Betty Ballantine

    Betty Ballantine

Husband-wife editing and publishing teams are not common in the real world of books. In fact, I only know of three, and, interestingly, all three made their biggest successes in the field of science fiction. Lester and Judy Lynn Del Rey were the first publishers to break sf and fantasy titles into the New York Times’ revered weekly lists of bestsellers. (We discussed them here some time ago.). A little later, Donald and Elsie Wollheim scored with their DAW (for Donald Allen Wollheim) Books. We will come to them in the (fairly) near future.

The third team to qualify for this rare distinction was Ian and Betty Ballantine, whom we will look at now, and in some ways the Ballantines were the most remarkable of all.

The Ballantines didn’t simply create one publishing house and build it into a great success. They created two of the most successful publishers, particularly of paperbacks, in America, as well as a number of less spectacular, but still quite successful, other imprints … and it all started with a term paper Ian wrote at the age of 21, when he was still a student at the London School of Economics.

Ian Ballantine

Ian Ballantine

Ian Ballantine

Ian Ballantine was born, on September 25th of the year 1916, into an interesting family. His father, Edward J. Ballantine, was a celebrated actor on the London stage and, although his mother, Stella, made few Page-1 headlines, her Aunt Emma made enough for any family.

Once, when I was chatting with Ian about books, I might like to write, I happened to mention that Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist, had been jailed once — not for planning assassinations (Henry Clay Frick, the railroad and steel tycoon known as “the most hated man in America” was her favorite target), but for distributing information about birth control.

Ian was grinning at me before I finished. “Did you not know that you’re talking about my Aunt Emma?” he asked.

Ian had what, all the same, was a perfectly normal youth, up until the point where his interest in corporate affairs caused him to begin post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics. While a student there, two major events in his life took place. Weekending on one of those pebbly Channel Islands beaches, he made the acquaintance of a very good-looking and also notably intelligent girl a couple of years younger than himself. And in the London School he set himself the task of studying the U.S. patent laws and other legal documents relating to a question which had been perplexing him about American vs. British patterns of paperback publishing.

In America, the only paperback books available to the average customer were pulpy detective stories and sleazy “romance” novels. English bookstalls, on the other hand, were loaded down with shelf after shelf of paperback volumes of history, of science, of social studies — indeed of nonfiction books of every imaginable kind. The fiction sections of the British stores were equally lavish with novels and short-story collections of contemporary fiction, Westerns, detective stories, yes, even science fiction and fantasy, though in nothing like the volume we see in those areas today.

It was not that American publishers had doubts about the reader interest in those subjects — and in every imaginable other subject as well, from poetry and drama to architecture and automobile design. They published works in as many categories as the British. They just didn’t do them in paperbacks. American readers had as wide a choice as anyone anywhere in the world. It was just that, as the most interesting categories of books might be available only in a hardcover edition, it would cost them almost ten times as much for each volume they added to their own personal library.

So young Ian wrote his paper discussing all those things, and one more.

That is, in his close reading of the U.S. copyright law, Ian had discovered an often-overlooked clause which effectively waived import duties on British books imported into the States for sale. And a copy of Ian’s paper found its way to the desk of Allen Lane, founder and head of the giant English paperback publishing firm of Penguin Books. This led to an invitation to Ian to come in and talk with Lane. And that, before long, led to the formation of a new appendage of Penguin Books, an export division. headed by — of course — Ian Ballantine.

An interesting fact is that on the same day Ian made that deal with Allen Lane he participated in one other auspicious event. He married that pretty girl from the pebbly beach. That was a really, really good day for Ian Ballantine.

(Part 2, the story of Betty Ballantine, will be with you in this very same blog shortly.)


  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    “In America, the only paperback books available … were pulpy detective stories and sleazy “romance” novels

    What about other “pulp categories”, such as Westerns, sea stories, generic adventures?

    This would be in 1939. Hmm. I have a “paperback book” from the early 1920s that is neither of those. It is a “contemporary Western”: a Western adventure taking place at about the time of publishing (circa 1922) rather than the Old West. The format is about the same as a “digest size” magazine, i.e the SF magazines of the 1960s, so perhaps it does not count as a “book”?

    Or did publishing in that sort of format die out by 1939 except for crime/romance?

  2. Malcolm Edwards says:

    I don’t know a lot about US publishing history, but I know enough to know that Knopf was founded and run for years by Alfred and Blanche Knopf, and that Pantheon was founded and run by Kurt and Helen Wolff.

    Here in the UK, various companies — Futura, Century, Orion — were founded and run for a while by a small group which included Anthony and Rosie Cheetham.

  3. Robert Nowall says:

    What about the couple who used to run Walker & Co?

    …and, for all I know, may still run it?

  4. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    I’m wondering what the author of Nerves ’86— sorry, Chernobyl— is thinking about the news from Japan these days.

  5. Sue London says:

    With this information I’ve told my husband that our new career path is obviously to start a publishing house. This type of career change in our 40s shouldn’t be a problem, right?

  6. Neil in Chicago says:

    Ian Ballantine was Emma Goldman’s nephew.
    I think my brain just froze.
    (I assume you know she’s buried here, in Waldheim Cemetery, but you may not have known that her birthday, at the end of June, is usually an impromptu picnic party in the anarchists’ section.)

  7. Isabel Raschkind Stein says:

    I was lucky enough to work with Ian and Betty at Ballantine Books in the early 1970s. They were both remarkable, visionary people.

    Betty was a wonderful mentor to me and a very nurturing editor to her authors. She championed science fiction authors before science fiction became very popular and also was very interested in environmental issues and healthy living.

    Their corgi, Rufus Ballantine, frequently came to the office and lent the place a homey touch. I heard that when they first started they had so few staff that they had to list Rufus as the treasurer.