Betty Ballantine (1919-2019)

 Legendary editor and publisher Betty Ballantine, 99, died February 12, 2019 at home in Bearsville NY. Her career in publishing began in the 1930s, and she was instrumental in the rise of mass-market paperbacks and helped found both Bantam Books and Ballantine Books.

Elizabeth Norah Jones was born September 25, 1919 in India to a colonial family. At 12 she moved with her family to Jersey in the Channel Islands, where she met Ian Ballantine in 1938. By New Year’s they were engaged and in June 1939 were married and on their way to New York, where they began importing mass-market paperbacks to the US through Penguin Books in the UK. During their 56 years of marriage and publishing, they shared business duties, though Betty did most of the editing and Ian acted primarily as publisher.

The quality of Penguin USA’s imported books was poor during WWII because of paper rationing, so the Ballantines began to publish their own books for the US Armed Services, including “instant” books they produced rapidly on their kitchen table. Reprints from that era included some H.G. Wells titles and Out of this World, an anthology of early SF edited by Julius Fast.

They left Penguin in 1945 to form Bantam Books with a consortium of publishers and other companies. They diversified rapidly, reprinting classics like The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. They also published more SF, including Judith Merril’s anthology Shot in the Dark (1950) and reprints of Ray Bradbury and Fredric Brown books.

Though the Ballantines were in charge at Bantam, they still had to report to a board, and eventually decided to start their own firm instead. They launched Ballantine Books in November 1952, becoming the first house to publish hardcover and paperback lines at the same time, and offering unusually generous royalties. They began publishing original SF in 1953 and became the world’s premier paperback SF publisher; most SF appeared exclusively in magazines at the time. SF writers lined up to write for them, including Arthur C. Clarke, their close friend Frederik Pohl, Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson, C.M. Kornbluth, James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip José Farmer, and John Wyndham. In the ’60s writers including Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven, James White, and Anne McCaffrey joined in.

Ballantine was also instrumental in making J.R.R. Tolkien popular in the US in the 1960s (producing the first authorized US editions), sparking a fantasy literature revolution that saw the publication of authors like Merveyn Peake and E.R. Eddison. The Ballantines launched the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (1969-74), with help from Lin Carter, reprinting classic works by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, H. Rider Haggard, Lord Dunsany, Evangeline Walton, and more.

They attempted to sell Ballantine Books in 1972 to InTEXT, but the deal fell through, and they sold instead to Random House in 1973. The Ballantines stayed on to run the paperback division of Random House until 1974, when they “retired” — becoming freelance consulting publishers and editors, mostly but not exclusively for Bantam.

In 1972, Betty formed her own company, Rufus Publications, and the couple worked on numerous projects from that position, including the Peacock Press imprint for Bantam, focusing on illustrated books of fantasy art. Betty edited authors including actress Shirley MacClaine and astronaut Chuck Yeager for Bantam, and worked on SF/F projects including the art books Gnomes (1977) and Fairies (1981), and James Gurney’s Dinotopia (1992).

Ian & Betty Ballantine were honored with two special professional World Fantasy Awards in 1975 and 1984, a special SFWA Award for their pioneering contributions to SF/F publishing in 1985, and the Literary Marketplace Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Betty won a special SFWA President’s Award in 2002, and a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award in 2007. The Ballantines were inducted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008.  

Betty Ballantine was predeceased by Ian in 1995. She is survived by three grandchildren.

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