Their fantasies are the real thing

In the world of books, Ballantine is a recognizable brand name, and as histories of publishing are written, the names of Ian and Betty Ballantine recur honorably and frequently.

Ian Ballantine was one of the prescient pioneers in the paperback field, establishing the American arm of England's prestigious Penguin Books in the United States in 1939, which he and Betty managed for several years. Ian was in at the founding of Bantam Books in the mid-1940s, leaving that publishing house to form Ballantine Books with Betty in 1952. It's been over a decade now since the couple sold Ballantine Books to the Random House complex, but they haven't left publishing. Ian and Betty still publish books through Bantam.

With their paperbacks, the Ballantines always fostered the publication of original titles, an act dearer to them than simply reprinting soft-cover editions of hard-cover books, and although they have done many other kinds of books, they are especially fond of fiction rooted in the wondrous worlds of fantasy.

Back at Ballantine Books in the 1960s, they published the first authorized paperback editions of J. R. R. Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings'' titles.

The books were extremely popular. At the same time, they discovered that art could play a key role in the fantasy realm. The Ballantines commissioned a poster of appropriately fantastical art exhorting readers to venture into Tolkien territory with the words ''Come to Middle Earth.'' The Ballantines feel this involvement of art with publishing broke new ground in the field.

Ballantine recognized a felicitous opportunity when he saw it; he and Betty (who did most of the editing) repeatedly opened that door with additional paperbacks; and fantasy readers entered again and again.

Then, co-publishing with Abrams in 1977, the Ballantines and Bantam gave to the world a hard-cover book called ''Gnomes,'' by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet. It was spectacularly successful and today has 850,000 copies in print. Few readers escaped the coming of those winsome little creatures who subsequently leaped onto greeting cards and an assembly line of supplemental merchandise.

''What we found,'' says Betty Ballantine, ''was a new form of publishing - the hard-over, illustrated, gift-edition best seller.''

The next one Bantam will officially publish in October, although you will surely find copies in the bookstores this month. Its title is ''Castles.'' The art is by Alan Lee; the text is by Canadian poet David Day; the design is by David Larkin. The price is $24.95. It has 192 pages, many of them carrying color paintings of, naturally, castles. It was printed in Italy, and the first printing is 75,000 copies, a bold statement of confidence for its sales future.

''There has been a change in illustrated books,'' says Ian Ballantine. ''It used to be that first you had the text, and then you dropped in a few illustrations. But illustrations later took on a greater importance, and you finally came to the books today that are created by the artist and the designer. The words are written to fit the art.''

But does a book on castles fit in with the Ballantine conception of fantasy?

Ian opens a copy and points to a small gray piece of art tucked into the bottom corner of the first page. It's a rock. He turns the leaf and the title page appears. On the left is a fragment of a building corner, clearly part of a ruin, with a portion of an archway still standing. On to the copyright page, which faces the table of contents. On each of these, the ruin is more fully realized, as if we're inching backward in time to see what that first rock was originally part of. On the next pages, we encounter a rider and horse proceeding along a path; the castle shimmers in the distance. Then, turning the page again, we are smack in the middle of the living castle, peopled with pages, lords, and ladies.

''That's how we have this participatory thing in the book,'' Ian says. ''We suggest what was, and in your mind, you can envision another world. That is what forms the great strength of fantasy in art and literature - the sense of participation.''

Ballantine will take an exhibition of art from the book on the road in October, showing up at Barnes & Noble in New York, Kroch's & Brentano's in Chicago, Denver's Tattered Cover, Tower Books in Sacramento, Calif., and a site, so far unspecified, in San Francisco.

A regular column in the monthly Book Review.

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