Nearly 200 industry members gathered October 31, at the Random House Building in New York City, to pay tribute to Oscar Dystel. The former head of Bantam Books revolutionized the mass market paperback business in the 1950s and, in the process, made books more widely available to the public than they had been at any point in American history. Dystel died on May 28, at the age of 101.
The service, arranged by Dystel’s daughter, agent Jane Dystel, featured eight speakers ranging from one of his many proteges, Irwyn Applebaum, to his granddaughter, Jessica Toonkel. In his remarks, Applebaum, who rose from the position of Dystel’s assistant to become president and publisher of Bantam Dell, called his mentor “the last great, iconic” publishing figure of the 20th century for "bringing book ownership to the masses.”
Larry Kirshbaum, former head of Warner Books who had been a professional rival of Dystel's, also spoke of Dystel’s part in moving the book industry from the “carriage trade” to a broad-based commercial business. Dystel did so, Kirshbaum said, not only by using his knowledge of magazine distribution to expand the availability of titles in stores, but also by respecting the role of writers and editors. Kirshbaum quoted former Simon & Schuster CEO Jack Romanos (who flew up from Georgia to attend the service) when he called Dystel “the undisputed champion of paperback publishing.”
While Dystel may be best remembered for his role in making mass market paperback a key part of the publishing industry, Applebaum noted that he also blazed the way for the 21st century publishing industry in another important way--by being one of the first executives to succeed at a publishing house owned by a major corporation. Dystel's success led other corporations to invest in the book business and, by combining respect for an author’s work with the ability to connect books to readers, Dystel ensured that book publishing took its place beside other major communication businesses.
Richard Hunt, president of Keen Communications and the first recipient of New York University's Dystel Fellowship for Publishing, remembered Dystel as a man who was “active, direct, vigorous.” Dystel, Hunt said, “was the best boss I ever had. He was genuine to the core. ... Oscar was the real deal.”
The strong influence Dystel had on publishing could also be measured, quite simply, by looking at the crowd. Those paying their respects proved to be something a who's who of publishing executives with, among others, in attendance: Carolyn Reidy, Gina Centrello, Steve Rubin, Sonny Mehta, Sally Richardson, Bob Miller, John Sargent, Jamie Raab and Alberto Vitale.