Oscar Dystel

All About Books, Part II

VTR Date: November 2, 1982

Guest: Dystel, Oscar


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Oscar Dystal
Title: “All About Books”, Part II
VTR: 1/21/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. As I frequently do when one program leads to another, let me repeat for you the way I introduced our last OPEN MIND. I said that I try very hard to tell you whenever 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 Dystal, presided over for nearly three decades and made into America’s preeminent paperback publishing company. I didn’t really get to know Oscar Dystal 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 field. And a recent New York Times piece about Oscar Dystal, now that he is a consultant in the larger field of publishing, led me to ask him here again today.

Mr. Dystal, I’ll be familiar and say Oscar because it’s our second program now. We spoke the other day, even before we did programs, about a new kind of publishing. And you pointed out to me that I perhaps was being rather pessimistic about the impact of electronics upon the world of books. You obviously are very up and optimistic about that impact. Is that fair?

DYSTAL: Yes. I believe that…Well, I don’t know whether I’d say I’m optimistic. I’d say I’m not as pessimistic as many people feel about the impact of the electronic medium on the world of books. Some people say that pretty soon we’re going to be reading books on the screen and that’ll be it. We won’t be carrying books or magazines or newspapers any longer; we’re going to see everything on the screen. I think that’s ridiculous. I do feel that, however, that database publishing is here and will grow, and there will be a need to be able to press buttons and see certain facts on the screen rather than go through pages and pages of reference material to find out the source and the certain facts that you need.

HEFFNER: But do you mean to say that you don’t feel that the last 30, 35 years of television have impacted negatively upon reading in this country?

DYSTAL: ON the contrary. I feel that the last 30 or 35 years in the main – in the main – have impacted favorably – not negatively – favorably on publishing.

HEFFNER: In what way? More books sold?

DYSTAL: I’m not totally sure about books sold, but a wider variety of books sold. More coverage, more interested and wider coverage of subject matter, which the world of television, especially PBS, if I might say so, and other finely tuned programs, finely produced programs have impacted or motivated.

HEFFNER: You mean you’re saying that people become interested in subjects and themes because of television and therefore have read books about those themes?

DYSTAL: Wanted to know more as a result of the introduction by televised programs.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now, what about the general thought that along with that – and I don’t think anyone denies that the reading of books in many instances has been provoked or stimulated by particular television programs – along with that the old McLuhan notion that what we have become, in a sense, is a post-Gutenberg or post-literate people that we are becoming, thanks to the electronic media, without being pejorative about them, that we are becoming a people who depend more upon other than our reading skills. Is that unfair?

DYSTAL: No, I don’t think that’s unfair. I think that’s happening and it’s frightening, but it’s happening. But I’m trying to say that the book as a book is not going to be a relative, is not going to become a museum piece.

HEFFNER: Oscar, famous last words, perhaps?

DYSTAL: No, I don’t believe that at all. I don’t. I believe the…You know, a book is a – I mean, this may sound a little corny – but you know, a book is a warm companion, a friend. A TV screen or a computer screen is not. It never will be, in my judgment. There is something wonderful about holding a book in your hands and being able to go back and forth and deal with it in various attitudes, planes or trains or on a beach or meadow or under a tree or whatever.

HEFFNER: Sure. I’m not denying that. But I do ask the question as to whether we’re not finding increasingly that there are fewer and fewer people comparatively who enjoy those pleasures and whether we aren’t finding ourselves snow increasingly becoming a society that is dichotomized between those who still are part of the Gutenberg galaxy and those who are very much not.

DYSTAL: I am not sure. Maybe I don’t want to believe it. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, that’s really the question I’m asking you. Maybe you don’t. I don’t either.

DYSTAL: Yeah, yeah. I am not sure, no, because of the vast growth in the mass-market paperback field, you know, the growth of sales of books. You know, there are over 600 million such books printed each year. It’s true a number of them are returned and go back, but that’s a lot of books being printed and distributed throughout the United States and the world. So I’m just not sure that suddenly book reading and reading – and I’m thinking about the growth of magazines and – I’m just not sure that reading has been affected so adversely as we’re inclined, some people are inclined to argue.

HEFFNER: Well, what about reading in our country? What about the capacity to read? What about a kind of functional illiteracy?

DYSTAL: It’s a problem. It’s been a serious problem. I sense maybe a leveling off, maybe an improvement. I really do sense that. And I’m talking even among the underprivileged, the minority groups. I think there’s more of a caring developing as far as reading is concerned. I don’t care whether they read comic books, incidentally, or anything that gets them started. But there seems to be some leveling off of functional illiteracy.

HEFFNER: You say you don’t care if they read comic books. But doesn’t reading comic books lead to reading comic books?

DYSTAL: No. No, I don’t believe so. I think reading comic books leads to – well, in some cases it does, of course – it may even stop you from reading altogether. But I think reading comic books leads you to fascination with the word, the vision, the image of the word, but the word, the story, and, you know, the storyteller. And a tremendous number of books are just written by storytellers, not by great members of the elite society, you know, and they do very well.

HEFFNER: You know, sometime ago, it must have been two years ago, I had Dan Gallagher here at this table. Dan Gallagher, the president of the Hastings Institute. And I did so because I had seen a report in The New York Times about a study they did about teaching ethics in universities or in schools generally. And the report indicated that you really couldn’t do it very well because our students were too accustomed to reading soft, comic-book-like materials and really couldn’t any longer be depended upon to be able to read the hard stuff. And the definition of the hard stuff didn’t seem very hard to me; John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, for instance. Now, they maintained, or others have maintained, that that’s part of our whole movement away from that nice, pleasant, soft involvement with the book that you were talking about. I gather you don‘t subscribe to that notion.

DYSTAL: Not particularly. As a matter of fact, that’s a whole different subject. If they had some difficulty in teaching ethics through the book, maybe they had some difficulty in teaching ethics because of the method of teaching ethics.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on now. We’re talking about the same kinds of teaching that had worked before with books and seemingly doesn’t work so well now, now that quite so many youngsters are not reading quite so much.

DYSTAL: Well, look, there is an improvement in expression and presentation that takes place that I have no, I have great respect for. I mean, you know, some of the texts and teaching of 15 or 20 years ago are just dated. They’re not nearly as effective as in our modernized, more psychologically oriented text. And getting someone to pick up the idea…easier. So you must agree that – we may be going far afield at the moment – but you must agree that there is a, there can be a modernity, there can be some improvement in style and approach to expression and text and books.

HEFFNER: When you’re talking about text, what about the texture of general trade books? What’s happening to the feeling, to the look of books today?

DYSTAL: Well, it’s not a very pleasant picture. One goes to…That is, let’s talk about the, let’s define what I man. It’s not a very pleasant picture to go to the average, mass-market, rack-size, paperback rack and look for something you want tot read. There’s a cheapness about those racks today that in my judgment was not prevalent even ten years ago. Unfortunately, I guess, Bantam was the first to use metallic ink in printing for titles on its books. But we were going to do that occasionally. But, you know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So all of our competitors began to use the same kind of metallic impression in their layouts and designs, and so everything has developed a sameness and a glitter and a tinselly quality. And it’s been repellent. A lot of people told m that.

HEFFNER: It hasn’t turned people off, though, from buying those books.

DYSTAL: Among certain people, as a matter of fact, it’s like trademark or a trade, you know, kind of an attraction for certain elements of the market. For the vast market of the women’s “romantic fiction” with names like, you know, words like “ecstasy” and “passion” and “rapture” and where one title is mixed up with another where you can’t remember one book from another for that matter. And those books all have a look to them and a kind of an image which attracts certain readers. It’s like a brand image.

HEFFNER: Now, you talk about women, books for women. Do I understand correctly that increasingly books generally are bought by women rather than men?

DYSTAL: I think that seems to be a fact at the moment, but I must tell you that there are now books of a, there’s much more subject matter, it seems to me, for women that are turning faster than books for men. Though I’ve noted some of the mass-market publishers becoming very much aware of that and dealing with that subject, they’re publishing more, trying to publish more series books, male-oriented series books.

HEFFNER: Well, do you think the growing percentage of books purchased by women is a function of feminism?

DYSTAL: Not particularly, no. As a matter of fact, it might be just the opposite, because many of the books published by women unfortunately are based on the old love story theme with a little bit of heat thrown in, if I might say so.

HEFFNER: What about the supermarket sales? Does that…

DYSTAL: Well, women go there, you know. They’re major patrons of the supermarkets, and therefore the books for women are more preeminent in supermarkets.

HEFFNER: You know, I was taken a moment ago, you said, “Publishers are taking note of this”. But if they take not of this they’re going to cater to that phenomenon. They’re not going to try and change it, are they?

DYSTAL: No, no. Publishers are taking note of it, and they have taken note if it, and they’re going to imitate each other until you find one love story after another. But they’re also taking note of it in another way. The more adventuresome chance-takers are taking note of it and saying, “We’re going to do something about it and find a new niche, a new field, and not just which has been neglected”. And I begin to see some of that happening in our business.

HEFFNER: Do you think there is a field that has been neglected?

DYSTAL: Well, yes. Because I think publishing operates in cycles. I think now we’re inundated with certain genres or certain categories of books, such as the occult novel, the thriller, the hot, historical romance. And there’s one book after another, and that’s all you can find. And I think it’s just like too much steak, you know. You finally get tired of it. And so I believe that publishers are going to be finding other areas of interests which have been proven to be successful in the past. They’ll be coming to those areas of interest.

HEFFNER: If you had to make a guess, what will the next new wave be? Not gothic novels, obviously. What should we bet on?

DYSTAL: That’s a difficult question. I don’t know whether there’s going to be one great new wave, because there’s so many of them that have been covered over and over and over again. But I think the novels about the future, science fiction, is already a tremendous business. But I think it will continue and improve in its content and its approach.

HEFFNER: You know, that brings me to another point.

DYSTAL: Imaginative novels about the future.

HEFFNER: You mean good ones?

DYSTAL: Yeah, good ones.

HEFFNER: Talking about good novels…

DYSTAL: You know, if I may say so…


DYSTAL: Even a movie like E.T. is kind of a forerunner of that sort of thing. I’m not talking about, you know, the Buck Rogers kind of novel. I’m talking about how we are going to live and behave in the future might be a very interesting series of…And I’m not talking about too narrow a definition of that. It can be pretty wide.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “not too narrow”?

DYSTAL: Well, I don’t mean that we’re all dressed in, you know, spacesuits or anything like that.

HEFFNER: You mean the patterns, the social patterns, the intellectual patterns…

DYSTAL: Yes, include that as well. Exactly.

HEFFNER: …of the future?

DYSTAL: Thank you. That’s exactly right.

HEFFNER: Well, now, let me ask you a question about something we touched on in our last meeting that has to do with the competitiveness that you described among and between publishers and publishers, and publishers and authors, and publishers and agents. What about the huge advance? What role does that play now in American publishing?

DYSTAL: Well, I think at the moment it plays a smaller role because so many of the purveyors and makers of the huge advance have been burned. So everyone’s pulled back and those huge advances are not so forthcoming. But they’re still around. I hear about a million dollars here and a million dollars there. Irving Wallace, I think, was just successful in selling his new novel at that price.

HEFFNER: Yeah, and you can’t very well say, “Well, a million here and a million there”. Those tend to mount up. What impact do they have upon good publishing? I’m not saying that the…

DYSTAL: Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. They don’t call that bad publishing.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. That’s what I started to say. I’m not saying that the book that gets a million dollars is a bad book. But I’m saying, what impact does the huge advance have upon the general level of what will be published? How much more money can your publisher put into, in any one year, into a, how much can he take a chance on a new novelist?

DYSTAL: He can take a chance on a new novelist without putting up a large advance, and he does.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. That isn’t what I mean. When he does put up a huge advance…


HEFFNER: …when he gives Wallace or someone else a huge advance, what’s left for the young person who comes along, or the middle aged person, or the old person who comes along with the first book? What’s left for taking the kind of chance you identify with good publishing?

DYSTAL: Well, it’s true that you can’t continue to be advancing a million dollars on maybe 50 books a year or anything like that. That would be a great strain on a company. So that doesn’t happen very often, if at all. But the huge advances are not that frequent, and there’s plenty left in terms of advance for the book that may have less commercial impact.

HEFFNER: Well, then why does the concept of the huge advance bother you? Or maybe it doesn’t.

DYSTAL: It doesn’t bother me. I didn’t say it did.

HEFFNER: It really doesn’t?


HEFFNER: You’d be all for…

DYSTAL: I mean, it never did. I mean, I was one of the great, you know, purveyors of the, I mean, we were responsible for the three million eight to Judy Krantz for Princess Daisy.

HEFFNER: And I remember when she came on this program fairly shortly after that.

DYSTAL: You did?

HEFFNER: She was very rich.

DYSTAL: Well, you know, Bantam did all right with it. So, you know, our advance worked out. We were probably criticized for the amount of money we advanced, but we were in a competitive race. And we felt that this was a good business investment. It did reach the media and was blown all out of proportion because of the size of the advance.

HEFFNER: Well, how can you blow three million dollars plus out of proportion?

DYSTAL: Well, you can. Because there’s a lot more to publishing than that advance.

HEFFNER: But, you know, when we began the first…

DYSTAL: But it was a sexy story, you know, so everybody talked about it.

HEFFNER: When we began the first program, you were speaking in, not saddened terms but you had some negative feelings that you expressed about the business of publishing and the competition, etcetera. Are you defending now the role that the three-million-dollar-plus advance played in the exploitation of publishing?

DYSTAL: Listen there are parts of this business that you’ve got to be in because you’ve got o be in it. In other words, I’ve decried the large advance. I think it’s not the greatest idea in the world. But I’m always there. I was always there when we had to be there to maintain our position and to move forward with our company. And that took guts and it took vision, and I don’t believe that we necessarily set the industry back a few years.

HEFFNER: So, all in all, it was not negative?

DYSTAL: I don’t think so, no.

HEFFNER: Even in terms of creating a bigger marketplace where there were bigger bucks and megabucks made for less of a gentlemanly pursuit?

DYSTAL: Well, listen, not all of it’s negative aspect to it. Sure, it became a tougher business, and we had to be sure that we were going to earn out that advance, so we were far more aggressive in our exploitation of, as Bantam and other companies are even now about the books they’re publishing. Far more aggressive in our exploitation and pro motion of these books. That’s the publishing business, the mass-market publishing business today.

HEFFNER: You know, you talk about aggressive. And as in this wonderful Bowker lecture of yours, you talk about the role of management in marketing, and you say, “One of the most common complaints and questions I’ve heard over the years is why paperbacks aren’t marketed like soap. And it seems like the second most common complaint I’ve heard is that paperbacks are marketed like soap and shouldn’t be”. Which do you think should be the case?

DYSTAL: It depends on the book. I believe that Harlequin, a very successful mass-market publisher, publishing a similar or if not the same kind of a title, title after title after title, made a great success as a publishing company marketing their books like soap. I believe a company like Bantam, which publishes singularly, which has published singularly interesting, one-of-a-kind novels should not market its titles like soap, because soap is a brand. You know, you’re dealing with brand names. And the Harlequin books were bought by brand. And Bantam books are not necessarily bought by brand as a Bantam book; they’re bought by title or by author.

HEFFNER: I think most of the people who are critical, at least outsiders like myself who are critical of this business of merchandising the books like soap, like merchandising…

DYSTAL: You shouldn’t be critical of merchandising the books like soap if the books need to be merchandised like soap. I mean, I’m talking about the Harlequin books.


DYSTAL: He may be critical of the Harlequin books altogether. Yet I’ve found, I think they’re important because they have helped a lot of people find a way to get into the world of reading, because they’re very simplistic.

HEFFNER: You mean like the comic books then?

DYSTAL: Yeah. They’re a little above that, of course.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you know, again, I wasn’t thinking so much of it from a strictly business point of view. I mean, you’re quite correct obviously, go by the numbers, merchandising like soap for Harlequin books or whatever. This works. I wasn’t thinking about that. And the criticism, I think, that’s heard, mostly hasn’t to do with whether this is successful or not successful. It has to do with perhaps an esthetic judgment or a different kind of judgment which you seemed to be expressing earlier on in our first program.

DYSTAL: How did I express it…

HEFFNER: Well, a kind of feeling about what’s happened to publishing. Do you think that a gentlemanly pursuit is involved with merchandising books as if they were bars of soap?

DYSTAL: No. And I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I am pro-elitism in publishing.

HEFFNER: Ah, what’s the matter with that? I’m glad you used the word.

DYSTAL: Yeah. I’m not pro-elitism. I think publishing is a means of conveying information and an entertainment to many mass markets of our society. And I have great respect for fine literature and works of knowledge. But I also have great respect for highly commercial fiction. And books that are even as simplistic as a Harlequin or a Silhouette title, I think they all belong. And they all belong to the right marketplace.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s possible that the merchandising like soap procedure drives out, makes less successful the possibility of merchandising like an elite product?

DYSTAL: Not really, no.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

DYSTAL: No, I don’t. No. That kind of merchandising finds its own pace in the retail marketplace. And the reader knows where to go for it. And it doesn’t crowd out the elite book, believe me.

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s really what I was getting at, because I don’t know.

DYSTAL: I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: You’re saying you don’t believe…

DYSTAL: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: …that we can continue to go more and more – and we seem to be going more and more – into the merchandising business when it comes to books, without paying a price in terms of reading.

DYSTAL: Well, we seem to be…But we’re doing some very good things with the merchandizing techniques that we have learned. You know, books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You know, here’s a book that has gone and sold in the millions. Why not? You wouldn’t have found that with the merchandising techniques of maybe 25 or 30 years ago.

HEFFNER: Is that good or bad?

DYSTAL: That’s good!


DYSTAL: Because you’re getting to more people, more readers, with a worthwhile piece of literature.

HEFFNER: And you don’t think that the procedure…itself by any means downgrades…

DYSTAL: No, I think it’s just to the opposite. You know, what’s wrong with good marketing, with more aggressive selling, with wider distribution? I think that just gets more people involved in reading.

HEFFNER: Would you say though, there are those who stem from publishing of yesteryear who do feel there’s something ungentlemanly about that?

DYSTAL: Well, yeah. I hate to use the word – there is a certain amount of snobbism to that, and I guess I resent it. I may be criticized myself as coming from the, you know, the business side of publishing to deeply. But believe me, I have a strong editorial orientation, having been a magazine editor for many years, and having worked with manuscripts, and written myself. So, I think I’m a fairly well-rounded person in the world of publishing. And I object to that certain kind of looking down one’s nose at certain aspects of the publishing industry.

HEFFNER: We’ve got about 35 seconds left. What do you think is going to happen in your favorite world, the world of publishing?

DYSTAL: I think it’s a wonderful world. I think it’s a world full of excitement, full of accident. I could tell you maybe in 35 seconds or less one great story about a novel or a book called Future Shock, which Bantam published some years ago. The sales manager came in and said, “I can’t stand this cover. I want it to be yellow”. The art director said, “No, I want it to be white”. A few other people came in and we had a big argument. The art director threw up his hands and said, ‘Why don’t we make it seven different colors?” I said, ‘You got it! That’s the way to go”. And that’s the wonder and fun of publishing.

HEFFNER: Oscar Dystal, not in seven colors or even seven words, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

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