“I have always found comfort in the confines of a book or manuscript,” Sonny Mehta, the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, said in 2018 as he accepted the Center for Fiction’s Maxwell E. Perkins Award for Lifetime Achievement. “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.”
And although his name may not be familiar, Mehta, who died Dec. 30 at 77, was not merely an individual reader in a single vacuum. As an editor and publisher, he was probably responsible for one of your favorite books. Through Mehta’s dual convictions that there was a real market among readers for literature and that there was genuine value in popular fiction, he indelibly shaped U.S. and world culture.
Born in New Delhi and educated at Cambridge University, Mehta started his career at Rupert Hart-Davis and Granada Publishing before moving to the British paperback publisher Pan Books. There he published the early, eerie novels of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” blockbusters by Jackie Collins, Michael Herr’s exploration of the Vietnam War, “Dispatches,” and the first four “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” novels by Douglas Adams. Mehta’s dedication to his authors and their books was legendary even before he arrived at Knopf in 1987: He went so far as to book a hotel room for the famously deadline-averse Adams and to sit with him as he produced page after page of “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.”
The breadth and depth of Mehta’s list attracted the notice of Knopf editor in chief Robert Gottlieb in 1987, when he was set to leave for the New Yorker. Still, the challenges Mehta faced coming in to the publishing house as an outsider were formidable: Knopf, then and now, valued loyalty and disdained change. Editors tended to stay put for life, as did their authors. Any upheaval, in the form of corporate changeovers, executive firings or author exits, put Mehta more firmly under the microscope. In addition, Mehta was an introvert tasked with winning over those lifers and an Indian-born editor near the pinnacle of an overwhelmingly white industry.
Once Bertelsmann AG acquired Knopf’s parent company, Random House, from S.I. Newhouse in 1998, the scrutiny subsided, replaced by a more appropriate aura of reverence for Mehta’s central insight. Mehta, as a reader first, understood that Knopf needed to publish quality, but that quality could make money. The sales of books by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Orhan Pamuk and Toni Morrison bore this out year after year, prize after prize.
And Mehta grasped that blockbuster commercial fiction could drive not just sales but also the cultural conversation. In Mehta’s mind, authors such as P.D. James, Anne Rice, Jo Nesbo and John le Carré were giant commercial successes, and under his watch, Knopf proved them thus. Those experiences gave Mehta the insight that Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, beginning with “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” would be a far-ranging success; a fair number of the 80 million global copies sold in the trilogy are credited to Knopf and its paperback imprint, Vintage. Mehta enthusiastically signed up E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy, which proved to be so vast a success that it led to a $5,000 holiday bonus for every single employee of Random House in 2012.
To be the “Fred Astaire of editing,” as one of Mehta’s authors dubbed him, required fastidious attention to every part of the publishing process. Filling Mehta’s shoes after more than three decades will be difficult, perhaps impossible. But whoever leads Knopf going forward should remember what Sonny Mehta knew: Books cannot be published well by those who do not already read well. Mehta was a gentleman, an exemplary publisher and a great reader. Both the authors who must go on without him, and the readers who will no longer be able to benefit from his love of books, will miss him terribly.
Sarah Weinman, who covered book publishing for Publishers Marketplace from 2011 through 2018, is the author of “The Real Lolita” and editor of the forthcoming anthology “ Unspeakable Acts.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.