Ajai Singh Mehta, known as Sonny, had an insatiable appetite for books.
He poured that passion into the publishing world, where he served as president and editor in chief of Knopf for 32 years and chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for a decade. Under his leadership, Knopf published some of the world’s greatest literary voices, including Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as Pulitzer, Booker and National Book Awards winners such as Joan Didion and Cormac McCarthy.
Mehta died on Monday in Manhattan from complications with pneumonia, according to a Knopf spokesperson. He was 77.
He was known for finding bestsellers like the “Fifty Shades” series and publishing the memoirs of Pope John Paul II and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Mehta invested in unknown writers too. “Sonny Mehta published my first book, Saturday Night, taking a chance on a young writer with an unconventional book,” said bestselling Los Angeles author Susan Orlean on Twitter. “I’m forever grateful and will miss him terribly.”
Sonny Mehta published my first book, Saturday Night, taking a chance on a young writer with an unconventional book. I’m forever grateful and will miss him terribly.— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 31, 2019
Publisher’s Weekly named Mehta “Person of the Year” in 2015.
“Reading has been a constant in my life. I have always found comfort in the confines of a book or manuscript,” he said in accepting the 2018 Maxwell E. Perkins Award for lifetime achievement. “Reading is how I spend most of my time, is still the most joyful aspect of my day. I want to be remembered not as an editor or publisher but as a reader.”
Mehta’s career in the publishing world started in 1965 at London’s Rupert Hart-Davis. He went on to work at Granada Publishing in 1966, co-founded Paladin Books, and moved to Pan Books in the early 1970s, where he helped restart the Picador imprint.
While in London, Mehta worked with eminent writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Jackie Collins, Germaine Greer and Graham Swift.
“He was a friend to writers, editors, and booksellers around the world,” Paul Bogaards, Knopf’s deputy publisher, said in a statement. “Mehta was also a gentleman, uniquely so, who cared deeply about his colleagues and the work with which he entrusted them.
“He was a beloved figure at Knopf, working at the only career he ever wanted. He lived a life in books, of books, and for books and writers.”
Mehta became president and editor in chief of Knopf in 1987 after moving to the United States, succeeding only two other leaders in the imprint’s more than 100-year history. The others were Robert Gottlieb and founder Alfred A. Knopf.
“Mehta’s contributions to the world of letters and publishing are without precedent,” publishing house Knopf said in a statement. “His exacting standards — in editorial, production, design, marketing, and publicity — were a beacon to the book industry and beyond.”
He is survived by his wife Gita Patnaik, son Aditya and a granddaughter.