The head of Alfred A. Knopf, Sonny Mehta, who guided “one of the book world’s most esteemed imprints to new heights through a blend of prize-winning literature by Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy among other and blockbusters such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’” has passed away at the age of 77.
Mehta, husband of author Gita Mehta, died on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in his Manhattan home. According to Knopf, the cause of death was complication from pneumonia.
“Mehta’s contributions to the world of letters and publishing are without precedent. His exacting standards – in editorial, production, design, marketing, and publicity – were a beacon to the book industry and beyond,” said a statement released from Knopf on Tuesday.
A successor will be named after the new year.
Mehta was a bearded chain smoker who chose his words wisely, helping Knopf to thrive even as the industry faced changes of corporate consolidation, the demise of thousands of independent stores, and the rise of e-books.
He was an accomplished publisher and editor since his mid-20s. Mehta succeeded Robert Gottlieb in 1987 as only the third Knopf editor-in-chief in its 72-year history. Over the decades of his career, Mehta fashioned his own record of critical and commercial success. He continued to publish celebrated authors who were signed by Gottlieb, while adding new talent such as Tommy Orange and Karen Russell.
Additionally, Knopf is home to some of the best-selling works in recent times. In 2008, Mehta obtained the U.S. rights to a trilogy of crime fiction by a dead Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series. It went on to sell tens of millions of copies.
In 2012, paperback imprint Vintage won a bidding war for an explicit erotic trilogy. At the time, the trilogy could only be read digitally. It was E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” novels. Other top sellers released while Mehta was editor-in-chief of Knopf include, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” Bill Clinton’s “My Life,” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.”
The Center for Fiction honored him in 2018 with a lifetime achievement award and tributes were written by Joan Didion, Haruki Murakami, and Anne Tyler. They praised “his precision” and “deft assurance” and called him the “Fred Astaire of editing.”
The publishing house catalog often reflected the broad curiosity of Mehta. “In a single season, the publisher might release new fiction by Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, crime novels by P.D. James and James Ellroy, poetry by Anne Carson and Philip Levine, history by John Keegan and Joseph Ellis, humor by Nora Ephron, and memoirs by Bill Clinton or Katharine Hepburn or Andre Agassi.”
Knopf also had an appreciation for patience, waiting on Caro to spend years between each installment of his Lyndon Johnson biographies. This project took decades to complete but won Caro multiple awards.
Born Ajai Singh Mehta to Indian diplomat Amrik Singh Mehta. He lived all over from Geneva to Nepal when he was a child. He graduated from Cambridge University with degrees in history and literature. His parents wished him to become a diplomat, but he chose book publishing. It did not take long before his impact was felt in London. He helped to launch the literary career of college friend Germaine Greer and introducing British readers to the Americana of Hunter S. Thompson. Alongside Pan Books, Mehta released the writings of rising authors such as Iam McEwan and Salman Rushdie, while signing Jackie Collins, Douglas Adams, and other best sellers. Mehta was Gottlieb’s personal choice to take over at Knopf, but there was initial doubt from the staff.
“People … had the terrible fear that I was going to suddenly publish Jackie Collins over here and really sort of lower the tone of the place. I think the difference was that I probably encouraged people to market a lot more than they were in the habit of doing. I encouraged them to look at a certain type of literary fiction and see it wasn’t necessarily intended for some kind of ghetto, that there was a bigger market for it,” Mehta said to Publishers Weekly in 2015.
Mehta survived a multitude of transformations at Knopf, including the 1999 acquisition by Bertelsmann AG and the 2012 merger with Penguin Group. He outlasted company rivals such as Random House President Ann Godoff and Bantam Dell publisher Irwyn Applebaum. Additionally, he kept Knopf a stable and desirable place to work.
In 2016, Mahta told Vanity Fair: “On a good day, I am still convinced I have the best job in the world.” He has just finished a novella by Graham Swift. “I opened it and didn’t know what to expect, and I read it in one sitting right here in my office, utterly mesmerized. Sometimes you find something new and you just say ‘Wow.’”
By Jeanette Vietti
ABC News: Sonny Mehta, visionary head of Alfred A. Knopf, dies at 77
The New York Times: Sonny Mehta, Knopf Editor, Remembered by His Writers
Washington Post: Sonny Mehta, literary tastemaker who long reigned at Knopf, dies at 77
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