In 1915, after working as a page at Doubleday and with publisher Mitchell Kennerley, Alfred A. Knopf accepted a $5,000 advance from his father to begin an eponymous publisher. The company’s first office was located in New York’s Candler Building, on West 42nd Street, and in addition to Knopf himself, its employees included two administrative staffers and an editorial assistant named Blanche Wolfe, Knopf’s fiancée.
Today, Knopf is one of the most venerable literary publishers in the country. In its 100-year history, the company, which is now part of Penguin Random House, has had only three people at the helm—Knopf himself, Robert Gottlieb, and current editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta.
“For the three of us who have led Knopf, it has always been about the books and our authors,” Mehta said, adding, “there has always been great continuity among the people who have worked here, and I think it leaves us in pretty good shape as we face whatever future challenges come our way.”
Knopf is the kind of place where people come to stay. Judith Jones, who joined the company in 1957 as an assistant to Blanche Knopf, remained at the publisher until her retirement in 2011. In that time, she became an important industry figure, famously editing Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which went on to become one of the most influential cookbooks of all time. Advertising director Nina Bourne came on board in 1968 and stayed at Knopf until her death in 2010, at the age of 93.
But like all publishers, the company has seen its fair share of upheaval. “It seems the world of book publishing is constantly changing,” Mehta said. “Whether it was the rise of chain stores or their decline, or the digital revolution... fortunately we have been able not only to adapt but to thrive.” According to Mehta, even though the way people read now is drastically different than it was 20 years ago, the Knopf sensibility has not been swayed by format. “I’ve always loved the physical book and remain committed to it,” he said. “But the transition by some readers to electronic devices has not really affected the nature of our list.”
Even so, Knopf has come up with at least one very digital way to commemorate the milestone—the publisher has created a Tumblr site dedicated to the anniversary, which mines objects, artwork, and copy from its past.
In addition, editors will be making appearances with authors in bookstores throughout the year, and Knopf will be publishing a commemorative book, Alfred A. Knopf, 1915–2015: A Century of Publishing. Knopf will cap off the yearlong celebration with a party in October, to be held in Astor Hall at the New York Public Library.
|1915||Alfred A. Knopf founds his own publishing company at the age of 22, with a $5,000 advance from his father|
|1920||T.S. Eliot’s Poems, a collection of 12 poems, including “The Hippopotamus” and “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service,” is published|
|1925||The borzoi colophon makes its first appearance|
|1946||Albert Camus’s The Stranger goes on sale in the U.S., after being signed up by Knopf’s wife, Blanche, who becomes a force at the publisher|
|1960||Knopf sells his independent operation to Random House|
|1960||Rabbit, Run, the first of John Updike’s seminal Rabbit books, goes on sale|
|1961||Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking debuts, and home chefs across America are introduced to accessible French cuisine|
|1966||Blanche Knopf dies|
|1968||Advertising maven Nina Bourne joins the company, and remains there until her death in 2010, at the age of 93|
|1968||Knopf steps down after 50 years at the helm; Robert Gottlieb is named editor in chief|
|1974||Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, now one of the most famous biographies of all time, is published, and wins the Pulitzer Prize the following year|
|1976||Anne Rice makes her debut with Interview with the Vampire, which spawns 10 sequels|
|1979||Canadian Alice Munro makes her first U.S. appearance with The Beggar Maid|
|1984||Alfred A. Knopf dies|
|1987||Sonny Mehta appointed editor in chief|
|1992||Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses hits shelves, and goes on to win the National Book Award for fiction|
|1998||Random House acquired by German media corporation Bertelsmann|
|2005||Tony Chirico named president of Knopf Publishing Group|
|2008||Markus Dohle named CEO of Random House; The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group emerges as part of a major imprint overhaul|
|2008||Steig Larssons’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo publishes in the U.S., accelerating a worldwide literary phenomenon|
|2013||Penguin merges with Random House|
Tallying up the Honors
Pulitzer Prizes: 62
First winner: One of Ours by Willa Cather (fiction), 1923
Most recent winner: Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds (poetry), 2013
NBCC Awards: 43
First winner*: October Light by John Gardner (fiction), 1976
Most recent winner: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction), 2013
National Book Awards: 78
First winner: The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens (poetry), 1951
Most recent winner: The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles (nonfiction), 2009
Nobel Prizes: 28
First winner: Verner von Heidenstam (Sweden), 1916
Most recent winner: Alice Munro (Canada), 2013