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Industry mourns death of Knopf’s Sonny Mehta

by | Jan 2, 2020 | News

It has been a sad start to the year on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York Knopf announced the death of its editor-in-chief and chairman of Knopf Doubleday publishing group, Sonny Mehta, one of the global publishing industry’s most respected figures. Mehta who was 77, died in New York on 30 December from complications following pneumonia.

Mehta first made his mark in London in the Seventies when he joined Pan Books as publisher and went on to publish such future classics as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe, Michael Herr’s meditation on the Vietnam War Despatches, as well as commercial bestsellers by Jackie Collins.

Anthony Forbes Watson, MD of Pan Macmillan, told The Bookseller: “Sonny was one of the few true giants of global publishing over the last half century, and he made his first significant mark at Pan, when he arrived in 1972. There he demonstrated his ability to publish with brilliance across the spectrum, from Jackie Collins to Douglas Adams, while magnificently redefining Picador as an imprint, where he published a host of major international writers and Booker Prize winners including Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Bret Easton Ellis and Michael Herr. Picador’s 2018 Imprint of the Year Award owed much to Sonny’s legacy. He joined us in 2017 to celebrate 70 years of publishing at Pan, and we were very proud to welcome him back.”

Mehta was named editor-in-chief of Knopf in 1987, succeeding Robert Gottlieb in that role, and would go on to publish six Nobel Prize winners –Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Orhan Pamuk, Imre Kertész, V.S. Naipaul, and Toni Morrison. He also brought Swedish author Stieg Larsson to the US with Larsson’s Millennium series selling millions.

British agent Clare Alexander spoke warmly of his impact. He was “simply the best publisher–perhaps not only of his generation but perhaps of any generation”, she said, describing him as “an inspiration” and representing “the very best of our business”. She added: “A paperback publisher by background, he was no intellectual snob… He made bestsellers of some of the greatest but also some of the most entertaining writers of our time. Although it would have made him uncomfortable to acknowledge it, he was an inspiration not only to me, but to several generations of people in publishing who have come up behind him. He was also a warm and loyal friend to so many of us.”

In the US, Publishers Weekly named him Person of the Year in 2015, Knopf’s centenary year. In a history of the company published to celebrate the anniversary, Mehta wrote: “While technological advances and the passage of time will necessarily inform our future lists, I’m confident that the riches highlighted in the following pages will be matched by in the books that Knopf will offer to new generations of readers.”

Sonny Mehta – from diplomat’s son to esteemed publisher

Born in New Delhi, India in 1942, Mehta, whose real name was Ajai Singh Mehta, came from Indian establishment. His father Amrik Singh Mehta was among the first of the newly independent India’s diplomats and the young Mehta had a peripatetic childhood as the family followed his father’s various postings. Interviewed by Vanity Fair in 2015 he suggested that his love of reading stemmed from these years: in a world of change, books were his constant companions.

His wife is the writer Gita Mehta, whose father was chief minister of the newly independent state of Orissa, now known as Odisha.

After education at Sanawar, one of India’s oldest and most renowned boarding schools, followed by Cambridge, he rejected his parents desire for him to enter the diplomatic service, recalling that he failed to get up in time for the entrance exam, which may have been deliberate. Instead, he opted for publishing, though getting in was hard. In some of his job interview, he recalled once, people would speak to him very slowly, on the assumption that Indians didn’t know English very well. But he eventually found a way in via independent Hart-Davis, and then co-founded the publishing house Paladin at the start of the Seventies. He moved to Pan Macmillan in 1972 before the eventual return to the US in 1987 to run Knopf.

On his arrival in New York to replace Robert Gottlieb who was joining the New Yorker, Jane Friedman, then Knopf’s executive vice president, said: “If Bob was a Jewish princeling, then Sonny was an Indian Maharajah.” Mehta himself recalled feeling uncomfortable at first, “a stranger in a strange land”, as Friedman put it. But eventually “people made peace with him”, Friedman recalled, and became used to his way of doing things: quiet delegation, respect for the house’s heritage, and respect for its editors and back-up staff whose names are often not mentioned.

For the next 30 years he would be a constant presence, one of the giants of the industry. In 2015 he joined the congregation in London for the memorial service for his former Pan colleague Simon Master. The picture above shows him with former Little, Brown publisher Philippa Harrison.

UK agent Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown paid this tribute: “His insatiable curiosity, complete lack of pomposity and his uncanny instinct to pick a literary and commercial bestseller made him a publisher admired by all. His long silences, calm delivery and mischievous smile added to his charm and mystery. One of the greats and he will be sorely missed by editors, agents and authors.”

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