Publishing giant Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of Knopf and chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, died December 30 in New York City. He was 77. News of Mehta’s death was made in an announcement from Knopf. Mehta, who had been in declining health, died from complications of pneumonia, Knopf said.
Mehta began his career in London where he worked with a roster of both literary and commercial writers. He was named editor-in-chief of Knopf in 1987, succeeding Robert Gottlieb in that role. Under Mehta’s leadership, Knopf noted, six of its writers were awarded Nobel Prizes – Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Orhan Pamuk, Imre Kertész, V.S. Naipaul, and Toni Morrison – and dozens of others won Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, Booker Prizes, and other notable honors. Mehta also had an eye for commercial hits. He was responsible, for example, for bringing the works of Swedish author Stieg Larsson to the U.S. Larsson’s Millennium series has sold tens of millions of copies. And although Mehta had great marketing instincts, he was personally publicity shy, preferring any media attention go to his authors.
In 2015, Mehta was named PW Person of the Year and in a story about his many accomplishments another side of Mehta came through—his commitment for designing and publishing beautiful books. Andy Hughes, who in 2015 was senior v-p of production and design, pointed to Mehta’s passion for the physical product. Mehta understood, Hughes said in an interview, that with the rise of superstores in the 1990s, “your book had to stand out with allure” to be noticed among the hundreds of other books on display.
In that same article, what may very well have been Mehta’s key to success—his passion for reading—was discussed. “He’s the most curious person I’ve ever met,” explained Knopf executive editor Jordan Pavlin. “He’s also the most credulous, in the best sense of the word—he’s the person most likely to read anything, and to approach a book with a truly open mind.”
That open mind was reflected in the range of authors published by Knopf under Mehta’s leadership: among those listed in Knopf’s announcement were world leaders like Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair; distinguished jurists William Rehnquist, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor; acclaimed historians Robert A. Caro, Joseph Ellis, T. J. Stiles, and Geoffrey Ward; a long list of novelists, short story writers and poets, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, John Banville, Julian Barnes, Anne Carson, Ted Chiang, Michael Crichton, Edwidge Danticat, Katherine Dunn, James Ellroy, Nathan Englander, Richard Flanagan, Yaa Gyasi, Carl Hiaasen, P.D. James, Jhumpa Lahiri, Stieg Larsson, Emily St. John Mandel, Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, Lorrie Moore, Haruki Murakami, Jo Nesbø, Sharon Olds, Michael Ondaatje, Tommy Orange, Anne Rice, Karen Russell, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, and John Updike; and a wide-ranging list of nonfiction writers, including Ken Burns, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Robert Gates, Oliver Sacks, Patti Smith, Cheryl Strayed, Gay Talese, and Tobias Wolff.
Mehta’s contributions to the world of letters and publishing are without precedent, Knopf said in announcing Mehta’s passing. “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.”
Mehta received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for lifetime achievement from the Center for Fiction in 2018, and in his acceptance speech he talked of his love for reading: “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.”
Knopf said a viewing will be held January 3 at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in New York City (1076 Madison Ave. at 81st St.). The viewing will begin at 11:30 a.m. and conclude at 1:00 p.m.
This story has been updated to include information on the service.