Renowned chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and editor-in-chief of Knopf Sonny Mehta died on Monday, December 30 of complications from pneumonia. He was 77. Plans for a memorial service will be announced.
The company said in a statement, “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. He was a friend to writers, editors, and booksellers around the world. Mehta was also a gentleman, uniquely so, who cared deeply about his colleagues and the work with which he entrusted them. He was a beloved figure at Knopf, working at the only career he ever wanted. He lived a life in books, of books, and for books and writers.” Earlier, his brother-in-law Naveen Patnaik wrote online that he was “deeply grieved…. He was one of the world’s best editors and an extremely civilized person.” He is survived by his wife Gita. A successor will be named at some point in the new year.
In 1987 Mehta moved from London — where he relaunched and ran Picador for Pan Books — to New York to become the third editor-in-chief in Knopf’s history. He started his publishing career in 1965 at Rupert Hart-Davis, and joined Granada Publishing in 1966, where he cofounded Paladin Books. Selected by Robert Gottlieb to take over Knopf when he departed to run the New Yorker, Mehta said looking back, “I was the least likely choice. I was from somewhere else. Then all of a sudden I was here, in New York. With one suitcase.” He added, on the occasion of Knopf’s 100th anniversary, “I was walking into a storm. If you had taken bets on how long I’d survive, it wouldn’t have been very long.”
A year ago, when he was given the Center for Fiction’s Maxwell E. Perkins Award, Mehta said in his remarks, “I don’t think you can work in this business without faith or optimism. Reading a manuscript, sensing something special about it, and believing you can find a readership for it, is an article of faith. In publishing, belief is the common denominator. I have always been a believer, and remain so today.” He also observed, “Reading has been a constant in my life. 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.” At the time, Penguin Random House published a number of lengthy testimonials and recollections from authors including: John Banville, Peter Carey, Robert Caro, Bill Clinton, Joan Didion, Omar El Akkad, Bret Easton Ellis, James Ellroy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Jo Nesbo, Graham Swift, and Anne Tyler.
When he was given a lifetime achievement award at the London Book Fair in 2011, Mehta said: “My own view is that awards should be given to writers, not publishers, so today I want to celebrate the writers I’ve had a hand in publishing, recognize the agents who brought their works to me, and trumpet the heroic efforts of my colleagues, first at Pan and Picador, and now at Knopf and Doubleday.” At the ceremony, Ishiguro called Mehta “a literary figure who created something that wasn’t there before. He created an environment in which writers like myself could thrive…. That is why we feel such gratitude to Sonny, particularly writers of my age and background. Whether we are published by him or not, there is a feeling that he is one of the key people who created something for us.”