Walter Zacharius, a publisher and iconoclast who released an unauthorized version of the erotic classic "Candy" and had the savvy and sales talk to help romance novels make the transition from drugstores to superstores to the Internet, has died. He was 87.
Zacharius was the founder and CEO of Kensington Publishing Corp., a leading publisher of romance fiction and among the last independent publishers of mass market paperbacks. He retired in 2005, but continued to visit the office frequently. Zacharius died of cancer Wednesday at his Manhattan apartment, said Kensington spokeswoman Karen Auerbach.
He founded his publishing company just before the American romance fiction market surged in the early 1980s, Dorien Kelly, president of the Romance Writers of America, said in a statement Thursday.
"Walter Zacharius was a visionary," Kelly said. "He was willing to take risks with new authors and lines, and Kensington quickly became one of the major players in the romance publishing industry. It remains so to this day."
Among the authors published by Kensington are Beverly Barton, Lori Foster, Brenda Jackson and Beatrice Small.
A native of Brooklyn, Zacharius attended New York University and other local colleges as a young man and broke into publishing in the 1950s, when romance and mass market paperbacks were mostly limited to drugstores, candy stores and supermarkets.
Zacharius was praised for taking on new talent and criticized for paying too little. Literary agent Richard Curtis said Thursday that there was "no shrewder horse trader' than Zacharius, crediting him as among the publishers who helped bring romance novels to bookstores and also enabled their transition to the digital medium, where the genre has been highly popular.
"The romance industry has transformed from candy store racks to a shelf oriented business to digital delivery," Curtis said. "Walter, God bless him, was able to navigate through every one of those transformations. He recognized early on the value of e-books and encouraged his company to develop a digital strategy.
Kensington became enough of a player in the romance field that the top publisher, Harlequin, wanted to buy it. Zacharius was tempted but declined. Zacharius' son Steven succeeded him as CEO at Kensington, which over the years added imprints for Spanish-language and African-American titles.
Before founding Kensington in 1974, Walter Zacharius headed Lancer Press, which in the mid-1960s was among several publishing "Candy," co-written by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg and originally released in 1958 under the pseudonym "Maxwell Kenton." The send-up of pornographic fiction, banned in Paris, had no copyright in the U.S., so anyone could publish it.
He would eventually release books by a variety of authors, from Joyce Carol Oates to Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
Zacharius became an author, a lifelong dream, at age 81 with the novel "The Memories We Keep." He regarded himself as a late bloomer, who started piano lessons in his 70s and took up golf in his 80s.
He is survived by his second wife, Suzanne, two children, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.