Oscar Dystel, Who Saved Bantam Books, Dies at 101
Oscar Dystel, who combined sharp editorial judgments, shrewd marketing and attention-grabbing covers to propel Bantam Books from the brink of collapse to pre-eminence in paperback publishing after World War II, died on Wednesday at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 101.
His daughter, Jane Dystel, a literary agent, announced the death.
Bantam Books was founded in 1945 to take advantage of new methods that allowed paperbacks to be produced cheaply and of a public eager to pay 25 cents for a book that might have cost $2 as a hardback.
But by the early 1950s, the industry was choking on its own success, having printed mountains more books than the public wanted. More than 175 million copies were piled in warehouses. Bantam was in chaos and had been without a president for two years when Mr. Dystel (rhymes with pistol) was hired.
“We were flooding the market to sell 100 copies,” he said in an interview for “The Bantam Story,” a 1970 book by Clarence Petersen. “I remember one executive coming into my office with a balance sheet and telling me, ‘We’re out of business.’ ”
Bantam was on track to lose more than $500,000 that year. But Mr. Dystel was so confident of Bantam’s future that he demanded a percentage of future profits.
By the end of the next year, Bantam was making a profit, and by the time Mr. Dystel retired as chairman in 1980, its sales exceeded $100 million a year. It was the largest publisher of paperbacks, with more than 15 percent of a market served by 14 principal houses and several lesser imprints. Paperbacks had come to account for more than half the dollar volume of sales in the nation’s bookstores.
Mr. Dystel reduced inventory, pushed a program to sell classic books by Dostoyevsky and other authors, expanded publishing for schools and children, multiplied the sales force and built a corporate structure.
And he did what he liked most: He found books with a shot at popularity and sold them vigorously.
An early victory was “Battle Cry,” a 1953 novel by Leon Uris about a group of Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. Bantam and a competitor, Pocket Books, each bid $25,000 for paperback rights, according to Al Silverman in his 2008 book, “The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors.” Mr. Dystel won the deal by promising to send Marines to wholesalers to explain their love of the book.
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