Vi­sion­ary book pub­lisher of lit­er­a­ture, block­busters

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Hil­lel Italie

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.’ ”

RAN­DOM HOUSE/AP

Sonny Me­hta was just the third Al­fred A. Knopf ed­i­tor-in-chief in its his­tory.

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