Sonny Mehta, the literary savant who guided the reading hours of millions of people and the fortunes of the venerable publisher Alfred A. Knopf for 32 years at a time of changing tastes, aggressive merchandising and demands for profits, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 77.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, a Knopf spokesman said.
In an age of blockbuster best sellers by presidents and prime ministers, of sometimes surreal and shocking literary breakthroughs, and of cutthroat competition in a shrinking industry, Mr. Mehta was an almost ideal editor and publishing executive: a voracious reader and instinctive decision maker who could spot great books and, coming from a paperback world, had no qualms about aggressively marketing them.
On his watch, first as Knopf’s president and editor in chief and since 2009 as chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Mr. Mehta delivered literary quality and runaway sales, backed by clever promotion — he once invited 250 booksellers to a Los Angeles Dodgers game to launch a baseball book — that drew reviewers and sellers to almost anything stamped with Knopf’s colophon: the leaping Borzoi wolfhound.
He published the work of nine Nobel literature laureates, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day” (1989), and of winners of Pulitzer and Booker prizes and National Book Awards; memoirs by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and Pope John Paul II; and new translations of Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Albert Camus.
Mr. Mehta also published popular books by Toni Morrison, John Updike, Anne Rice, John le Carré, P.D. James and Gabriel García Márquez; Geoffrey Ward’s companion to Ken Burns’s PBS series “The Civil War”; Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”; Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy; and the work of many important French, German, Italian, Spanish, African and Asian writers.
For Knopf’s classic imprint — now more than a century old — Mr. Mehta was only the third editor in chief, following the founder Alfred A. Knopf Sr. and Robert A. Gottlieb, who joined Knopf in 1968 and, on the cusp of his departure to edit The New Yorker, handpicked Mr. Mehta in 1987 as his successor.
Ajai Singh Mehta, known as Sonny, was the son of one of independent India’s first diplomats. As a boy he had lived with his father on postings in Europe and the United States, and he was educated at private schools in India, Switzerland and Britain and at Cambridge University.
He began his career as a paperback publisher in Britain, commissioning Germaine Greer’s feminist treatise “The Female Eunuch” and works by Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. But he was hardly anyone’s idea of an eminence grise when he was plucked from relative obscurity as publisher of Pan Books, Britain’s paperback king, to run America’s most storied hardcover imprint.
Settling into Knopf’s cluttered Park Avenue offices with the carefree aplomb of a court jester, the black-bearded boss seemed amusedly uninterested in literary power and the genteel back-stabbing politics of the publishing world. He wore black sweaters and black jeans, drank black-label Scotch in his office without ever appearing drunk, and for years worked in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke.
He was not easy to know. Some colleagues called him reserved and moody, aloof in a way that gave him an enigmatic magnetism. But others said he could also be charming and gregarious, especially at the frequent book parties he gave at his nearby apartment. In later years, he attended events all over Manhattan and became known for a more extravagant man-about-town night life.
A Bold Approach
But in his first year on the job, he was all work. He signed up 32 books, including biographies, novels and titles about Broadway, Hawaii and India. He ordered much larger first printings than his predecessor had, often doubling them — an aggressiveness seemingly borne of confidence that he would be able to sell them as easily as he had mass-marketed paperbacks.
“Yes, there is something attractive about taking risks,” he told The New York Times in 1988. “I’m more marketing- and sales-oriented than others, and the notion of selling books continues to interest me. Just because we’re Knopf doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sell books as well as any other publisher in the land. I still want us to publish the best books in every area. I want us to remain the classiest publisher in town.”
In 1989, with the arrival of Alberto Vitale as the hard-charging chief executive of Knopf’s parent, Random House, Mr. Mehta found a powerful new ally. They both had strong backgrounds in competitive paperback sales and promotion, and Mr. Vitale told The Times that Mr. Mehta was “without question the most brilliant publisher in the country,” adding, “He is phenomenal, he has everything.”
In Random House’s Balkanized corporate world, there were dozens of imprints, and their publishers had been allowed — even encouraged — by Mr. Vitale to compete with one another with bids for the same books. “I was a troublemaker, a motivator, an instigator,” Mr. Vitale told The Times in 2001. “I did with my publishers what I did with my children: treated them evenhandedly.”
Whatever it did for the Random House bottom line, the in-house competition often raised bitter feuds among publishers in the family of fiefs. But it also brought opportunities for Mr. Mehta.
An early turning point in his career came in 1989, when an exasperated veteran running the Vintage paperback line in another division resigned.
Mr. Mehta took over Vintage, adding it to Knopf. He hired its first editorial and marketing staff, redesigned its covers and reintroduced paperback reprints to booksellers as if they were new books. He raised Vintage prices, betting that buyers would pay more for serious paperbacks in handsome editions. Sales and profits rose. Vintage became the most successful brand in paperback publishing.
As Knopf flourished, Mr. Mehta expanded further. He added the intellectually influential Pantheon division after its publisher left in a dispute with Mr. Vitale, and bought the Everyman’s Library classics line to compete head-to-head with Random House’s Modern Library line, calling it a “coincidence.”
“Occasionally,” he added, “we do step on each other’s toes.”
After Bertelsmann acquired Random House from the Newhouse family in 1998, Mr. Mehta again expanded Knopf, this time at the expense of a new sister company, Doubleday, by adding its Anchor line of high-quality paperbacks to his stable. In a subsequent major Random House reorganization, he acquired the Doubleday Group itself.
By then, Mr. Vitale was gone. But he had put in place an innovation that heralded success for years to come, insisting that every contract for a book include digital rights. E-books were not highly profitable at the start, but with the creation of Amazon’s Kindle and other e-reading devices, they became saviors of publishing.
Bookstores, too, were changing. Small independents were vanishing, and even big chain bookstores were struggling to survive in the digital age.
Mr. Mehta often paid huge sums for books by world celebrities — $9 million for Pope John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (1994); a world-record advance of $15 million for Bill Clinton’s memoir, “My Life” (2004); $9 million for Tony Blair’s “A Journey: My Political Life” (2010). There were no profit guarantees for such outlays, but in most cases his choices were solid and the investments paid off handsomely.
Not all his bets were big. He paid only $225,000 for one of Knopf’s biggest hits, Mr. Larsson’s trilogy.
Even doubtful calls sometimes turned profits. After Simon & Schuster rejected Bret Easton Ellis’s disturbing novel “American Psycho,” the first-person tale of a serial killer who tortures and dismembers women and children, Mr. Mehta published an edited Vintage paperback edition in 1991. Despite protests by women’s groups, it was an overnight best seller. But the storm blew over, and years later “American Psycho” was picked up for a darkly comic film, a musical and other adaptations.
In another risky venture, Mr. Mehta in 2001 paid a $4.2 million advance to Stephen L. Carter, a black Yale law professor, for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.” It was the most ever paid for a first novel. A murder mystery, it told the story of a black professor who investigates the death of his father, a conservative judge, and explored themes of black identity, politics and the law.
After a bidding war for the book, Knopf and another Random House imprint ended up with equal bids. But Mr. Carter chose Knopf because, he said, three years earlier Mr. Mehta had been “kind enough to read a couple of chapters and tell me whether it was something that I should keep working on.”
Marketed as mainstream fiction, the book signaled a major shift for African-American literature. It won critical praise and several awards, and spent 11 weeks on The Times best-seller list.
By 2015, Knopf’s centennial, the Knopf Doubleday Group was publishing 550 titles a year and contributing a major share of Penguin Random House’s $3.5 billion in revenues. In 2015, Publishers Weekly named Mr. Mehta its “Person of the Year.”
“On a good day, I am still convinced I have the best job in the world,” he told Vanity Fair after reading a new Graham Swift novella. “I opened it and didn’t know what to expect, and I read it in one sitting right here in the office, utterly mesmerized. Sometimes you find something new and you just say, Wow!”
A Diplomat’s Son
Ajai Singh Mehta was born in New Delhi on Nov. 9, 1942, to Amrik and Satinder (Duggal) Singh. His sister, Amrita, was born four years later. Amrik Mehta was one of the first four diplomats for independent India’s first government under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the family lived with him on his early postings in Prague and New York. Ajai acquired the nickname Sonny from an American ambassador who was a neighbor during a posting in Nepal, and it stuck.
At 9, Ajai was enrolled at the Lawrence School, a private boarding academy in the foothills of the Himalayas in Sanawar, in northwest India. At 16, he transferred to the International School of Geneva for two years, and then to the Sevenoaks School in Kent, England. He graduated in 1961 and won a scholarship to Cambridge University.
At Cambridge from 1962 to 1965, he earned the equivalent of master’s degrees in both history and English literature in three and a half years. He also worked for Granta, the literary magazine.
In 1965, Mr. Mehta married Gita Patnaik, a documentary filmmaker and writer whose fiction and nonfiction works have been best sellers in Europe, the United States and India. The couple had one son, Aditya Singh Mehta. In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Mehta is survived by a granddaughter, Leela Mehta. Mr. Mehta’s sister died many years ago.
Mr. Mehta began his publishing career in London at Rupert Hart-Davis in 1965, but a year later moved to Granada Publishing, where he co-founded the Paladin imprint and commissioned Ms. Greer’s “The Female Eunuch,” which was published by a sister group, MacGibbon & Kee, and became a best-selling manifesto of the women’s movement.
In 1972, he joined Pan Books, publishing writers like Jackie Collins and Douglas Adams, who went on to become household names. He also founded the storied Picador imprint, publishing the Booker Prize winners Mr. McEwan, Mr. Rushdie, Mr. Swift, Edmund White and Julian Barnes — so many that The Times of London called his tenure “the Picador Generation.”
Determined to introduce Britons to successful American writers, he acquired works by Michael Herr, Maxine Hong Kingston, Robert Stone and others from Knopf. Visiting New York, he got to know Mr. Gottlieb, whose verdict settled the succession: “Sonny has an absolute passion for quality in books and at the same time is a brilliant commercial publisher.”
In addition to Mr. Ishiguro, Mr. Mehta published the Nobel laureates Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, Orhan Pamuk, Imre Kertesz, V.S. Naipaul, Gunter Grass, Ms. Morrison and Nadine Gordimer, and works by the winners of 29 Pulitzer Prizes and nine National Book Awards. He also published graphic novels, including a volume of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (1991), on the recollections of a Holocaust survivor, and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” (2003-5), on her childhood in the Iranian Revolution.
Mr. Mehta, who had homes in London and New Delhi as well as New York, was never tempted to write a book himself.
In 2018, he received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for lifetime achievement from the Center for Fiction.
“Reading has been a constant in my life,” he said in accepting the Perkins Award. “I have always found comfort in the confines of a book or manuscript. Reading is how I spend most of my time, is still the most joyful aspect of my day. I want to be remembered not as an editor or publisher, but as a reader.”
©2019 The New York Times News Service