Posts tagged ‘Ian and Betty Ballantine’

Ian Ballantine

Ian Ballantine

One by one, I showed the tearsheets of Gravy Planet, to every publisher in America who had ever published a science-fiction book or given any sign that some day he might. One by one, they turned it down cold. These publishers, remember, were firms to whom I had been regularly selling scores of science-fiction books, more than any other agency — indeed, to the most important markets frequently more than all other sources combined. With many of the editors, they and I had come to look on each other as personal friends.

That didn’t mean they would buy our book. As one of the better-paying editors said, “Since we’re friends, Fred, I can be candid with you.. This manuscript is simply not of professional caliber. What you need is to find a professional writer to pull it all together.”

What I have sometimes said about that since is that we couldn’t find a professional writer to help us, we found an amateur publisher, Ian Ballantine, who had just started his own company of Ballantine Books and didn’t know that our book wasn’t publishable. So he went ahead and published it, and made a good profit doing so.

That joke is unfair to Ian. He had had a good many years of experience running other book publishing companies before starting his own. But it’s true that he knew nothing about science fiction.

He did, however, know me, and had for some time.. He decided to trust my judgment, and that turned out generally well for him, not just on The Space Merchants (as two of his editors retitled the book), but in the many years thereafter that I served as an unofficial advisor and trouble-shooter for the firm. (Over those years, Ian himself lost control of his publishing company, but not because of taking on the sf program.)

The Space Merchants began showing off its legs in other ways, not just in the sales at Ballantine Books but in unexpected other income. We began to get requests for foreign editions and translations, first England and France and then, over the years, in more than twenty other languages, perhaps double that. And we very quickly sold the film rights for what seemed like all the money in the world: fifty thousand 1950s dollars, equal to perhaps half a million in today’s limp currency. And it became a steady seller on Ballantine’s backlist for many years after that, with a sizeable check coming our way every royalty period, right up to the time when Judy-Lynn del Rey agreed to revert it to me so I could accept a multi-book offer involving it.

That was a mistake After a few brief weeks of sales, the novel rapidly disappeared from sight into the dungeons of the backlist of St. Martin’s Press. Although from time to time I pleaded with them to revert it so we could let one of the other publishers bring it back to life, all I ever got from Tom Dunne, the editor in charge, was a polite little note saying no, and so the book stayed there, invisibly, and unprofitably, until a couple years ago, when the 21st Century edition. came out.

And sold out almost immediately.

To be continued. . . .

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Part 4 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

The Space Merchants

Bester: I’m curious, Fred. Where did you get the idea for The Space Merchants?

Pohl: The Space Merchants has a long history. During World War II, I was with the American Air Force in Italy. I got a little homesick, and I’d brought my typewriter with me. I’d carried that damn thing all over World War II hoping some time to find a use for it and I did.

I thought I’d write a novel about New York City to make me feel a little better. And the most exciting thing I could think of to write about in New York City was the advertising business — which was a glamorous sort of thing —-and I wrote this novel for some 300 pages or so, called For Some We Loved. It’s a quotation from Omar Khayyam. I was 23 years old, what did I know?

And then the war was over and I got back home, and I looked at the novel and perceived there was something wrong with it. What was wrong with it was that I didn’t know anything about the advertising business, and I had written this whole novel that dealt with it. But I knew how to solve that problem. I looked in the Sunday New York Times, classified advertising section, and I saw three or four help-wanted ads for advertising copywriters. I’d never been an advertising copywriter, but it looked easy. So I answered a couple of the ads and one of them hired me, and I spent a couple of years there.

Bester: What agency was it, Fred?

Pohl: A little tiny thing called Thwing & Altman, mostly book accounts. We did the Dollar Book Club and the Literary Guild and William Wise. I got to be pretty good at writing advertising.

And, at some point during those years, I had a summer place in upstate New York looking out over a lake with a big fireplace, and I had my manuscript of my novel For Some We Loved with me, and one night, I began to read it in front of the fireplace and as I read each page, I tossed them in the fire one by one.

Bester: Oh, Fred, no! That’s terrible.

Pohl: It was awful. The concept was painful … but the novel itself was agonizing. I had no choice.

So here I had all this knowledge of advertising and no longer had a book to put it in. Also Fred Wakeman had come out with The Hucksters by then, so it was no longer really a fresh idea for a regular mainstream novel. Then it occurred to me to make a science-fiction novel about advertising, and I began tentatively putting words on paper — a little bit at a time, because by then I had a full-time job running a literary agency. And when I had put about 20,000 words on paper over about a year or two, I showed it to Horace Gold.

Bester: What did Horace have to say?

Pohl: He said, “I am now running Alfie Bester’s The Demolished Man—”

Bester: Leave me out of this, will you?

Pohl: I swear to God, that was what he said. And: “I haven’t got anything to follow it up with. There’s nothing else coming in that looks as if it’ll stand up to The Demolished Man. So I’m going to start with the first installment now, and by next Tuesday please have the second and the third.”

And I said, “There’s no way I can do that. I have a full-time job with the agency.”

And he said, “I don’t care whether you can do it or not, the printers will be waiting.”

So I went back to my home in New Jersey where my old friend Cyril Kornbluth, with whom I’d written a lot of stories before, was staying with me. He read over the part I’d written, the first third or so and said, “Yeah, yeah, we can do something with that.” So he rewrote that and added some, and I rewrote that and added some, and we barely got it into print, but actually the first part was being set before the last was written.

Bester: My God, you were living dangerously, Fred!

Pohl: I had nothing to lose. It was Horace’s problem!

Bester: Whose title was it — Horace’s or yours?

Pohl: I called it something ridiculous like “Fall Campaign,” and Horace put “Gravy Planet” on it.

There was a big book boom in science fiction at the time, all sorts of publishers deciding to bring it out in hardcovers. So, I thought, what the hell, I’ll sell it as a book, and I was a literary agent, and I knew every publisher and editor in New York, especially the ones that dealt in science fiction — a lot of them were very good friends of mine. So I took it off to one, and I said, “Here, print this. It’s pretty good stuff,” and he read it and gave it back and said, “No, that’s not really what I meant at all!”

And I said, “So much for you,” and I took it to the next one. And it was rejected by every publisher in America who then had a science-fiction line.

Bester: So was The Demolished Man, sir! It was bounced by everybody.

Pohl: Well, I think it’s the same story.

So, there was no publisher left to offer it to. Then Ian Ballantine started up his own company, and he was so inexperienced as a publisher that he didn’t know this was unpublishable. So he published it! You know, it’s been translated into 45 languages now.

Bester: It shows you, the greatest books in the world can be bounced by anybody. Look at Fred’s! The greatest science fiction novel of all time. Bounced by everybody! It’s preposterous!

To be continued.

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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.

Continue reading ‘Couples Who Mastered Publishing, No. 2:
The Ballantines’ »

An Ohio farm, 1941.

Mary Byers longed to leave Ohio farm life to become a New York Futurian.

Mary Byers was a science-fiction fan who lived on a farm in Ohio with her uncle and a few other family members. Through fan talk, she heard of the New York Futurians and yearned to live that kind of life.

When the chance came, she jumped on a bus (or a train) and headed for New York City. Her uncle, though, followed after, and when he caught up with her, he brought her back. She got away a couple more times with the same result. But then Cyril Kornbluth made a more complicated escape plan, with more help, and Mary got away.

After a while, Cyril and Mary married. They lived for a time in New England, where Cyril took, and passed, a wartime government course in machine shop, after which he was considered a skilled machinist. World War II came along. Cyril got caught up in it with the consequences that ultimately killed him, and all the time he was soldiering in the ETO, Mary was alone, going through her own kind of hell in Chicago. And somewhere in this period Mary became a stone alcoholic.

An alcoholic is not just a drunk. An alcoholic is a person who, having taken the first drink, cannot stop drinking until she, or he, has become sodden.

(Read up on it or Google it. I don’t know many details, and some of what I do know I wish I didn’t.) Cyril’s attempts at dealing with it were sometimes brutal. Once, when he and I were driving somewhere, I think to the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, Cyril took a deep breath and said, “I wish I was not so cruel.” The bad times for Mary, I know, without knowing many more facts than the ones I have told you, were very, very bad.

But not all the times were bad. When Mary was clinging to AA and resolutely not taking that first drink, I think they were quite good.

This is in itself a puzzle to me. When things were good with Mary, she seemed to be the perfect wife, he appeared to be the standard-issue Brady Bunch husband and, all in all, Cyril behaved in astonishingly unlike Cyril ways. They were — for other people — quite normal ways, but for Cyril totally unexpected ones.

He began to be a father — two boy babies, John and David — he was writing well on his own constantly improving stories and he and I put out a ton of collaboration work as novels for Ian Ballantine. Things were suddenly very conventionally good for the little Kornbluth family.

That was when my money problems began to sting.

Mary proved she was a perfectly normal sf wife by nagging Cyril to dump me as his agent.

When I lost Cyril as a client, I had lost everything. I began to make plans to close the agency down.

During this period, Cyril and I had lost contact. It wasn’t just the money. It was the fact that there were the two clients I had led the farthest and expected the most from, Cyril and Isaac Asimov, both gone.

I didn’t see him again until, completely by chance. I ran into him at, I think, Horace Gold’s apartment. I prize that chance meeting because we were easy with each other again — “What are you writing?” “Hey, that was a pretty good novelette in Galaxy last month.” Shop talk of two old friends.

The reason I prize it most was because I never saw Cyril alive again. One morning not long after that, the phone rang. Carol answered it. It was Mary, quite hysterical.

Cyril had had to go into New York for a business meeting that morning, but it had snowed during the night, so he had to shovel the driveway before he could get the car out. When he got to the Long Island Rail Road station, the train was already there and beginning to load passengers. He parked the car as fast as he could, ran for the train and dropped dead of a heart attack on the platform.

Part 2 coming up shortly.

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Judith Merril

   Judith Merril

For the first couple of years after World War II, I was living in Greenwich Village, as a civilian, along with my second wife, Dorothy Louise LesTina (about whom see The Way the Future Was.). We had a pretty busy life, the two of us, and although I had heard that there was a whole new science-fiction fandom in the city I was overfull of self-affairs (as the Bard put it) and myself did lose it.

Anyway, then Tina, visiting her parents in California filed for divorce. (There, too, check my writing about Tina for details.) In any case, I suddenly wasn’t married any more, and so I had time to get around to seeing if I and this new NYC fan community had any reason to get together.

It turned out that we did. I began making friends with young Robert Silverberg and young Charles Brown (yes, the Locus man, although all that was still very far away) and a bunch of other people who became close, long-time friends. And there was one really interesting thing, unprecedented in pre-war fannish history, and that was that quite a few of these new New York fans were female.

That was an unexpected but very, very welcome development. I soon became friendly with some of this new breed of femmefans, as they were (briefly) termed, and with one in particular. That one’s name was Judy Zissman. She was divorced and with an enchanting little girl whom she had named Merril. Judy wanted to be a writer and the two of us got along just fine.

Before I tell you some of the things that happened next, there is one thing you need to know about Judy right now, and that is the nature of her beliefs about sexual conduct. One of them was that females had as much right to sleep around as males do, and that that right was considerable..

That was one of the things I didn’t really want to discuss when I was writing The Way the Future Was. The good news is that now I don’t have to discuss it at all. In the last years of her life, Judy was writing her own memoir, and in it she was quite open about her views and her experiences.

Judy died before she could finish the memoir, but the two of us had begun having some of our children’s children growing up and taking over some things. One of them was our well-beloved granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary, who, having herself become a writer, finished the book for her. (It was published as Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. And listen, our kids and grandkids don’t fool around. It won a Hugo Award.)

So by all means, read all you like about Judy’s private business. Only read about it from her.

Before long, Judy and I had settled down to cohabitating in her gigantic New York apartment on East 4th Street.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. The place certainly was gigantic, at least four big bedrooms, but it was also on the basement level of the apartment building To get to it, you took the elevator down one flight. It had been designed, and built, with the expectation that it would be occupied by the building’s janitor and his family. In America’s postwar boom, though, your average janitor didn’t care to be treated like an inferior. The present incumbent and family lived in modest prosperity, rent-free, in a perfectly rentable apartment above-ground. Judy had discovered the situation and grabbed the underground space for a pitiful rent, which I think may have been less than $25 a month.

For us it was perfect. Plenty of room for us each to have space to live and write, and space for little Merril and for the child’s pet dog, Taxi Driver, and even for Judy to rent out one of the extra rooms to the occasional single woman who needed a cheap place to stay. One was Gerry Schuster, rehearsal pianist for the New York Ballet. Another, at a different time, described herself as “the white New York girlfriend” of a famous musician — and proved it by getting us all comped seats to his Carnegie Hall appearance, and a visit to his dressing room after.

And, in particular, the one thing that the place was perfect for was parties. We had a lot of them.

We were quite prosperous at that time, you see. I was book editor and advertising copywriter for the rich Popular Science Publishing Company at a steadily increasing salary. While Judy had got herself an editorial job with Bantam Books, working for Ian Ballantine, who at that time ran it.. Between us we earned quite a lot, we didn’t really spend all that much, and God was good. Not only that. Bantam gave Judy the chance to edit her first very own science-fiction anthology (but entitled Shot in the Dark to disguise the fact that it was sf as much as possible).

And even that wasn’t the very best of it. There was the fact that Judy had, without warning and all by herself, had unexpectedly written a story of her own that just knocked the socks off everyone who read it.

Continue reading ‘Judith Merril, Part 1: ‘That Only a Mother’’ »

What the Other Guy Does

I said earlier that there are many, many ways of collaborating, and there are.

There’s taking what somebody else knows all about but has no writing skills; you get him to talk about whatever it is or give you a rough draft of what he has to say and you make it good. (I did something like that for Ian Ballantine with a couple of early novels that had originally been written by someone else, Turn the Tigers Loose and The God of Channel One.)

There’s the kind where one partner is thought to have the better ideas so he writes a sort of outline of the story and the other fellow fleshes it out. (Which I did for a number of not very good stories with Cyril Kornbluth and for two, not that much better, with Isaac Asimov — those two are still available for anyone who really, really wants to read them in Isaac’s book The Early Asimov.)

Actually, I rather like taking someone else’s draft and making it publishable. The nine or so books that I wrote with Jack Williamson were done more or less that way. The first of them, Undersea Fleet, he gave to me as a jumble of notes and scenes. He had worked over the material a dozen different ways without ever having it jell into a novel, so he turned it over to me to get a fresh view on it.

The other eight books we did were mostly written on purpose as collaborations, bearing in mind that Jack lived in New Mexico and I in either New Jersey or Illinois. Although we traveled together now and then, we rarely sat down to write together. What we did was to exchange letters over a period of, usually, some months, talking about something we’d like to see in the book — perhaps a new scientific theory (we got a lot of mileage out of the steady-state hypothesis until it was proved wrong). And when we’d thought up all the complications and implications we could Jack, bless his soul, would sit down and write a complete first draft and mail it to me. Then I would do a lot of work on it and we’d give it to the publisher.

The absolute best collaboration technique I’ve come across was the one I used when writing with Cyril Kornbluth, and we discovered it by accident. The way it worked, Cyril would come out to our house on the river in Red Bank, New Jersey, where we kept a room for him on the third floor with his own bath, bed and typewriter. Then he and I would have dinner, and he would have a drink or two while I had coffee, and we’d chat about what we’d like to see in the new book — characters, situations, settings, whatever interested one of us. When we thought we had enough to start writing we’d flip a coin. The loser would go upstairs to his typewriter and write the first four pages. Then he’d come down and say, “You’re on!” And the other guy would go up and write the next four, and so on, turn and about, until we got to the page that said “The End.”

At this point we had a whole book, though not a truly finished product. Somebody, usually me, had to go over that manuscript and fix errors, incongruities and infelicities, maybe add some explanations and transitions and stuff and do a little polish, and then we’d give it to the publisher.

There was only one thing wrong with this system. It worked fine with Cyril, and not at all with any other writer in the world. I know this because I tried with several, including several really good ones, and that sort of telepathy that kept the two of us on message without ever explicating exactly what the message was never materialized.

Except with one writer whom I had never thought of.

Continue reading ‘Fred’s Distilled Writing Wisdom, Part 3’ »