Oscar Dystel

All About Books, Part I

VTR Date: November 2, 1982

Guest: Dystel, Oscar


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Oscar Dystel
Title: “All About Books, Part I”
VTR: 11/2/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I try very hard to tell you when ever there’s even just a reasonable possibility of some sort of conflict of interest in my choice of guests and topics, which is difficult of course, when you‘ve moseyed around quite as many different fields of endeavor as my years have allowed. So I should say right off that a long, long time ago I served for a very, very brief time as the Chairman of the Editorial Advisory Board of Bantam books, which my guest today, Oscar Dystel, presided over for nearly three decades and made into America’s preeminent paperback publishing company. I didn’t really get to know Oscar Dystel personally at that time, but I do know enough about the world of books to be very much aware of how highly regarded he is in the filed. And a recent New York Times piece about Oscar Dystel, now that he is a consultant in the larger field of publishing, let me to ask him here today.

Mr. Dystel, thank for joining me here today. And you know, I was reading recently your Bowker lecture, and from it I decided I would begin the program by asking you what your definition of a good publisher is.

DYSTEL: Well, it’s a very difficult definition to generalize on. But a good publisher must be a person, in my judgment, must be a person of taste, must be a person who can sense editorial material and its value, whether it’s entertainment or informational, almost instinctively. He must have a great feeling for the editorial approach to publishing. I think that’s uppermost. I think a good publisher must be able to get along well with creative people, must understand the nuances of author and staff relationships, editorial relationships. A good publisher must understand distribution and the effective forms of distribution, must understand production and its impact on the overall costs and values of a publishing program, and perhaps above all, a good publisher must know that in our commercial world one must make a profit in the publishing process.

HEFFNER: I was wondering whether you’d get to the question of dollars at long lat. There are those who say that…

DYSTEL: But I wanted to tell you that I got to the question of dollars last, not first, because I think a good publisher must first think about the editorial impact of his publishing or her publishing program.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s true of most publishers today?

DYSTEL: Most publishers? It’s a difficult thing again to generalize. I don’t know whether, I don’t know most publishers, so therefore I can’t really comment on it. I think many publishers today are not thinking of the editorial impact of books they publish, but…

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

DYSTEL: The singular quality of a book they publish. I think many publisher today are thinking of me-too-ism, of imitative publishing of publishing something like somebody else’s without understanding the originality, the necessity for originality in that publishing program.

HEFFNER: Are you saying that wasn’t true 20 years ago, 40 years ago?

DYSTEL: Oh, I think it’s always been true. I think imitation has always been one of the sins – if I can say that – of the creative process. But somehow today I sense a little less originality, a little less chance-taking, a little more concern for the bottom line.

HEFFNER: You know it’s interesting. You talk about chance-taking. And in reading through the Bowker lecture I had the feeling that we were talking here or that you were talking there about a giant crapshoot. You emphasized luck so much and the luck of the draw and the chanciness of publishing. Purposefully, I am sure, you mentioned those things.

DYSTEL: Yes. It’s difficult to define again, difficult to define luck because luck is the result of a series of incidences that bring you at the right place at the right time to evaluate a manuscript. It happens as a result of fortune. You know, you happen to be somewhere at that time. And it’s occurred in my career a number of times. And I feel very fortunate.

HEFFNER: Of course you distinguish; I’m sure, between luck and chance. You talk about the obligation of a good publisher to take a chance, and that I suppose is to take a chance on something that’s new and original.

DYSTEL: Yeah. I mean “luck” meaning I happened to be at the right place at the right time. That’s luck, I think. I think “chance” is making a judgment based upon your visceral feeling for a manuscript and how much you think you’ll have to invest in it and moving forward with a publishing decision. That’s taking a chance, in my judgment.

HEFFNER: Go back to this question of dollars, dollars, and making sense. No beating around the bush. I guess you were saying there has been a shift. Publishers are somewhat different today as most businesses are different today, with the emphasis upon numbers. In our definition of what’s a good publisher when you list what the qualities are of succeeding in publishing you say, “You can’t live by the numbers. You have to know what the numbers are , but you can’t live by them”.

DYSTEL: Exactly. You have to live by, in my judgment, by editorial judgment primarily. That is everything in publishing today. It other words, you may no have the judgment yourself, but you better be respectful of those with you who have, whom you think have the judgment.

HEFFNER: You break that…Well let me ask the question that way. How would you distinguish between publishing today by and large and publishing two, three, four decades ago?

DYSTEL: Oh, well, I think publishing two, three, four decades ago was a much slower-paced business. It was, you know, as it’s been described many times, a gentlemanly activity, easy, so a few numbers of books were published a year. We seldom find, and we didn’t seldom find, it didn’t have anything like the pressurized cooker aspect that it has today in terms of its marketing challenges. Today it’s a big business. I’m not talking about trade publishing primarily, although I think it applies to professional publishing and technical publishing, reference book publishing as well.

HEFFNER: You say it was a gentleman’s business. I’m sure you put quotation marks around that.

DYSTEL: Yes, all right.

HEFFNER: Is it not today?

DYSTEL: Well, I think the questions of morality are a little more difficult to deal with today. I think ethics are a little more difficult to deal with today. I think the competitive forces bring out in some of the publishing companies perhaps some qualities that we might not like to see.

HEFFNER: I don’t understand that. Literally I don’t.

DYSTEL: Well, it’s a tougher business, and it’s almost cannibalistic today. I mean, it’s rough. Publishers don’t talk with each other the way they must have talked two, three decades ago. They’re not quite the, they don’t quite exchange views on an intellectual basis that they did. They may greet each other and say, “Well, you know, how’s business?” and figure out, is he telling you a true story or is he not? It’s a very, very difficult, competitive world.

HEFFNER: You mean, “How’s business?” instead of “How’s publishing?”

DYSTEL: Yeah. “How are you making out? How much money are you making? What blockbusters have you had? Who are you lying to today?” You know, it’s all that.

HEFFNER: You make it sound like many other aspects of American life.

DYSTEL: I’m afraid it’s reflective.

HEFFNER: So what we’re talking about, you think we’re talking about something more than…

DYSTEL: Well, I think we’re talking about the competitive upsurge which has created all kinds of problems in this capitalistic society that, you know, concern me to some extent.

HEFFNER: Well, what are the ethical and the moral considerations that you feel are perhaps shuffled aside a bit these days?

DYSTEL: I think people take advantage of each other too much in publishing. I don’t think, if I can use the word “deals”, I don’t think deals are the most, are considered…You know, a good deal is an arrangement whereby you and I and the third party all do well. I think in many cases now it’s kind of a contest as to who is going to do better than the other two.

HEFFNER: When you talk about “contest”, are you referring to the bidding for books?

DYSTEL: Well, whatever. The contest, yes, the contest as to who comes out better financially than anybody else in an arrangement. Bidding for books, distribution of books, publishing of books, manufacturing of books, all of those aspects.

HEFFNER: I guess I’m a little bit puzzled because I would have assumed that that would have had to have been part of publishing as a business all along.

DYSTEL: Well, I’m sure it was. I’m just talking about the intensity, the intensity of activity of every phase of what I just talked about. It’s just more so today.

HEFFNER: Because there are more bucks involved?

DYSTEL: More bucks involved, more sophisticated people who feel that they’re being put upon, one or the other. I think it’s conceivable that many, many years ago authors were being put upon by publishers. Today I’m not so sure that publishers are not being put upon by some authors and their agents.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

DYSTEL: Well, I’m talking about advances and royalty requirements and, “The publisher be damned. I’m going to get my advance and I don’t care what”.

HEFFNER: You mean the problem you see is not between publisher and publisher, but between author and publisher?

DYSTEL: Oh, indeed. I don’t say, it’s not only between publisher and publisher, but it’s between author and publisher, and sometimes it’s between distributor and publisher. Where some distributors say, “Our discounts are not high enough. And we don’t care whether you make money on the distribution of this book or not. They’re not high enough”. Or they’ll say, “We’ll pay you when we’re ready”. And meantime the smaller publisher is waiting to be paid his bell and is really literally starving and is literally about to go out of business.

HEFFNER: Well, Mr. Dystel, where does a gentleman go then?

DYSTEL: He stays in the business.

HEFFNER: How come? You’ve described it…

DYSTEL: Well, he stays in the business because it’s part of his gut and is part of his being. And anybody who is in publishing is in it despite some of the problems I’ve just outlined. I still, I’m not trying to take a position that publishing is an awful place, because it’s a wonderful place. It’s full of its problems though. And that’s what you were leading me to talk about, and that’s what I’ve tried to be quite candid about.

HEFFNER: Do you think that there is some potential for reversing the direction that you’ve described? I understand what you’re saying. I asked about problems, you talked to me about problems. I asked you about opportunities, you tell me about opportunities. Or ask you about the glories of publishing, you will do that. Is there some possibility in terms of what is happening to our society, in terms of what is happening to reading, in terms of what is happening to merchandising that this may all be reversed to some extent? Or is it going to be exacerbated?

DYSTEL: Well, I don’t know whether it will be reversed. That’s a pretty big expectation. But I think certain things have happened in publishing which I am frankly beginning to admire. And I was a great advocate of, you know, size and bigness in my own career.

HEFFNER: You certainly built Bantam up big.

DYSTEL: Well, it’s had its disadvantages however, in making me and us remote and further away from the relationship aspect of publishing which is so wonderful. I think we’re coming back to that. I think that the advent of the small imprint, the small, if I can use the word “boutique” publisher, is coming back. Where a publisher and his wife or a gal or a guy or just a small group will publish maybe a half a dozen books a year or even fewer and then have someone else take care of the distribution, similar to independent production in Hollywood.

HEFFNER: What makes you think this is going to happen?

DYSTEL: It’s happening.

HEFFNER: But what makes you think it’s going to happen more than it has happened?

DYSTEL: Because I believe that a number of young, bright people are seeing that being part of large publishing combines is creating an impersonal attitude and a lack of caring and where everyone is part of one vast machine and where publishing are putting out hamburgers rather than books.

HEFFNER: But the pressures are the same. The pressures will remain.

DYSTEL: But they’ll be more caring. They’ll be caring about a few titles rather than an assembly line. And you also know what’s happening to your books from beginning to end. There are so many cases now in large publishing companies, an editor brings a book in, tremendously enthusiastic, the book is taken away, she or he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to it. If falls into the mélange, into the whole vast vortex of output.

HEFFNER: But then the rewards of bigness will be lost too.

DYSTEL: There are more rewards than the rewards of bigness. There are rewards of achievement, of seeing something worthwhile coming out and getting its readership and getting its, you know, its day in the sun.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that the same number of books totally can be made with that kind of…

DYSTEL: No. No, I don’t think so at all. But there…See, I think there are other satisfactions in publishing than making books. And that is achievement and getting something out worthwhile. It can be entertainment as well. I don’t mean that it necessarily has to be for the, you know, the literary elite. It can be just a lot of good fun. And there are small imprint publishers who are doing that. One of the guys in the industry I think is doing a fabulous job is Peter Workman, you know, with The Preppy Handbook, and…His view…He might say they’re non-books. But he’s having…And I admit a lot of, in my new capacity as a consultant I’ve met a lot of different people much more easily than I had as a book publisher on my own where I was totally occupied with my own activities. And Peter stands out as one of the shining examples of that kind of publishing today.

HEFFNER: Are you saying that if you had to make a bet about which direction the bulk, the overwhelming bulk…

DYSTEL: We’re talking trade publishing all the time.

HEFFNER: Okay…the overwhelming bulk of trade publishing will go – bulk of trade publishing – it will be in this direction of the small entrepreneur? Or are you saying what will produce a few…

DYSTEL: No, I don’t…I’m saying, I don’t say the overwhelming bulk. I say there’s a definite, distinct development in that direction. I think the overwhelming bulk of trade publishing will be concentrated among fewer or larger publishing combines.

HEFFNER: And what will be the impact of that upon the quality of books?

DYSTEL: It worries me. It doesn’t say that axiomatically the quality of books is going to decrease. It worries me though, because I think it depends upon how those large combines are organized. If they can be organized in a decentralized fashion where there are separate entities of a smaller nature as part of a large combine where there are, as they say, economies of scale, then I think there may be great merit in that kind of an operation.

HEFFNER: The operation of the combines up to this point, does that, do the ways in which they have behaved themselves, comported themselves, make for optimism on your part?

DYSTEL: It is again very difficult to generalize. In some cases, yes, and in many cases, no. I would say they haven’t. They’ve become more impersonal, more insensitive, more technical, more figure-oriented, and less…Well, I said impersonal. Less concerned with the leaders, the editorial and publishing leaders within their organizations, and the personalities, which are terribly important, because publishing companies are made up of people. People are the whole ingredient of whether the publishing company will be successful or not.

HEFFNER: But Mr. Dystel, how does that phenomenon impact upon me as a buyer of books, as a reader of books?

DYSTEL: Well, at the moment that impact, meaning this trend toward size?


DYSTEL: Again it depends on where that is going to go. If it becomes more and more impersonal, more and more technical, I think you’re going to suffer as a reader of books, because you’re not going to have the wide choice that you once had, the wideness or the variety, the surprise elements in books. There’ll be more, there’ll be more of a sameness in what you’re going to be seeing in the marketplace.

HEFFNER: Do I have as wide a selection now as I did two decades ago?

DYSTEL: Unfortunately…Two decades ago?


DYSTEL: Well, quibbling over time. Fifteen year ago, I’d like to speak to that.


DYSTEL: Or 15, 20 years ago. Well, I’d say there might be as many books out of a great variety, but you as a reader don’t have that, as much of a chance or a variety of choice.

HEFFNER: Because of distribution problems?

DYSTEL: Because of basically distribution. Where distributors are going with the known and bestselling books and they have no time or money for that matter. And that’s a very important factor. In being able to stock books that move a little slower but may have a special appeal to a special audience.

HEFFNER: I wondered about that because there have been too many times when I’ve looked for a particular book and certainly not been able to find it.

DYSTEL: Were you able to find those books, say, ten years ago, 15 years ago? Do you remember?

HEFFNER: Well, I had the impression that as a younger man I was better able to do so.


HEFFNER: Now, maybe that’s just because I was younger and could get around more friskily. But I, honest to God, feel that at this point a book will disappear much more quickly.


HEFFNER: You seem to be supporting that.

DYSTEL: I’m afraid I am. I recently, I don’t know, I just threw out an idea, so I’ve been thinking about it some, in an interview with Judith Apelbaum of The New York Times. I wondered about publishers in this new computerized society that we’re going to be living in whether publishers might not consider a variable discount structure which would give a distributor and/or a retailer a greater incentive to inventory books that might move a little slower by giving them a larger discount and charging a little more for those books so that everyone could have a crack at them, on an economically sound basis.

HEFFNER: But isn’t this a function strictly of space?

DYSTEL: Yes, it is a function of space. But the space would then be made more equal by discount. In other words…

HEFFNER: You mean, “I’ll keep it in stock if I get a, if I can do better with the book?”

DYSTEL: If you can do better with that book economically, yes. If you do only as well as you do with a faster-selling piece of merchandise or a faster-selling book, you’ll carry the faster-selling book. You’ll carry a book that turns over faster using the retail price.

HEFFNER: All right,. Now, as a consultant…


HEFFNER: …would you recommend this procedure to a client?

DYSTEL: I don’t know. I’d have to do a lot more thinking. I really threw it out as a provocative idea. I don‘t know whether we’re really ready to fully recommend it to a client yet. But I think it’s something worth studying. I really do.

HEFFNER: What about bookstores? Because I’m talking about where I can get a book; you are too. Are there fewer? More? Are the chains changing things?

DYSTEL: There are more bookstores now than there were several years ago. And they’re growing all the time. But they’re different. They’re not the little, they’re not quite the stores that maybe we remember as of 15 years ago, the rather sedate, smallish store run by someone who is in a semi-retired position and someone who just, some, a man and his wife or more who just enjoy and love books. They’re businesses now, stores that are run on a highly sophisticated retail basis.

HEFFNER: How does that impact again upon me?

DYSTEL: Well, depending upon where the store is and who the stores are run by, it can impact on you in a wonderful way. I believe that some of the retailers in this country are doing a remarkable job in discounting books, in merchandising books in an effective manner, in making books more exciting, creating events in their stores, getting more people into their stores. And I think all in all the process of retailing has become far more sophisticated. And I’m all for it.

HEFFNER: You know, you’re going to have to explain to me – and I’m very naive about this – but I’ve just never understood how almost immediately upon publication I can see an advertisement and if I go into a large bookstore, particularly those associated with chains, in which I’ll find a book that’s published at 20 bucks available to me at $13.50. What goes into this? Is this an economy of scale too?

DYSTEL: No, that’s good…I don’t know whether it’s $13.50, but…

HEFFNER: $15.50. Whatever it may be.

DYSTEL: Well, whatever. We call it a discounted book or a promoted book. And it’ll certainly appeal to your sense of bargain, of a good buy. And so you’ll go in and buy that. I think more and more retailers are beginning to do that.

HEFFNER: And what happens to that little mom-and-pop store?

DYSTEL: Well, they’ve got to begin thinking along the same lines. And of course they’re concerned about their markups, and they’re afraid they can’t do it.

HEFFNER: Can they?

DYSTEL: I think on an occasional basis they can. I think, why can’t there be a Father’s Day sale, or why can’t there be a white sale just as there is in the department store business, or why can’t there be more personalities applied to the smaller store like the store concentrating on mysteries or science fiction or developing a personality, an expertise of its own? There are so many things the small bookstore can do to give itself distinction to combat the high-powered merchandising impact of a large chain.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re talking about a small store that’s a specialty store in a large city, aren’t you? You’re not talking about…

DYSTEL: Large city – could be a small city, because that small store can develop a national reputation and become a mail-order center for books all over the country.

HEFFNER: Well, we all know about the mom-and-pop grocery store that’s put out of business by the big chains…


HEFFNER: …by the food stores. Is this…

DYSTEL: Yeah. I’m concerned about that. I have no question that you’ve hit on a nerve there that is concerning, you know, retailing all over the country. The big chains are attempting to buy sharper, to buy at discounts which may be advantageous – which may be, I say – and this is affecting the retailing practices all over the United States.

HEFFNER: But they buy big books too, don’t they? You pass a window and you see the big book that was published by the big publisher who gave a big advance being pushed in the window. You see 20, 30, 40 copies of the book. Doesn’t that fit into, fall into the pattern you were describing before that makes you a little uneasy about publishing today?

DYSTEL: Who buys the big books, the small retailer?

HEFFNER: No, I’m talking about the big store now, the big outlet, part of the chain.

DYSTEL: Yeah. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t this all fit together with the whole emphasis upon big business?

DYSTEL: Oh, sure. I mean, everyone is running toward the few major blockbusters and ignoring that what is now being called the midlist, or the books that should have a greater opportunity for greater breathing room in space and time.

HEFFNER: Do you think the small entrepreneurial publishers you see popping up around; do you think that they can survive in terms of what’s happening to book distribution patterns?

DYSTEL: I think they can, depending upon what they’re publishing. I don’t think it’s a matter of size; it’s a matter of what they’re publishing. I think a small publisher can exist in this high-powered environment with just one book that becomes a reference book that would be published year after year. It depends upon what they’re publishing.

HEFFNER: And the trend is toward what in terms of what they’re publishing?

DYSTEL: Among the small…


DYSTEL: I think greater originality. I think, if you go to a convention; as I did with great frequency – I don’t do that very much anymore – a convention of retailers, or publisher, I should say, the American Booksellers conventions where the publishers exhibit their wares, I would spend my time, most of it, with the small publishers, because there was where I saw the greatest creativity, there is where I got many, many ideas.

HEFFNER: You feel that’s the part of the business now…

DYSTEL: That’s the most exciting.

HEFFNER: That harks back to the older days perhaps?

DYSTEL: Perhaps, yes, it does.

HEFFNER: To the Knopfs and the others who started the whole…

DYSTEL: It’s possible, yes.

HEFFNER: Look, I’m going to have to end. I’m getting the signals that this is the end of our time for this program. Maybe I’ll convince you when we go off the air to sit there and we’ll do another. Anyway, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND, Oscar Dystel.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us again there on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.