June 9, 2014

The career of Bantam Books publisher Oscar Dystel


Oscar Dystel, on the right, turned Bantam Books into a paperback house.

Oscar Dystel, on the right, turned Bantam Books into a paperback house.

Longtime Bantam Books publisher Oscar Dystel died at the age of 101 last week. His New York Times obituary describes how he took over a fading publishing company—Bantam Books—and made it into a successful paperback house.

This was a controversial move in a book publishing landscape dominated by hardcover houses. A May 24, 1974  article about a meeting Dystel attended at the height of his success described some of the tensions that the business model for paperbacks brought to the industry, as well as the ways in which it changed the relationship between publishers and authors:

Sharp words sometimes accompany these pressures and changes. “The relationship between a publisher and an author is like a knife to a throat,” Jerome Weidman, who heads the Authors League, cried at a recent meeting.

Whereupon one noted editor, Robert Gottlieb, president and editor in chief at Alfred A. Knopf, shot back, “but which is which?”

Dystel went on to publish Catcher in the Rye, Louis L’Amour, and John Steinbeck‘s East of Eden, but there was more to Dystel than his publishing successes. He had previously served in World War II for the Office of War Information. He won the “Medal of Freedom for planning, editing and distributing millions of leaflets to people in Nazi-occupied southern France. The leaflets were ‘valuable factors in reducing the enemy’s will to resist,’ the citation said, according to the New York Times.

That military career was how he actually got the Bantam job—his friend from the war, Simon Michael Bessie, and an editor at Harper’s, recommended Dystel, even though he had never had any publishing experience before that. In fact, when he was offered the job, he said he wasn’t sure he was qualified, and wanted to go over the financial side of the business. According to Al Silverman in The Times of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors:

Oscar took his time: he wanted to do more than read Bantam’s profit-and-loss statements. “I knew nothing about book publishing.” Oscar told me. “So what I did, I took off, visited wholesalers around the country. I found the major problem was returns.”

In an interview with his friend David Finn, Dystel talks about a manuscript he wrote of his life story to share with his grandchildren.

I have showed that manuscript to a few of my good friends—like you—but I never thought the story of my life would interest people who didn’t know me. So I wrote it as a private story, and I feel I should keep it that way.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.