'Giant of trade publishing' Peter Mayer dies

'Giant of trade publishing' Peter Mayer dies

Publisher Peter Mayer, former c.e.o. of Penguin, has died at the age of 82.

Penguin Random House US said in a 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.”

In the US, Mayer founded The Overlook Press in 1971, was publisher and president at Pocket Books and spent 14 years at Avon Books. He was c.e.o. of Penguin Books from 1978 to 1996, overseeing the UK as well as the US operations. Latterly he also revived UK publisher Duckworth Press, acquiring it in 2003. He received a London Book Fair lifetime achievement award in 2008, among many other awards including that of Chevalier and Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture.

Profile m.d. Andrew Franklin said: "Very few people in our world change it, but Peter Mayer transformed publishing, not just in the UK but globally. He revived Penguin, a zombie company when he took it over, and made it the most formidable and admired publisher in the English language. He created vertical publishing in the UK, ending the sale of paperback rights. He was the first person to see the potential for local publishing in India and elsewhere, and, in setting up Penguin India, transformed the face of Indian publishing and literature, and he globalised Penguin turning it into an international force and the first of the big global groups.

"He taught, inspired, mentored and drove insane generations of people in publishing.  And all that with peerless exuberance, energy, a passionate belief in books and literature, and most of all an indefatigable sense of fun. He was very special indeed."

Jonathan Lloyd, chair of Curtis Brown, also paid tribute, saying: "Without any doubt Peter Mayer was a true giant of the publishing world- not just of his generation but of all generations. He knew everything and everybody and was just as knowledgeable and excited to discuss the best distributor of books in Singapore or debate the merits of high discount clauses as to extoll the brilliance of a first novel whose rights  he had just bought. Almost uniquely for such a natural and intuitive person who enjoyed publishing over the broadest of spectrums, he was also an inspiring and visionary leader as witnessed by his transformation of Penguin into the vertical company it is today.

"He loved the whole process from acquisition of a book through all the stages to publication. Publishing was in his veins. He was born a publisher and died a publisher."

Lloyd added: "Of course he was medical miracle as a result of a lifelong and passionate affair with cigarettes, and having escaped death in a car accident, but his extraordinary mind powered his energy and enthusiasm despite having only one lung and needing  to walk with a stick. The one reason for a small smile at this sad news is the thought of him being reunited with his great friend Ed Victor. I can hear the chink of glasses, the click of a lighter and the uninterrupted flow of words and laughter."

Tracy Carns, associate publisher at The Overlook Press and Duckworth, told The Bookseller: "Peter was so thoroughly in love with being a book publisher, and he was brilliant at it.  He loved being a large publisher at Penguin and, with equal relish and drive, an transatlantic indie publisher at The Overlook Press and Duckworth. He was curious and chaotic and spectacular to watch in action. I feel tremendously lucky to have had him as a mentor and friend for nearly 30 years and, with his daughter Liese, as my NYC family. He was also a delicious storyteller, so it's fitting that I, along with so many others, will be sharing Peter Mayer stories for a very long time. Peter was without a doubt sui generis, and it's hard to imagine the world without him.

She added: "Lest this imply he was perfect, Peter also lost his wallet a lot."

Jamie Byng, c.e.o. of Canongate, added that Mayer was a “hugely inspiring, instinctive, bold and erudite publisher, one who had independence ingrained into his spirit and a beautifully international outlook". 

"He relished in taking calculated risks and was visionary in so many different ways", said Byng. "He was also very generous and stylish and I think our whole industry is indebted to his far-sighted way of seeing books and the possibilities of publishing. I feel lucky to have known him and to have spent the times with him that I did. He was brilliant, unpredictable and enormous fun. A giant has moved on.” 

Novelist and publisher Tim Binding said: "I worked for Peter both times I was at Penguin and was the luckiest of men to have done so. When he came to Penguin, it  was haemorrhaging to death. When he left it, Penguin had not only been restored to its rightful place in British  publishing, but had become a global force. Just as important as what he did to Penguin UK ( and USA)  was what he did for British publishing as a whole, breathing new life by the vision of vertical publishing and the importance of ownership. His first words to me ( after “My door is always open” ) were “Backlists erode”. Regarded at the outset by the English publishing establishment as a brash whizz kid, he was one of the best read men I have ever known, and his love of books, and his understanding of the nature of publishing infected all of us who were fortunate enough to work with, and alongside him. Alongside is a good word too, for his door was always open, and conversation and engagement with the world ( plus continuous smoking ) were his hall marks. Funny, impossible, inspiring, inquiring and constantly alert, he was a unique and  lovely man."

Agent Gill Coleridge, chair of Rogers, Coleridge and White, added: "Peter was an inspirational and charismatic publisher, and always fun to be with. He was a close friend to the Agency, encouraging Deborah [Rogers] and me to join forces in l988.  He will be greatly missed."

Meanwhile David Davidar, co-founder and publisher of Delhi-based trade house Aleph Book Company, commented: "Peter Mayer was one of the last great publishers of our time. He transformed Penguin into a global publishing powerhouse, and many of his innovations brought a freshness and vitality to a profession that seemed to have entered its sunset years. If publishing was indeed in decline Peter didn’t know it, his outsized personality, passion for his profession and belief that books could transform worlds and cultures sweeping all before him. One of the things he was proudest of in his professional life (as he would always tell me) was the founding of Penguin India. When he hired me to run the firm’s publishing programme three decades ago, little did I know that he would have a lasting influence on my professional life, as boss, mentor, and friend. Under his tutelage, the company became India’s largest trade publisher, and changed the Indian publishing landscape for all time to come. We will not see his like again.”