Former colleagues remember legendary Penguin chief Peter Mayer

Former colleagues remember legendary Penguin chief Peter Mayer

Tributes have continued to pour in to Peter Mayer, former c.e.o. of Penguin, who died in New York on Friday (11th May) at the age of 82.

Many have come from one-time colleagues at Penguin in London during the years that Mayer headed the publishing house, from 1978 to 1996, when he oversaw the UK as well as US operations, reinvigorated the company, and famously published Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

Among the publishers and agents who paid tribute to Mayer on Friday, Profile m.d. Andrew Franklin described him as a man who "transformed publishing, not just in the UK but globally", as well as one who "taught, inspired, mentored and drove insane generations of people in publishing." Novelist Tim Binding, also formerly at Penguin, has remembered him "breathing new life into British publishing as a whole by the vision of vertical publishing and the importance of ownership", as well as "one of the best read men I have ever known", saying "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." .

Writer and editor Fanny Blake also remembered: "Heads turned when Peter Mayer appeared at the 1978 London Book Fair. Rumour had preceded him. He was the American from Pocketbooks who was coming to London to rescue Penguin. The establishment was sceptical.

"In 1979 he asked me for breakfast where he impressively juggled a full English breakfast with countless cigarettes, then hired me to be Penguin’s chief editor, fiction. At the time he had just published M M Kaye’s Far Pavilions complete with what was considered a luridly illustrated cover. That earlier scepticism had turned to outrage. But he was unrepentant, and Far Pavilions went on to become a huge bestseller. ‘There’s good literary fiction and there’s bad. There’s good commercial fiction and there’s bad,’ he said. ‘We should aim to publish the best of both.’ The following year, he had the idea of scooping up the entire Booker shortlist and publishing them in paperback. We got them all but William Golding’s Rites of Passage (the winner).

"Peter was innovative, imaginative and tireless. These were just two of numerous initiatives that he would instigate over the years to come, including Stop! a guide to stopping smoking (not something he achieved) that was the size of a cigarette packet, the mega-selling F-Plan Diet, the Penguin 60s – 60 miniature books for 60p. Of course, not everything was a success – a much-hyped book, The 400, was swiftly forgotten – but Peter was undaunted and moved on to the next thing.

"Working with him was Peter Carson, then editorial director. On the face of it, they were an unlikely duo: the extrovert American with a commercial background and the more reserved Englishman with a faintly professorial air. But somehow they gelled, perhaps through mutual respect, to make a formidable team. They brought out the best in each other and in those of us fortunate enough to work for them.

"With him at the helm, we editors were encouraged to become publishers ourselves, championing our books through every stage of the process. He would go out of his way to support any editor who could make a convincing and passionate case for a book. He also made sure we supported one another, once giving me quite the flea in my ear when I attempted to duck out of a Puffin presentation at a sales conference.

"He was an inspirational boss and mentor who made a huge difference to the world of publishing. He will be much missed and never forgotten."

Former Viking publishing director Tony Lacey remembered: "Poignantly, one of my earliest memories of Peter is a conversation we had about death in the early 80s. We were walking round Brompton Cemetery one Sunday morning as he outlined his plans to start the Viking imprint in the UK when I made a glib remark about the dead all around us. 'I don't want to die yet,' he said unexpectedly. 'There are so many things I still want to do.'

"And, boy, didn't he just! For about a decade, between his arrival at Penguin and the publication of Satanic Verses, he sprinkled stardust on British publishing. The achievements are well-known and I won't document them, but it was the aura around him I find hardest to describe to those who didn't experience it. Above all he made books and publishing seem glamorous, not just to those working in the industry but to millions of readers too.

"It was the entirely unBritish mix of street trader and intellectual which made him so charismatic, though of course it helped that he was so good-looking. I've seen him with a box of samples at Marks and Spencer's headquarters; and I've also seen him hosting a dinner for the heads of European houses at Frankfurt, completely fluent in German and Spanish, looking like a Hollywood film star.

"The Satanic Verses episode knocked something out of him, and then with the international growth of Penguin he headquartered himself in New York and we saw much less of him. But I prefer to remember the young Peter who, as a cab driver, took Allen Ginsberg and his cronies out west; who had the hard task of shaking hands with Albert Speer after he'd published his book; who once confided to me with a twinkle in his eye that he'd shared a girlfriend with Ray Davies. It was quite some life, and I can't really believe he's gone. I thought he was, like Dylan, indestructible."

Aitken Alexander m.d. Clare Alexander, also formerly at Viking, said: "Peter was a giant amongst a great generation.  His extraordinary energy and vision, coupled with Peter Carson’s erudition and Patrick Wright’s business skills, made Penguin in the UK a powerhouse and a thrilling place to work and all of us who worked there were forged thereafter in a very particular way.

"Long before people talked of diversity, Peter actually walked the walk.  He revived Penguin UK, but he also reignited it as a global brand. Companies in Australia, Canada, India and elsewhere were not seen as ‘merely’ distributors.  He was as attentive to their own publishing as he was keen to sell British and American books.

"Are we still permitted to say that someone was virile?  Peter was that in the best sense - cosmopolitan, interested in everywhere and everything but never doubting himself as a leader of men.  When he moved all the various companies into Wright’s Lane, he told me it would be better because of those snatched conversations we would all have when we bumped into each other in the loos.  It seemed surprising to him when I pointed out that I did not frequent the Gents. We women were on the rise, and Peter brought many of us into senior management, but there was no question who was king!

"Peter was an American, a fact that initially upset the British establishment when first he came to run Penguin.  But he was also the son of German Jews, and both these things were important to him.  He revelled in being let loose into what was then a rather vapid British publishing scene and it has hard to overstate how much he changed everything.  Already a star from his transformative days at Avon in America, he - like Sonny Mehta - had grown up as paperback publishers.  Passionate readers, paperback publishers could not afford to be literary snobs.  They liked excellence, but they loved to sell books, and brought marketing skills unimagined before them.

"Then in the 80s Peter returned to America for his penultimate act growing Penguin there, by now perhaps identifying as a Brit, always the outsider, the great disruptor. And in his last years he ran Duckworth and Overlook, small Indy publishers, but he seemed just as happy without trans-Atlantic travel and chauffeured limos as in his years at the head of a global corporation.

"I wish all the young people in publishing now could have a sense of what fun it all was.  Those of us who worked with Peter will all have stories to tell.  He changed us.  He exasperated us. He inspired us."

Meanhwhile at The Overlook Press and Duckworth, associate publisher Tracy Carns 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."

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.”