Peter Mayer, whose legendary publishing career spanned both sides of the Atlantic, has died. He was 82. Once one of the most charismatic publishers, known for his penchant for smoking wherever he was, Mayer had suffered a number of injuries and illnesses in recent years.
Born in London and raised in New York, Mayer began his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Orion Press in 1961, then quickly moved to Avon Books, where, over the course of 14 years, he rose to the position of publisher. After serving as publisher of Pocket Books from 1976 to 1978, Pearson chose Mayer to run its troubled Penguin Books division. When he left in 1996, the company had become one of the world’s largest, and most profitable, publishers.
In an interview with PW discussing his departure from Penguin, Mayer said Pearson had wanted him to take a seat on the company board and to oversee some of the conglomerate’s other businesses. “I didn’t want to retire as a corporate executive, but as a book publisher,” said Mayer, who was 60 at the time, to PW’s John Baker.
Upon Mayer’s exit, Lord Blakenham, Pearson chairman, said the company owed Mayer “an enormous debt of gratitude” for turning what had been largely a money-losing British publisher into a worldwide publishing powerhouse.
After leaving Penguin, Mayer returned to the Overlook Press, which he and his father founded in 1971. While at Overlook, Mayer bought the U.K. publisher Duckworth in 2003 to create another transatlantic publisher, albeit on a much smaller scale than Penguin. He was still running Overlook at the time of his death.
In that same interview with PW, Mayer said he was looking forward to focusing on expanding Overlook. “I want to play the old game for as long as I can, and that’s what Overlook is there for,” he noted.
Mayer was well versed in both the financial and creative sides of the publishing business, and he received numerous honors from across the publishing world during the course of his career. In 1996 he was awarded the title chevalier and officier of the ordre des arts et des lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, and at the 2008 London Book Fair, Mayer was given a lifetime achievement award.
As word of Mayer’s death spread Friday morning, Penguin Random House issued the following statement: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of our forever colleague Peter Mayer, one of the towering giants of trade publishing, whose long and brilliant leadership of Penguin will always be part of the DNA of Penguin Random House.”