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Paperbacks pioneer Oscar Dystel dies in NY at 101

Oscar Dystel, a leader of the paperbacks market who transformed Bantam Books into a prolific powerhouse that released best-selling editions of "The Catcher in the Rye," "Jaws," Ragtime" and many others, died Wednesday at age 101.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Oscar Dystel, a leader of the paperbacks market who transformed Bantam Books into a prolific powerhouse that released best-selling editions of "The Catcher in the Rye," "Jaws," Ragtime" and many others, died Wednesday at age 101.

He had been in failing health and died at his home in Rye, just north of New York City, said his daughter, literary agent Jane Dystel.

Millions of people who loved to find quick reads for the airport or beach could thank Dystel, who had been a magazine editor when he was hired in 1954 to take over the then-struggling Bantam imprint. Alert to the growing appeal of cheap and portable books, Dystel soon presided over popular paperbacks of Leon Uris' "Battle Cry" and John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" and made Bantam the dominant publisher of mass-market paperbacks.

In the 1960s and '70s, Bantam released hundreds of books a year, from Peter Benchley's "Jaws" and E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" to a million-selling edition of the Warren Commission's report on President John F. Kennedy's assassination and Jacqueline Susann's sensational "Valley of the Dolls." When Dystel left, Bantam accounted for about 15 percent of mass-market sales.

"My whole concept was to be an effective merchandiser of books," Dystel said in a 2006 interview with Move! Magazine. "When we considered new titles, we didn't read for the sake of enjoying the book but of considering its commercial potential. We learned how to read the first and last part of the book and make a judgment as to its potential sales."

Hardcovers and paperbacks now are usually released by the same publisher. But in Dystel's time, the editions were controlled by different companies, meaning a paperback publisher needed to compete for works. Dystel may not have cared much about art, but he was as open to publishing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as he was to publishing the latest diet book. And he was willing to bend for the chance of a hit.

In 1963, he learned the paperback for "The Catcher in the Rye" was becoming available, along with paperback rights to two other J.D. Salinger books, "Franny and Zooey" and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." Salinger's demands were less about money than about control: He wanted to design the covers.

"No problem!" Dystel, interviewed later for Al Silverman's publishing history "The Time of Our Lives," recalled saying. "We'll publish it in a brown wrapping paper cover if he wants that, just as long as the title is legible."

Dystel had a deal, and the Bantam editions sold millions of copies.

The son of tailor shop workers, Dystel was born in New York in 1912. He attended New York University and then Harvard Business School. After graduation, he was an editor at Look, Coronet and other magazines. During World War II, he worked for the Office of War Information, helping to oversee the dropping of leaflets over southern France.

Bantam had been founded in the mid-1940s by Ian and Betty Ballantine, but they had fought with its owners, Grosset & Dunlap, and were gone by 1952. Dystel, recommended by a former War Information office colleague, was asked to take over. Dystel, managing editor of Collier's magazine at the time, had no book publishing experience and agreed to the job only after reviewing Bantam's financial reports and visiting wholesalers around the country.

In 1977, Bantam was sold to the German conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, and Dystel was forced out by 1980. The mass market industry has faded in recent years as baby boomers struggled to read the small print and e-books took over as the prime source of inexpensive, portable texts.

Dystel was a consultant for the New American Library and E.P. Dutton and for Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, co-founded by his daughter. He also became active with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society after his son, John Dystel, was diagnosed with the disease. His son died in 2003, the year his wife, Marion Deitler Dystel, died.

Oscar Dystel had one of publishing's most successful careers, but he recalled a costly mistake. In the early 1960s, he met Hollywood producer David Brown and his wife at a dinner in Beverly Hills, California. Brown's wife, Dystel explained, was unusually candid about her love life. After she acknowledged having many affairs as a young woman, Dystel suggested she write a book.

"I read through the manuscript and thought, 'This is not for me.' Very suggestive stuff, full of four-letter words," explained Dystel, who turned it down.

The book, Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl," became a million-seller and cultural landmark.

Dystel's efforts to release it in paperback proved hopeless. The next time he saw Brown, she kissed him on both cheeks and said, "If you were the last man alive, you'd never get the rights to that book."