The news that Sonny Mehta will be relinquishing the role of Knopf president in favor of the new title of chairman started the rumor mill grinding last week about the future of publishing's biggest impresario and the division he runs.
But in an interview, Mehta, who is promoting and giving the title of president to current Knopf COO Tony Chirico, said that the move was more an acknowledgment of past accomplishments than blueprint for change. "Neither Tony nor I imagine the way in which we work to change dramatically," said Mehta, who continues to serve as editor-in-chief to whom Chirico will still report. "There is absolutely no shift" either in roles or how Knopf operates, he said.
The Random House division is known for its unorthodox management structure—few hierarchies and much involvement from Mehta—as well as list balance; few publishers of its size manage so many poetry, history and literary titles.
Observers have wondered if changes that have come to most parts of the business would eventually come to Knopf. And indeed, not everything will be the same after the promotion. Mehta will focus more on authors and manuscripts than he did wearing his previous hat. "I never really enjoyed the day-to-day things," he conceded, referring to how publishing in general has become a bigger part of the corporate media world. And the house said Chirico's role will now include more broad strategic issues.
Chirico started at Knopf in 1986, complementing Mehta's editorial eye. He has been given increasingly greater roles at the company, most recently with a promotion to COO in 2000. Mehta has often referred to him as "my trusted adviser" and the two work closely together on areas where editorial and business overlap. Chirico is said not to be involved with, or especially interested in, purely editorial decisions.
Some, however, were inclined to point to a more specific reason for the change: "If anything were to happen to Sonny, or if he were to leave, now you have someone else there [as president]," noted one insider.
That explanation could lead to speculation about a change in the composition of Knopf's list. But Chirico said that while greater financial scrutiny has become a part of Knopf, as it has for much of publishing in recent years, the house's famous dependence on instinct and experience would remain. "I rely more on Sonny and his feelings on a book than any kind of forecast model I can come up with," Chirico said.