Sonny Mehta, who died on Monday in New York at the age of 77, was unique on several counts. Not only was he the rare Indian to scale unprecedented heights in the hierarchy of global publishing, but was also the maker of household names and superhit books.
In his role as the editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf in New York, he published best-selling writers of literary fiction, including Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, V.S. Naipaul, Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He also possessed the same golden touch that filled his list with Nobel, Pulitzer and Booker winners, when it came to mass-market stars such as Jackie Collins, Douglas Adams and E.L. James (best known for the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy).
Born in India in 1942 to Amrik Singh Mehta, one of India’s first diplomats, Sonny Mehta had an itinerant childhood. Educated all over the world, but mostly in the UK, he began his career in London, where his rise through the ranks was fast and phenomenal. As editor of Pan Books in the 1970s, he created a vastly successful commercial imprint, which led to him being courted by the US, and his subsequent move to New York in 1987.
In his role as chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Mehta continued his excellent work of discovering new talents like Marjane Satrapi (author of the graphic novel Persepolis) and championing them. Writer and historian Ramachandra Guha described him as “a truly great editor and a wonderfully warm and compassionate human being" in a tweet mourning his passing.
But Mehta was not only an editor par excellence. He was also keenly invested in the marketing and publicity of his authors.
“The Sonny hallmark was outstanding design and strong marketing alongside the selection of books," wrote Chiki Sarkar, founder and publisher, Juggernaut Books. “He would tell me again and again that the only way to survive, to be left alone by your bosses, to do what you want to do, was to make enough money."
It was this unique combination of uncanny business sense and razor-sharp editorial instincts that helped Mehta beat all odds.
In the 1960s, the early years of his career, he managed to establish himself in the then predominantly white milieu of British publishing. Later, in the US, in spite of the several mergers that Knopf went through over the decades (the last being in 2013 between Penguin and Random House, of which Knopf was an imprint), Mehta was able to retain significant control over the operations and vision of the company.
In a profile for Vanity Fair magazine in 2015, Mehta told the writer Dave Eggers that “on a good day… I am still convinced I have the best job in the world". His delight in his work was undaunted till the end, and he kept at it until he was laid low by his last illness.
Mehta was married to journalist and writer Gita Mehta, best known for her classic account of Indian life, Karma Cola. Gita Mehta is the sister of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
“My brother-in-law Sonny Mehta…was one of the world’s best editors and an extremely civilized person," Patnaik tweeted on Tuesday.