It has been a sad start to the year with the death of Knopf editor-in-chief and president of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Sonny Mehta, who died in New York on 30 December, aged 77, from complications following pneumonia. Tributes have come from writers, agents and fellow publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gail Rebuck, chairman of Penguin Random House UK, remembered “a wise, gentle and constant friend”, and added: “His impeccable taste, ground-breaking publishing and passion for great writing launched so many of the world’s greatest authors. Truly the end of an era.”
Anthony Forbes Watson, MD Pan Macmillan called him “one of the few true giants of global publishing over the last half century”, and acknowledged his part in the rise of Pan and Picador during the Seventies and Eighties, the period described by former Transworld publisher Patrick Janson-Smith as the Golden Age of paperback publishing (Janson-Smith also called this period ‘Mehta and Master’, referring to Pan CEO Simon Master, who died in 2015).
Agent Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown praised Mehta’s “insatiable curiosity, complete lack of pomposity and his uncanny instinct to pick a literary and commercial bestseller” which made him a publisher “admired by all”. In a touching tribute in the New York Times the writer John Banville said: “He loved the world and his loved ones, and was a great champion of good books in particular and of humane culture in general. The death of every noble man makes a slight, ignoble adjustment to the world. He would have wished us better times ahead. I shall miss him to the end.”
One of the books Mehta published was EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, hailed by NPD BookScan as the Bestselling Book of the Decade (2010 to December 2019) with 15.2m copies sold. This success undoubtedly led to Publishers Weekly picking James as its Person of the Year in 2012. It was to be eight years before another author was chosen for this accolade. Dav Pilkey, he of Captain Underpants and Dog Man fame, is 2019’s Person of the Year with the magazine hailing his “wildly creative career”, his “goofy, gross-out humour” and “distinct talent for connection with his readers and their parents”. Let’s not forget too, the 90m-plus copies of the 14 Captain Underpants titles in print.
Anyone who has been commuting by rail in the UK for the last ten years or more will surely have noticed fewer physical books. So it is both heartening – and slightly puzzling – to see Nielsen BookScan recording a 0.4% rise in volume for printed books for the year ending 28 December. This is the second consecutive year of modest growth for print. Interestingly, though it is by no means an accurate comparison, in the US print books fell by 1.1% for the week ending 21 December, according to NPD BookScan. It reports that adult non-fiction fell by 5%, down from 14.3m to 13.6m. In children’s fiction, the ‘goofy’ man mentioned above secured the top slot with Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: Fetch 22 selling around 180,000 copies in the week before Christmas. Hope the Joseph Heller estate is pleased.
Waterstones’ description of Christmas sales as flat tied in with preliminary soundings among US indies. Gibsons Bookstore in Concord New Hampshire said sales were “solidly flat, and we’ll count that as a win”. Gibsons also reported a popular, Trump-related non-book item: ‘impeach-mints’ supplied by the New York-based Unemployed Philosophers Guild which also distributes in the UK.
Private equity firm KKR, formerly Kravis Kohlberg Roberts & Co, bought itself a late Christmas present by acquiring OverDrive, the digital reading platform for libraries and schools, a deal it announced on Christmas Eve no less. OverDrive was owned by Japanese e-commerce giant Ratuken which also owns e-bookseller Kobo which it bought in 2012. There is now some speculation that Ratuken may seek to offload Kobo too.
Finally, there is much for book industry folk to enjoy in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, particularly when Jo negotiates the contract for her novel with her publisher Mr Dashwood. He offers her $500 “to buy out the copyright”. “The copyright?”, asks Jo. Dashwood: “It’s the right for re-printing, that sort of thing, sequels, the characters for other stories.” “Might that be worth something?” Jo wonders. “Well, again, only if it’s a success,” Dashwood replies. “I see,” says Jo. “It seems like something I would want to own…”
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.