Known for his contribution towards shaping the world’s literary scene, publishing the works of writers such as Michael Ondaatje, VS Naipaul, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gabriel García Márquez, Sonny Mehta also made news when he published Fifty Shades of Grey, a series of erotic novels by EL James, and the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, which includes The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. It was unusual in the West to do both at the same time, and that was the genius of Mehta, the editor-in-chief of New York-based publishing house Alfred A Knopf and chairman of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, who passed away Monday, aged 77.
Mehta had arrived at Knopf shortly before its 75th anniversary and had witnessed its 100th one in 2015. “He was a legend,” says writer-historian William Dalrymple, who had many books published under the editorship of Mehta. “He was a fantastically brilliant editor and had such charisma that if he backed a book, people would take it seriously. He was equally skilled about discovering Bruce Chatwin, but he also did the other end of the market with Fifty Shades. He took pride in both — in his ability to spot a bestseller and also to cultivate new literary talents,” he adds.
Recipient of the 2018 Maxwell E Perkins Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Field of Fiction, Ajai Singh ‘Sonny’ Mehta was born in 1942 to Amrik Singh Mehta, who was among the first of independent India’s diplomats. As a child, Mehta lived in Prague, New York City, Nepal and Geneva. He studied at The Lawrence School, Sanawar, and Sevenoaks School in Kent, UK, and won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University, where he acquired two degrees — in History and English Literature. Mehta also edited the magazine Granta. He was married to author Gita Mehta, daughter of veteran politician Biju Patnaik, and sister of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
Mehta began his publishing career in 1965 at Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd in London, and later co-founded the publishing house, Paladin, where he commissioned seminal books such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and brought iconic American novels to the UK, such as Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He moved to Pan Books in 1972 and added to its list bestselling authors such as Jackie Collins and Douglas Adams.
In 1987, he had moved to New York to head Knopf. He was handpicked by Robert Gottlieb, who was leaving the publishing house to edit The New Yorker. Apart from publishing numerous award-winning titles all over the world, his tenure was also known for translating works by Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil and Albert Camus. Mehta was also among the first to recognise the importance of graphic novels, publishing prize-winning titles such as Maus and Persepolis.
“Writers and authors aspired to be published by him. Back then, after the hardback was published, the paperback rights were sold on an auction basis. So when he worked with Pan, one of his great qualities was to spot books that would go on to do very well. So he built a list of very enviable proportion and made Pan paperbacks very successful. Not many know that he was instrumental in Random House’s expansion in India, which eventually tied up with Penguin,” says Sridhar Balan, veteran publisher and senior consultant with Ratna Sagar.
Pramod Kapoor, founder of Roli Books, says that Mehta was of a different generation of publishers. “Publishing doesn’t happen like that anymore. Back then, you’d rely on your instincts rather than figures, and it was more about the romance of publishing than about getting the figures right. And his instincts were never wrong,” he says.
A man of few words, in some ways, says Dalrymple, Mehta was “a very scary character”. “He didn’t talk much, he was quiet and I talk a lot, so I often found myself in situations where I would end up filling in the silences. He had such charisma that you wanted him to like you,” he adds.
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