Sonny Mehta, Visionary Head of Alfred A. Knopf, Dies at 77 – The New York Times

Posted: December 31, 2019 at 10:47 am


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An accomplished publisher and editor since his mid-20s, he succeeded the revered Robert Gottlieb in 1987 as just the third Knopf editor-in-chief in its 72-year history and over the following decades fashioned his own record of critical and commercial success. He continued to publish celebrated authors signed on by Gottlieb, including Morrison and Robert Caro, while adding newer talent such as Tommy Orange, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Karen Russell.

Knopf also was home to some of the best-selling works in recent times. In 2008, Mehta acquired U.S. rights to a trilogy of crime fiction by a dead Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson's "Millennium series, which went on to sell tens of millions of copies. In 2012, the paperback imprint Vintage won a bidding war for an explicit erotic trilogy that at the time could only be read digitally, E L James' "Fifty Shades" novels. Other top sellers released during Mehta's reign included Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," Bill Clinton's "My Life" and Cheryl Strayeds Wild. When the Center for Fiction honored Mehta in 2018 with a lifetime achievement award, tributes were written by Joan Didion, Haruki Murakami and Anne Tyler, who praised his precision and deft assurance and called him the Fred Astaire of editing.

Knopf's catalog often reflected Mehta's own broad curiosity. 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 appreciated the rewards of patience, allowing Caro to spend years between each installment of his Lyndon Johnson biographies, a decades-long project that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and brought Caro numerous awards.

Mehta was born Ajai Singh Mehta, the bookish son of Indian diplomat Amrik Singh Mehta. He lived everywhere from Geneva to Nepal as a child and graduated from Cambridge University with degrees in history and English literature. Choosing book publishing over his parents wishes he become a diplomat. Mehta needed little time to make an impact in London, helping to launch the literary career of his college friend Germaine Greer and introducing British readers to the profane Americana of Hunter S. Thompson. With Pan Books, he released works by rising authors such as Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, while signing up Jackie Collins, Douglas Adams and other best-sellers. He was Gottliebs personal choice to take over at Knopf, but still faced initial wariness 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," Mehta told Publishers Weekly in 2015. "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."

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Sonny Mehta, Visionary Head of Alfred A. Knopf, Dies at 77 - The New York Times

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December 31st, 2019 at 10:47 am

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