Oscar Dystel ( October 31, 1912 to May 28, 2014), was a giant in book publishing. We reference his New York Times obituary below.
[Oscar Dystel was born] in the Bronx, the only child of parents who worked in a tailor shop and later owned a general store. As a child he played the violin and performed at Carnegie Hall, but he gave it up after realizing that he would never be a virtuoso. He received a track scholarship to New York University, which he supplemented by working as a typesetter at The Times. He graduated in 1935 with a major in advertising.
Mr. Dystel won a scholarship to Harvard Business School and graduated in 1937. He was then hired as promotion manager at Esquire magazine and later promoted to editor of Coronet magazine, which was owned by the same company. He helped increase Coronet’s circulation to two million from 87,000 before leaving in 1942 to join the Office of War Information, where he worked on psychological warfare.
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.
Dystel became famous for the success of Bantam books under his leadership.
Bantam Books was founded in 1945 to take advantage of new methods that allowed paperbacks to be produced cheaply and of a public eager to pay 25 cents for a book that might have cost $2 as a hardback....
Oscar Dystel, ... combined sharp editorial judgments, shrewd marketing and attention-grabbing covers to propel Bantam Books from the brink of collapse to pre-eminence in paperback publishing after World War II, ....
...... [B]y the time Mr. Dystel retired as chairman in 1980, its sales exceeded $100 million a year. It was the largest publisher of paperbacks, with more than 15 percent of a market served by 14 principal houses and several lesser imprints. Paperbacks had come to account for more than half the dollar volume of sales in the nation’s bookstores.
This notable feat was accomplished by Dystel's policies.
Mr. Dystel reduced inventory, pushed a program to sell classic books by Dostoyevsky and other authors, expanded publishing for schools and children, multiplied the sales force and built a corporate structure.
And he did what he liked most: He found books with a shot at popularity and sold them vigorously.
[Such titles as] “Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann, which Mr. Dystel predicted would sell a million copies, [ and which then] had a press run of four million the week after its paperback publication in 1967. Four million more copies were published in less than a year.
When no hardcover publisher was interested in William Peter Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” in 1971, Mr. Dystel bought both hardcover and paperback rights. ... Bantam sold 10 million copies ....[of the book which became] the basis of a 1973 blockbuster movie of the same title.
Covers mattered. Bantam made red the preferred color for paperback books, and other companies followed, until bookstands were almost solidly red. It then did the same with white, and later with raised metallic titles.
When the New American Library’s rights for J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) were expiring, Mr. Dystel resolved to acquire the book. It turned out that what Mr. Salinger most wanted was to design the cover himself. “No problem!” Mr. Dystel said...
Mr. Salinger’s cover is the one that became familiar to millions: the title and author’s name in yellow against a red background. “Catcher” sold half a million Bantam copies a year beginning in 1964, and by 1978 it had been through 46 Bantam printings.
Mr. Dystel’s maxim for publishing success was as simple as it was difficult: “There’s no disastrous situation in publishing which cannot be saved by the publication of one really big best seller.”
We conclude with one of Oscar Dystel's Bantam covers:
This 1967 Bantam title features cover art by Mitchell Hooks.