Notebook: Gatekeepers, Part I

Ann Kjellberg, Book Post editor

Editor Sonny Mehta with Little Richard, whose biography he published at Pan Books in the eighties, and Pan publicity director Jacqueline Graham, from Pan Macmillan UK

Last week saw the loss of another titan of the book world, Sonny Mehta, for thirty years the editor and publisher of the Knopf imprint and the several publishing duchies he assembled around it. These generational passages, coming amidst seismic shifts in the way we read, leave one wondering whether the void left behind by a large personality like Mehta will filled by new sensibilities and directions, or will collapse on itself. (Knopf’s parent company Penguin Random House has not announced what’s next for the group.) Will algorithms and demography and data replace the tastemakers of a generation ago? Or the voice of the people? Will this new era be a victory for writer and reader?

Mehta was a young, brash publisher of paperbacks in London, clad in black turtlenecks and leather jackets, when he was brought over to New York in 1987 to helm an imprint long the preserve of New York’s cloistered elite (his predecessor, Robert Gottlieb, left to edit The New Yorker, a job that then opened up once in a lifetime). In the book world paperbacks had been regarded as more of a marketing enterprise than an editorial one (a subject for another day), but Mehta had already made an intellectual mark with the authors he assembled for his revived Picador imprint in the UK—among them, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Edmund White, and Julian Barnes—birthing an eponymous “Picador generation.” His father was one of the first diplomats of independent India, and Mehta later attributed his lifelong immersion in books to a peripatetic childhood that included stints in Prague, New York, and Nepal; an English boarding school at the base of the Himalayas and an international one in Switzerland; and Cambridge on a scholarship. He was a man of formidable intellect—I met him a few times and always found him intimidating—but he was also dashing and adventurous in conversation. He was the rare editor to whom writers seemed to respond as a peer.

What really secured his legacy however was not his excellent taste and wide reading, but his readiness to harness these to the business of publishing books. “The notion of selling books continues to interest me,” he told the Times in 1988. “Just because we’re Knopf doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sell books as well as any other publisher in the land.” When he secured the Vintage paperback imprint for his Knopf group, he improved the production standards and raised prices and it became “the most successful brand in paperback publishing.” When he took over Brett Easton Ellis’s notorious serial-killer saga American Psycho, after it its original publisher had second thoughts, it became a bestseller; he managed to make picking up the money factory, self-published soft-porn juggernaut Fifty Shades of Grey somehow a classy move. Critic Sarah Weinman pointed to to his “dual convictions that there was a real market among readers for literature and that there was genuine value in popular fiction.” As his author Kazuo Ishiguro said (on the occasion of Mehta’s receiving a lifetime achievement award at the London Book Fair), “he created an environment in which writers like myself could thrive.”

The arrival of the age of the internet promised the eclipse of precisely the sort of cultural “gatekeeper” of which Mehta was a consummate example. As an outsider and an Asian immigrant, Mehta himself wrestled with the exclusivity of an entrenched establishment; he described for a friend “how hard it was for him in those early years at Knopf, with New York’s cultural elite trying to pull him down with pleased whispers of his impending sacking.” “There certainly weren’t too many dusky-hued people,” he said of his start in English publishing. “And so I spent a lot of interviews being spoken to slowly and distinctly.” Toni Morrison, Knopf author and herself a pioneering editor who opened up a formerly all-white preserve, said when his leadership was challenged in the early days, “I will be inconsol­able should Sonny Mehta leave Knopf.” 

Access to social media and self-publishing have created a world in which writers in theory can address themselves directly to readers and don’t have to bend to the expectations of a few powerful, if pioneering, insiders. Self-publishing has become a cultural force, not only in books but in other platforms like our very own Substack. Yet we still wrestle with how to filter the overwhelming onslaught of information, how to measure what can be valued and trusted.

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It was understood in the old days that that readers did not buy books based on the reputation of their publisher; indeed, as readers have become aware in recent years, book publishers are not able to provide “fact-checking” in the comprehensive manner pioneered by general-interest magazines. Nevertheless a rigorously selective list like Knopf’s did come with the publisher’s confidence that it could rest its reputation with an author, as well as all the production, promotion, and distributional muscle that such an institution could bring to bear. Intermediaries (booksellers, indeed book-review outlets) also certainly looked to publishers’ reputations as indictors of a book’s merit; a respected imprint can make a literary or scholarly claim for something that would otherwise require research to confirm. Digital tycoons still reach to have their books published by Knopf or one of the half-dozen comparable names remaining in publishing.

And there are still a few imprints built around a single editor’s prestige and vision. Ann Godoff created the small Penguin Press within the giant Penguin when she left a powerful post at Random House (then a separate company). W. W. Norton revived its storied Liveright Press as a vehicle for publishing veteran Robert Weil. (Even the word “press” in these ventures invokes a bygone set of expectations.) In 2008 Warner Books created the imprint Twelve for the young editor Jonathan Karp, with the idea of publishing only one book every month and giving it close attention across all departments. Karp, who has since moved to Simon & Schuster, said at the time, “What I really wanted to do with this imprint was to make a promise to every writer we publish that we would do everything in our power to make his or her book a best seller.”

Stay tuned for Part II!

Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. She contributes a Notebook installment about the world of books to the newsletter every couple of weeks. Visit the Book Post archive for more.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Recent reviews include Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood and Àlvaro Enrigue on Gabriel García Márquez.

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