Paperback pioneer Betty Ballantine was an 'empress' in publishing

The pioneering publisher, who helped introduce paperbacks in North America, has died at the age of 99.

'She was just of tremendous force of joy and belief in the book,' says nephew Tad Wise

Betty Ballantine in 1980. Ballantine, an American publisher who helped introduce paperbacks, died on Tuesday, February 12, 2019. She was 99 years old. (Richard Ballantine/Courtesy of Kathy Ballantine via Associated Press)
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Transcript

When describing his aunt Betty Ballantine, Tad Wise calls her "a Meryl Streep figure" in the publishing industry. 

Ballantine, an American publisher, editor and writer, died on February 12. She was 99 years old. 

With her husband Ian Ballantine, the couple formed the publishing team of Ballantine Books.

Together, they helped transform reading habits by introducing paperback books in North America. Their efforts made authors like Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkien household names. 

Wise, who is an author, spoke about his aunt with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation: 

When you hear your aunt Betty...what comes to mind about her?

Well you know, publishing these days is monopolized by women.

But what you have to understand is that Betty was really the first woman of her kind.  She was kind of a Meryl Streep figure. I mean she just did it with such class and style.

And you know, she worked with fresh recruits, but I think a lot of her authors fell in love with her. I know a lot of her co-workers did. 

She was just of tremendous force of joy and belief in the book. Hard to fathom today. She was just kind of everything in one.

Betty Ballantine spoke with CBC Radio's Vicki Gabereau in 1994. 0:58

Most importantly, we remember the two of them — Betty and Ian Ballantine — for what they did for the paperbacks, which gave us access to books at a cheaper price and allowed all kinds of books to come into the market both in Canada and The United States.

Can you tell us about the influence that Betty Ballantine had on paperbacks? 

She very quickly came to the conclusion that her fiance, and very quickly her husband, had made no bones about it. He was set upon changing the way Americans read.

His thesis at the London School of Economics was basically a proposal as to what paperbacks could be, and he came to the attention of Allen Lane who had created Penguin Books.

And when Betty's father said, "I don't care who you are. You'll not be marrying my daughter without a proper job," he was offered the job of representing Penguin in America. 

And Betty, in one weekend, packed up from the island of Jersey, prepared to get married, got on a boat and went over and became the vice president of Penguin USA at the age of, I believe it was 20. So she was there beside him in every step of the way.

She was the charming human side of a rather an enigmatic gentleman.

She had this just remarkable ease and joyfulness. Like a queen. - Tad Wise, Betty Ballantine's  nephew

One thing that is really a key part of this story is that your aunt and uncle, Betty and Ian Ballantine, were inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. What is it that they brought to sci fi and fantasy?

Before Betty, science fiction was basically a bunch of super bright nerds who let off steam writing short stories for pulp magazines. There was no such thing really as a science fiction author.

You know, you had H.G. Wells and and [H.P] Lovecraft. But, she went with the help of Frederik Pohl, she went to these authors who'd written these short stories and she said,"I think you can write me a novel and I think I want to pay you for it and I want to pay you enough for it so that you can quit your job and become a science fiction novelist." 

And in that regard, she created the field. 

Ray Bradbury, known for writing Fahrenheit 451, was made a household name in North America, after Betty Ballantine and her husband Ian helped introduce paperback books. (Steve Castillo/Associated Press)

What's the lasting image you have of this extraordinary woman? 

Well unfortunately, she forgot who she was. She forgot most of the authors that she worked with. Theodore Sturgeon was I think her favourite author. 

She lost the memory of who she was and so it's only after her death in going back that I'm remembering how extraordinary a soul she was. 

And at these science fiction conventions, she was an empress. I mean, she was very beautiful and incredibly charming and she just kind of ruled.

She had this just remarkable ease and joyfulness. Like a queen. 

Written by Samantha Lui. Interview produced by Richard Raycraft. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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