the time of the first version still reviewing paperbacks for the Chicago Tribune,  rather happy to be able to note the successes and victories of other paperback houses from time to time in his narrative. 

Breezy is perhaps the term that comes to mind most readily, as the book is comparable to the kind of business profile one finds in Forbes or the WSJ, only with a bit more personal reminiscence thrown in. A nice touch is the brief history of paperbound, and unbound, books in first century and a half of the United States' existence, with a notable attempt at an end run around the Post Office's rate on mailing books in the 1870s, by various newspapers and "literary papers" sending unbound book texts wrapped in the periodicals themselves to their subscribers...the P.O. eventually stops this practice, dooming most of the periodicals that had been thriving with this scam.  But not a few hardy publishers simply turn to dime novels and the like, and by the early 1930s, we are told, a few descendants of those early paperback-esque products were being produced in a more professional manner by such publishers as Hillman Novels (Alex Hillman would notably publish fiction magazines he would capriciously quickly shut down in later years, alongside such notable paperback originals as The Dying Earth by Jack Vance) and Lawrence Spivak's Mercury Press (not yet the publisher of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, starting 1941, nor The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, from 1949). But the US paperback industry really took off again with the advent of Pocket Books, basically an offshoot of Simon and Schuster, and the early interest in US expansion by the new and thriving UK firm Penguin, which had gotten its first big leg up by selling through Woolworth's stores in Britain, and how it led them to employ Ian Ballantine, an American newly graduated from the London School of Economics and fascinated by publishing, to launch their US office. Then World War II made remote control from London less practical, and Ballantine and his local staff started packaging and otherwise running US Penguin in their own manner...which didn't sit so well with Allen Lane, Penguin's founder, when the war was over (the latter wanted no illustrations on paperback covers, for example). Ballantine soon found himself, with some other senior staffers, in search of their own shop, and they turned to Grosset and Dunlap, already producing inexpensive hardcover reprint editions and of late owned by a partnership of "main-line" hardcover publishers (in part to keep it out of the hands of Marshall Field, then creating an early multimedia conglomerate) for support in founding what would become Bantam Books. 

Ballantine, of course, wouldn't stay with Bantam all that long, either (and would found Ballantine Books, though by 1975 Betty and Ian Ballantine had sold Ballantine Books and IB was back at Bantam in a boutique partnership imprint with Betty, Peacock Press, devoted to lavish art books and, soon, the periodical Ariel: The Book of Fantasy). But before leaving initially, Ballantine had put Bantam on good footing, in part by interesting Curtis Circulation Company, the distribution offshoot of The Saturday Evening Post and the next biggest thing after American News Co. in that arena, in the upstart rooster of a publisher.

the 1st, 1970 edition
Bantam managed to weather the recession in the paperback industry in the early 1950s, in part we are told by some very pragmatic moves by post-Ballantine primary publishing director Oscar Dystel, and the rest of the book addresses the various innovations and consolidations Dystel and company were able to achieve with the house, and how paperbacks generally had fared in the years up through '75. Touching on such matters as how deals were struck with hardcover houses and writers, both together and separately; how Bantam would occasionally take on a book as an original (William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist being among the more notable examples), and usually try to find a hardcover house willing to do an edition in boards along with them (Petersen notes that unlike Dell's Delacorte Press, or the less hardy programs at New American Library and other paperback houses--no mention at all of Ace's A. A. Wyn's brief revival of Story Magazine as a periodical hardcover--Bantam up through '75 had never tried a hardcover imprint on its own...perhaps discreetly not mentioning the relative failure of Ballantine Books' attempt at their own line of hardcovers in the '50s). Also covered: the introduction of the Bantam Extra line of "instant" paperback originals, keyed to current events or release of government documents that the Government Printing Office was less well-equipped to produce in mass quantities, and the stresses such books put on the production staff; and the innovations in packaging and publicity Bantam either introduced or helped refine...along with a few odd bits of description of some of the great successes, and less cheering failures, the paperback house had enjoyed (or not) over the years. Petersen is very careful not to dismiss such garbage as Erich von Däniken's books, or Jean Dixon's, while very much more enthusiastic in describing such projects as Bantam's taking on New American Review after it had been dropped by Signet/New American Library and then briefly continued by Simon and Schuster in mass-market paperback format (not published as a Pocket Book), and publishing it as American Review (why continue to advertise the competition?) as a mild, and apparently approaching break-even status by '75, loss-leader, and prestige and author-goodwill project.  It is also interesting (to me, anyway) to note that the Atkins Diet and aerobic exercise regimens were already emerging and controversial matters in the early '70s; meanwhile, brief rundowns on how paperback books (and magazines and catalogs) are designed, printed, bound and shipped are offered, along with accounts of how things went for such important Bantam writers as Jackie Susann, John D. MacDonald, Arthur Hailey, Louis L'Amour, Alvin Toffler and others...including the packaging upgrades for, for example, "Ross Macdonald" as he was taken more seriously by the likes of the New York Times Book Review. And also the nurturing of such "sleepers," eventually to be consistent sellers not only on the racks but to and through schools, as Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I certainly hadn't realized till reading this that Corgi was Bantam's UK imprint.

The hopeful noises about how the then-recent megacorporate purchases and sales of  Bantam wouldn't effect the way they did business are a bit of a sad coda here...though the inflationary pressures of the '70s, including the rights bidding wars between the paperback houses, already sometimes self-damaging by the 1960s, are also discussed.

Worth the look, I think, for most FFB fans, if rarely as in-depth as one might want...and reasonably-priced copies are available from the Usual Suspects. 

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

5 comments:

Bill Crider said...

Good pick. I read this one long ago, back when my interest in collecting paperbacks was really heating up. Still have that copy, of course.

TracyK said...

I am going to have to find a copy of this. I have a soft spot for Bantam because they published Rex Stout paperbacks... still do for that matter. But even without that, I love to read about paperback publishers.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Bill. I wonder if it was generally distributed for free in bookstores in '70 and '75. I imagine so, given its availability.

Tracy, as noted, it's not the most in-depth assessment of the industry you'll find, but it's definitely worth the look...Petersen clearly enjoyed touching base with such figures as Bennett Cerf and Ian Ballantine who had been working with or alongside Bantam even when they had no direct hand in.

Elgin Bleecker said...

Todd – Thanks for the review. I enjoy reading about the early days of paperbacks and the people involved.

Mathew Paust said...

You've got me hunting for a copy now, too, Todd.