On Thursday, Penguin Random House announced that Little Brown publisher Reagan Arthur would succeed Sonny Mehta, the literary giant who led Knopf for more than 30 years before he passed away late last year.
Mehta, who was 77 years old when he died, was a unique figure in the world of publishing, a literary savant with an uncanny eye for blockbusters and masterpieces alike. He not only acquired the work of nine Nobel literature laureates — Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Orhan Pamuk, to name a few — he also glimpsed the commercial potential of such mass-market successes as Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic thriller by a previously unknown author that began its life as Twilight fanfiction, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a tale that helped create an international market for dark Scandinavian mysteries. His knack for spotting both prize winners and potboilers allowed Knopf to flourish in the face of the many existential threats that have shaken the publishing industry in the age of the internet, corporate consolidation, and mass bookstore closures. Intensely charismatic but assiduously private, he never publicly named a successor, and speculation swirled for weeks around who might step into his shoes and how that choice would shape the future of one of the country’s most prestigious imprints.
Behind the scenes, Mehta had been making plans. Last fall, he invited Arthur to lunch. She was surprised, she told the New York Times in an interview this morning, to learn that she was his choice to take his place. But in many ways, the pick makes sense: Arthur is universally admired in publishing circles, and like Mehta, she has an eye for both fiction and nonfiction, commercial and highbrow. She has published books by Tina Fey and Megan Abbott, James Patterson and Sherman Alexie, Michael Connelly and Rachel Cusk. She is the fourth publisher in Knopf’s 105-year history, and the first woman to take the helm.
In a note to the staff, Madeline McIntosh, the CEO of Penguin Random House USA, wrote, “The range and breadth of Reagan’s editorial expertise and her leadership qualities are core to what make her the ideal choice for this role. Her writers think the world of her, as do her colleagues. She has a proven track record and a reputation that means her recommendations are trusted by sales reps and booksellers alike. I have envied from afar her accomplishments as a publisher while treasuring her books as a reader and enjoying getting to know her over the years as a person.” McIntosh also announced that Maya Mavjee, the Former Crown Publishing Group president and publisher, will step in as president and publisher of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and that Jordan Pavlin, a longtime Knopf editor, will be promoted to senior vice president.