Home / Opinion / Columns /  The literary and commercial success of Sonny Mehta

Celebrating the careers of chief executives of Indian origin who run global companies is a national pastime. Even schoolchildren would likely know who heads Twitter, Microsoft, Alphabet and IBM. If publishing glowing profiles of such corporate success stories were an Olympic sport, India would win gold every time.

Arguably, the greatest of them all and yet the most unsung was neither in information technology nor consumer goods, however, but in book publishing. Sonny Mehta headed Pan in the UK in the early 1970s when the country was a byword for racism. In 1987, he was appointed head of the Rolls-Royce of American publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, just as it was approaching its 75th anniversary. Despite many predicting his tenure would be short-lived because he was an outsider in New York’s cliquey publishing world, he was still heading Knopf when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015 and indeed till he died aged 77 on 30 December 2019. By then, Mehta had used mergers and acquisitions (M&As) to snap up paperback publishers, and grow the company manifold. This, combined with his deft mix of pulp fiction bestsellers such as E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, blockbuster biographies of public figures such as Bill Clinton and the literary fiction of Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Michael Ondaatje made the company hugely successful. In effect, he transformed publishing by commissioning books from authors around the world. Ramachandra Guha, who worked with Mehta on his two-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi, points out that while “Indians are supposed to excel in tech, publishing is all-White."

Mehta’s profound multiculturalism was one of his greatest assets. It is hard to imagine that the man who published Stieg Larsson’s crime trilogy was also the person who bought rights to Megha Majumdar’s searing novel, A Burning. Mehta was the son of an Air Force officer handpicked by Jawaharlal Nehru to serve in the Indian foreign service. Perhaps his eclecticism was acquired as the family moved from one foreign posting to another. In Mehta’s first leadership role as head of the paperback publisher Pan Books, he published Jackie Collins but also founded Picador, which counted Rushdie and Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes among its authors. While working in the UK, he introduced many American authors to British readers. In 1987, Robert Gottlieb picked him to head Knopf and Mehta moved to New York.

In subsequent decades, Mehta not only survived waves of M&As in the publishing world, but benefitted from them. He took over the paperback publisher Vintage in 1989. As The New York Times observed, “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."

The gifted spotter of talent and writer’s editor was also a commercial genius. Time and again, he bet boldly on biographies of public figures such as Clinton and Tony Blair (paying $15 million and $9 million respectively). He added Pantheon and the classics of Everyman’s Library to Knopf’s stable, shrugging off the fact that Everyman’s collectors’ editions directly competed with another unit of Random House, Knopf’s parent. “Occasionally," he bluntly told The New York Times, “we do step on each other’s toes." General Electric’s Jack Welch would have rejoiced.

When I proposed an article in 1993 about India’s hugely successful diaspora to the editors of Fortune magazine while working as a reporter in New York, I put Sonny Mehta high on the list of success stories, along with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Rana Talwar, then at Citibank before he went on to head Standard Chartered. Looking back, I regret that for scheduling reasons my interview with Mehta was over the phone. I met him at an Asia Society event a couple of weeks later and was struck again by how disarmingly soft-spoken he was. The article was an offbeat business story and I thought I could expand the canvas by having Mehta photographed with his witty wife Gita, who wrote Karma Cola, a deft skewering of the hippie invasion of India in the 1970s. It was a patently silly idea perhaps for a business magazine, but Mehta was too polite to say so. He deferred the decision to Gita. Dressed in a cream and black ikat silk sari and seemingly oblivious to the harsh New York winter, she firmly declined.

Every writer Sonny Mehta worked with remembers his graciousness. Brett Easton Ellis recalled whimsically asking for Japanese food in London decades ago, long before it was a staple of London life. He was mortified when Mehta spent some time finding and then booking a Japanese restaurant for dinner. When Mehta read a draft of Guha’s Gandhi biography, the celebrated editor, who always referred to Gandhi as “Gandhiji", went to the footnotes to learn more about Millie Polak, the wife of a close associate of the Mahatma in South Africa. He then asked Guha to delve deeper because her memoir offered the rare perspective of a woman who knew Gandhi well.

The lessons of Mehta’s life are uplifting and manifold: dedication to craft matters, nice guys often finish first among them. The writer Omar El Akkad put it beautifully: “His gift was to read every manuscript twice at the same time—once for exactly what it was and once for everything it could be." We should all be blessed with leaders who want us to be our better selves.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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