Visionary book publisher of literature, blockbusters
NEW YORK — Sonny Mehta, 77, the urbane and astute head of Alfred A. Knopf who guided one of the book world’s most esteemed imprints to new heights through a blend of prizewinning literature by Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy among others and blockbusters such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” has died.
Mehta, the husband of author Gita Mehta, died Monday at his home in Manhattan. According to Knopf, the cause was complications from pneumonia.
“Mehta’s contributions to the world of letters and publishing are without precedent,” a statement from the publisher read Tuesday. “His exacting standards — in editorial, production, design, marketing and publicity — were a beacon to the book industry and beyond.”
The bearded, chainsmoking Mehta spoke carefully and chose wisely, helping Knopf thrive even as the industry faced the jarring changes of corporate consolidation, the demise of thousands of independent stores and the rise of e-books.
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 72year 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 bestselling 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 Strayed’s “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.”
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 bestsellers. He was Gottlieb’s 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.”
Mehta survived numerous transformations at Knopf and was widely credited for expanding the company’s international reach and acquiring Vintage and making it one of publishing’s most successful paperback imprints.
“On a good day, I am still convinced I have the best job in the world,” Mehta told Vanity Fair in 2016, explaining that he had recently 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 the office, utterly mesmerized. Sometimes you find something new and you just say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Sonny Mehta was just the third Alfred A. Knopf editor-in-chief in its history.