An editor, Dystel was hired right out of college to be the “promotion manager” for Esquire magazine. Management noticed his ability, and he was quickly promoted to be editor of another of the company’s magazines, Coronet. Within a few years, he had boosted the magazine’s circulation from 87,000 to two million. When World War II started, Dystel quit to go to work for the Office of War Information. There, he produced leaflets to drop out of aircraft to subjects of Nazi occupation, to help them resist Hitler’s forces. They were so effective that Dystel was awarded the Medal of Freedom for his efforts. After the war, he went back to magazine editing, and in 1954 was hired to run paperback book publisher Bantam Books.
The company was in big trouble when it hired him. It wasn’t even 10 years old at that time, and “I remember one executive coming into my office with a balance sheet and telling me, ‘We’re out of business’,” Dystel remembered. The balance sheet projected the company would lose more than a half-million dollars that year. Dystel was so confident he could turn it around, he insisted the company base most of his pay on a percentage of profits. By the end of 1955, the company was profitable, thanks to Dystel’s eye for good books. During his tenure he bought the paperback rights to many books he thought would sell, sometimes even buying hardcover rights too, if no one else would, and then selling them to another publisher after he made the book a best-seller. His acquisitions included Leon Uris’s Battle Cry, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and a stack of books based on a failed TV series …called Star Trek — they all sold in the millions. Dystel rose to chairman of the company, and by the time he retired in 1980, the company was the largest paperback publisher in the world, with sales exceeding $100 million a year. He died in his New York home on May 28, at 101.