Ballantine, Ian Keith

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Ballantine, Ian Keith

(b. 15 February 1916 in New York City; d. 9 March 1995 in Bearsville, New York), publisher and pioneer of the paperback book industry whose companies published authors ranging from H. G. Wells to John Steinbeck to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Ballantine was one of two children born to Edward James Ballantine, a Scottish actor and sculptor, and Stella Commins, a publicist. His father was an immigrant to the United States by way of the Shaw Repertory Company, while his mother was an American citizen who worked for the Ben Greet Players and Jesse L. Lasky.

In 1933 Ballantine completed his secondary education at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Prior to his enrollment at Stuyvesant High School, he attended fourteen schools due to his father’s career. He entered Columbia University in New York City in 1933, receiving his A.B. degree in economics in 1938 and earning Phi Beta Kappa honors. He then studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science for one year. There, he wrote a thesis that dealt with the provision within the American copyright law that created a market for low-cost British reprints in the United States. Sir Allan Lane, owner of Penguin Books Ltd. of Britain, became interested in the concept, and Ballantine persuaded Lane to establish an American branch. Ballantine and his new bride, Elizabeth (“Betty”) Norah Jones, whom he had married on 22 June 1939 and with whom he had one child, opened Penguin Books in the United States in 1939, with Ian serving as general manager. Only twenty-three years of age at the time, Ballantine’s first list of titles consisted of twenty British reprints. He operated Penguin until June 1945, at which time the company was sold to New American Library (NAL).

During this time the paperback market grew rapidly because of its flexibility and practicality. For its part, Penguin was successful in delivering books to American soldiers during World War II. These included the Infantry Journal, various manuals, and “how to” military books. Paperbacks were given to soldiers at the front lines and sold in military commissaries. After leaving Penguin, Ballantine established Bantam Books, Inc. in 1945, offering paperbacks for twenty-five cents. He extensively researched the reading trends of the American public and developed the “Bantam Best Seller Plan” in 1949. His idea was to obtain an accurate count of books sold per title on a monthly basis. Ballantine used a sampling technique of twenty-two representative cities to determine sales patterns over a ten-day period and came up with a monthly list of eight best-sellers. In preparing the list, Ballantine was also able to determine that his company’s return rate—the number of unsold books returned by booksellers—was less than one percent, an enviable statistic (Publishers Weekly, 9 July 1949). Wide exposure of the accurate, up-to-date best-seller list led to increased sales. Ballantine continued his research in mass communications, including magazines, radio, and television, as a part-time faculty member in sociology at Columbia University. In 1951 he assisted in organizing Transworld Books, a branch of Bantam located in London and devoted to the British market.

In 1952 the Ballantines left Bantam because of their interest in original publishing. They established Ballantine Books with the specific plan of simultaneously publishing original fiction and nonfiction in both hardcover and paperback. For the first six months, the new company operated out of the Ballantines’ home at 440 West Twenty-fourth Street in New York City. With Ian as president and Betty working as secretary and office administrator, they were gradually able to hire other essential personnel, including Richard Powers to design book covers. Powers adopted a surrealist style that became the trademark of Ballantine Books during the 1950s.

The “Ballantine Plan” made it possible for small firms to handle important titles on a large scale. Farrar, Straus and Young and Houghton-Mifflin were the first two publishers to participate in the plan. Ballantine released its first four titles on 10 November 1952, followed by three titles each month thereafter. Executive Suite by Cameron Hawley, jointly published in hardcover by Houghton-Mifflin, was the first to be published. Paperback sales of Executive Suite soared to 800,000 after the movie based on the book was released in 1954.

Ballantine Books’ distribution contract with the Hearst Corporation was canceled in 1954 due to “an intramural battle” that did not involve Ballantine but deeply affected it, costing $600,000 and putting the company near bankruptcy. The company was able to regain its production schedule by slowly adding one title at a time. The first title added was The Power and the Prize (1954) by Howard Swiggett. In October of the same year the company was able to increase its production to three titles per month.

Ballantine mentored the careers of authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carlos Castaneda. He was particularly influential in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, westerns, and mysteries. He published the only official edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1965), and his most successful title was Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1966), which sold more than eight million copies.

In 1974 the Ballantines sold Ballantine Books to Random House and launched Rufus Publications. In their latter years they worked on books by celebrity authors such as astronaut Chuck Yeager and actress Shirley MacLaine. They also established a trade paperback division called Peacock Press at Bantam.

The Ballantines had a year-round weekend home in Woodstock, New York. Ian Ballantine’s main interest was helping young authors get published. He read manuscripts up until the day before he died in his home from a heart attack at the age of seventy-nine. About her partnership with her husband, Betty Ballantine stated, “He was brilliant at marketing. While I had a broad range of responsibilities working within the firm, Ian was out on the road marketing and inspiring authors to write. It is my belief that we created successful experiences for our authors. Our desire was to do original printing in paperback format.” Betty stated that she felt their greatest contribution to paperback publishing was introducing books that addressed environmental and ecological issues during the 1960s and 1970s. Among the environmental titles they released during this period was the influential Population Bomb (1968) by Paul Ehrlich.

Ian Ballantine’s inexpensive, mass-produced paperbacks revolutionized publishing. During his five-decade career, he created and expanded reading opportunities for a large segment of the American population. His influence on the industry was symbolized by the lifetime achievement award he and his wife were given by Literary Market Place a month before his death.

For an interesting perspective on Ballantine’s career, see his letter within John Ciardi’s American Literary Collection titled “To J. Vernon Shea, Jr.” (1955); the collection is an archival manuscript of thirty-four letters discussing various problems and successes in publishing anthropological works. For a description of Ballantine’s best-seller plan for Bantam Books, see “Best Sellers at a Quarter: Bantam Books’ New Marketing Program,” Publishers Weekly (9 July 1949). An extensive biographical sketch can be found in Current Biography (1954). Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 Mar. 1995) and Publishers Weekly (20 Mar. 1995).

Johnnieque B. (“Johnnie”) Love