William Targ, a book editor who spent $5,000 to purchase a novel he had never seen--Mario Puzo's "The Godfather"--died Thursday at his home in New York. He was 92.
Targ's ability to pluck marketable books from the ever-present deluge of material was well known in the publishing industry.
He was a senior editor at G.P. Putnam and Sons in 1968 when he bought Puzo's book on the strength of an oral presentation at a pitch meeting after two other publishers had turned it down. It became an instant bestseller and went on to become the most profitable novel Putnam ever published.
Targ sold the paperback rights to Signet for $400,000, an unheard of figure at the time. To date, "The Godfather" has sold about 21 million copies worldwide and has been translated into several languages.
"Fools Die," a Puzo novel that Targ handled for Putnam in 1978, became the subject of an intense bidding war among paperback houses. New American Library of New York, then a Times Mirror subsidiary, paid a then-record $2,550,000 for the title.
During the intense bidding for "Fools Die," Targ described Puzo, who died earlier this month, in an interview with the Washington Post. "He's a cool cat," Targ said. "As an editor, I admire him. I don't know a single writer who's more sure-handed. He listens well and then does what he damn well pleases. Usually turns out right."
Targ also handled other writers. He edited at least 18 books by Art Buchwald, two with George Burns, and others with serious authors such as Simone De Beauvoir, Ashley Montagu and Lin Yutang.
Born William Torgownik in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents, Targ attended public schools there and developed a love for reading. He dropped out of high school and got his first job in the industry with MacMillan as an office boy.
He later opened his own bookstore, which handled rare books. He was a collector, and through the years wrote several books on collecting first editions.
During his long career, which included stops at Black Archer Press in Chicago, where he was publisher, and World Publishing Co. in Cleveland, where he was editor in chief, he also found time to edit several books on Western American folklore.
After his retirement from Putnam in 1978 as editor in chief, he founded Targ Editions. This one-man operation published limited, beautifully bound editions of criticism, short fiction and poetry.
In his memoir, "Indecent Pleasures," Targ tells beginning writers: "Learn to light small fires so that you can burn your early drafts. Discipline yourself not to read stories aloud to friends. Develop a Geiger counter for the detection of cliches and platitudes, tired and ineffectual words and phrases. . . . Writing a first-rate book is no easier than climbing Mt. Everest. I think Everest is easier."
Targ is survived by his wife, Roslyn of Manhattan; a son, Russell, of Palo Alto; three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.