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Sci-Fi Lovers Owe a Debt of Gratitude to Betty Ballantine

“Introverted and quiet” Betty, who ran the editorial side of the Ballantine publishing companies, deserves her due for changing the industry

The late publisher and editor Betty Ballantine at the Nebula Awards on April 28, 2002 in Kansas City, Missouri. (photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

The next time you pick up a science fiction novel, you should take a moment to thank Betty Ballantine for helping bring the genre into the mainstream.

Ballantine and her husband, Ian, were two halves of a pioneering team that revolutionized the publishing industry in the 20th century. The couple was inseparable, says Beth Meacham, executive editor at science fiction and fantasy publishing company Tor Books, but it’s the “boisterous and charismatic” Ian, who ran the promotional and sales side of their publishing companies, who frequently is given the majority credit for their success. The “introverted and quiet” Betty, who ran the editorial side of the business, also deserves her due for changing the industry.

Meacham calls Betty, who died at her home in Bearsville, New York, at the age of 99 earlier this month, a “quiet magician, working behind the scenes with the writers.”

A bibliophile from an early age, Betty was born Elizabeth Jones in the then-British colony of India in September 25, 1919. She met Ian when she moved to England for school. After the two married, they made the move to New York City, where Ian was born, armed with a $500 wedding present from Betty’s father. There they became the first American distributors of Penguin paperback books.

When it launched in 1935, the British publishing house Penguin was the first to make high-quality literature affordable with its soon-to-be-ubiquitous well-priced paperbacks. While success followed for Penguin in England, the Ballantine’s Penguin U.S.A. operation had a rougher beginning. In a piece the Ballantines wrote for the New York Times in 1989, they detailed their early days, working in a small, seventh story loft off 5th Avenue with just two secondhand desks, three chairs and a typewriter, clocking 15 to 18 hour days, seven days a week.

Their greatest early challenge was figuring out distribution avenues. There were only 1,500 bookstores in America in 1939, and only 500 of those had decent credit ratings, as they recollected in the Times. So they got creative, stocking their paperbacks in drugstores and newsstands. Priced at just 25 cents ($4.57 in today’s dollars), the books began to fly off the racks, with readers buying up to eight copies at a time.

The Ballantines made the decision to leave Penguin following the end of World War II due to creative differences, and from there, they went on to found Bantam Books, and, later, Ballantine Books, making them the first outlet to release hardcover and paperback editions simultaneously. Both publishing companies are now part of Penguin Random House, according to the Associated Press.

It was at Ballantine that Betty gave a voice to the then-fringe genre of sci-fi. Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, says that before Betty, those works were deemed “unimportant pulp” only fit to be published in cheap magazines and books. But Betty was inspired by the concept of using real science to hypothesize the future of innovation. As if she was a character in her favorite genre, Betty was able to see the potential of science fiction in novel form.

The Ballantines were the first to publish Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, helped launch the career of Arthur C. Clarke, and popularized the works of other sci-fi greats like Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Frederik Pohl (Gateway).

Tolkien can also thank the Ballantines, in part, for his Stateside success. His initial hardback versions had mostly remained within academic circles, but when Ace Books released an unauthorized copy in 1965, bookstores couldn’t keep The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on their shelves, as Charlotte and Denis Plimmer report for The Telegraph. The Ballantines had made an unsuccessful bid for the paperback rights to original publisher Houghton Mifflin a few years earlier, according to Al Silverman’s The Time of Their Lives: The Age of Great American Book Publishers. When Mifflin caught wind of the unauthorized copy, it quickly agreed to the Ballantines’ earlier proposal.

Ballantine’s edition came with a special note on the back cover from Tolkien himself stating theirs was the only authorized paperback of Tolkien’s works. “Well, everybody got behind us,” Betty later said. “There was literally no publication that did not carry some kind of outraged article. And of course, the whole science fiction fraternity got behind the book; this was their meat and drink.”

While Ian, who died at the age of 79 in 1995 wouldn’t live to see it, the Ballantines were recognized with an honorary Hugo in 2006, and were elected to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2008 for their impact on the industry.

“We really, truly wanted and did publish books that mattered,” Betty reflected in an interview with the science fiction and fantasy magazine Locus in 2002. “[S]cience fiction matters, because it’s of the mind, it predicts, it thinks, it says, ‘Look at what’s happening here. If that’s what’s happening here and now, what’s it going to look like 10 years from now, 50 years from now, or 2,000 years from now?’”

While Betty certainly paved the way for female publishers in the industry, Meacham chalks up Betty’s often overlooked legacy, in part, to the sexism of the time, but also suggests that Betty’s quiet nature contributed to her staying out of the spotlight.

Betty, she says, was happy to do the work she wanted and champion other women in the industry behind the scenes. Meacham compares her to Galadriel, a strong female character in The Lord of the Rings, who is tremendously influential while rejecting absolute power.

“She was the quiet, tremendous hidden power in the universe,” she says of Betty. “I admired her so intensely; her work, her insights, her quiet, gentle brilliance.”

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