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Famed Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta dies at 77

Mr Mehta was an almost ideal editor and publishing executive: a voracious reader and instinctive decision-maker who could spot great books and, coming from a paperback world, had no qualms about aggressively marketing them.

New York

SONNY Mehta, the literary savant who guided the reading hours of millions of people and the fortunes of venerable publisher Alfred A Knopf for 32 years at a time of changing tastes, aggressive merchandising and demands for profits, died Monday at his home in New York City. He was 77.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, a Knopf spokesman said.

In an age of blockbuster bestsellers by presidents and prime ministers, of sometimes surreal and shocking literary breakthroughs and of cutthroat competition in a shrinking industry, Mr Mehta was an almost ideal editor and publishing executive: a voracious reader and instinctive decision-maker who could spot great books and, coming from a paperback world, had no qualms about aggressively marketing them.

On his watch, first as Knopf's president and editor-in-chief, and since 2009 as chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Mr Mehta delivered literary quality and runaway sales, backed by clever promotion that drew reviewers and booksellers to almost anything stamped with Knopf's colophon: the leaping Borzoi wolfhound.

He published the work of nine Nobel literature laureates, including Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), and of winners of Pulitzer and Booker prizes and National Book Awards; memoirs by former Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and Pope John Paul II; and new translations of Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Albert Camus.

Mr Mehta also published popular books by Toni Morrison, John Updike, Anne Rice, John le Carré, PD James and Gabriel García Márquez; Geoffrey Ward's companion to Ken Burns' PBS series Civil War; Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park; Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo trilogy; and the work of many important French, German, Italian, Spanish, African and Asian writers.

For Knopf's classic imprint Mr Mehta was only the third editor-in-chief, following founder Alfred A Knopf Sr and Robert A Gottlieb, who joined Knopf in 1968 and, on the cusp of his departure to edit The New Yorker, hand-picked Mr Mehta in 1987 as his successor.

Ajai Singh Mehta, known as Sonny, was the son of one of independent India's first diplomats. As a boy he had lived with his father on postings in Europe and the United States, and he was educated at private schools in India, Switzerland and Britain and at Cambridge University.

He began his career as a paperback publisher in Britain, commissioning Germaine Greer's feminist treatise The Female Eunuch, and works by Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. But he was hardly anyone's idea of an eminence grise when he was plucked from relative obscurity as publisher of Pan Books, Britain's paperback king, to run America's most storied hardcover imprint.

Settling into Knopf's cluttered Park Avenue offices with the carefree aplomb of a court jester, the black-bearded boss seemed amusedly uninterested in literary power and the genteel backstabbing politics of the publishing world. He wore black sweaters and black jeans, drank black-label Scotch in his office without ever appearing drunk, and for years worked in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke.

He was not easy to know. Some colleagues called him reserved and moody, aloof in a way that gave him an enigmatic magnetism. But others said he could also be charming and gregarious. In later years, he attended events all over Manhattan and became known for a more extravagant man-about-town nightlife.

But in his first year on the job, he was all work. He signed up 32 books, including biographies, novels and titles about Broadway, Hawaii and India. He ordered much larger first printings than his predecessor had, often doubling them, an aggressiveness seemingly borne of confidence that he would be able to sell them as easily as he had mass-marketed paperbacks.

"Yes, there is something attractive about taking risks," he told The New York Times in 1988. "I'm more marketing- and sales-oriented than others, and the notion of selling books continues to interest me. Just because we're Knopf doesn't mean we shouldn't sell books as well as any other publisher in the land. I still want us to publish the best books in every area. I want us to remain the classiest publisher in town."

In 1989, with the arrival of Alberto Vitale as the hard-charging chief executive of Knopf's parent, Random House, Mr Mehta found a powerful new ally. They both had strong backgrounds in competitive paperback sales and promotion, and Mr Vitale told The Times that Mr Mehta was "without question the most brilliant publisher in the country," adding: "He is phenomenal, he has everything."

In Random House's Balkanised corporate world, there were dozens of imprints, and their publishers had been allowed - even encouraged - by Mr Vitale to compete with one another with bids for the same books. "I was a troublemaker, a motivator, an instigator," Mr Vitale told The Times in 2001. "I did with my publishers what I did with my children: treated them evenhandedly."

Whatever it did for the Random House bottom line, the in-house competition often raised bitter feuds among publishers in the family of fiefs. But it also brought opportunities for Mr Mehta.

An early turning point in his career came in 1989 when an exasperated veteran running the Vintage paperback line in another division resigned. Mr Mehta took over Vintage, adding it to Knopf. He hired its first editorial and marketing staff, redesigned its covers and reintroduced paperback reprints to booksellers as if they were new books. He raised Vintage prices, betting that buyers would pay more for serious paperbacks in handsome editions. Sales and profits rose. Vintage became the most successful brand in paperback publishing.

As Knopf flourished, Mr Mehta expanded further. He added the intellectually influential Pantheon division after its publisher left in a dispute with Mr Vitale, and bought the Everyman's Library classics line to compete head-to-head with Random House's Modern Library line, calling it a "coincidence". "Occasionally," he added, "we do step on each other's toes."

After Bertelsmann acquired Random House from the Newhouse family in 1998, Mr Mehta again expanded Knopf, this time at the expense of a new sister company, Doubleday, by adding its Anchor line of high-quality paperbacks to his stable.

In a subsequent major Random House reorganisation, he acquired the Doubleday Group itself. By then, Mr Vitale was gone. But he had put in place an innovation that heralded success for years to come, insisting that every contract for a book include digital rights.

Mr Mehta often paid huge sums for books by world celebrities - US$9 million for Pope John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994); a world-record advance of US$15 million for Bill Clinton's memoir, My Life (2004); US$9 million for Tony Blair's A Journey: My Political Life (2010). There were no profit guarantees for such outlays, but in most cases his choices were solid, and the investments paid off handsomely.

Not all his bets were big. He paid only US$225,000 for one of Knopf's biggest hits, Larsson's trilogy.

By 2015, Knopf's centennial, the Knopf Doubleday Group was publishing 550 titles a year and contributing a major share of Penguin Random House's US$3.5 billion in revenues. In 2015, Publishers Weekly named Mr Mehta its "Person of the Year."

In 1965, Mr Mehta married Gita Patnaik, a documentary filmmaker and writer. The couple had one son, Aditya Singh Mehta. NYTIMES