Betty Ballantine, 1919–2019
The publisher who helped make paperbacks mainstream
Newlyweds Betty and Ian Ballantine sailed to New York in 1939 intent on changing the way Americans consumed books. Inspired by the success of Penguin paperbacks in England, the Ballantines decided they’d use a $500 wedding gift to establish the imprint’s U.S. division. At the time, hardcovers often cost $3, equivalent to $45 today, and paperbacks were associated with pulp. The Ballantines changed that by acquiring the rights to British classics, starting with H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and P.G. Wodehouse’s My Man Jeeves, and then selling the books for 25 cents at busy spots such as railroad stations and department stores. Before long, the country was hooked on paperbacks.
Elizabeth Jones was born in Faizabad, India, “the daughter of a British colonial officer,” said the Associated Press. She learned to read at age 3 and was working as a bank teller in England when she met Ian Ballantine, an American economics student. Soon after marrying, they headed to his native New York City, where their apartment became the headquarters of Penguin U.S.A.
Paperback books were soon “flying off the racks,” said The New York Times. The couple set up Bantam Books in 1945, reprinting American classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, and seven years later launched Ballantine Books, publishing reprints and originals. Betty edited manuscripts and helped popularize science fiction, commissioning novels from authors who would become the genre’s leading lights. Ballantine published Ray Bradbury’s dystopian best-seller Fahrenheit 451 and works by Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon. “Science fiction matters,” she said in 2002, “because it’s of the mind, it predicts, it thinks.”