Sonny Mehta, Longtime Publisher of Knopf, Dies at 78

His authors ranged from Nobel winners like Toni Morrison to “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L. James

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Sonny Mehta, the longtime publisher of the Random House imprint Alfred A. Knopf, died Monday of complications from pneumonia, the publisher announced. He was 77.

The head of Knopf since 1987, Mehta published the work of nine Nobel Prize winners, memoirs by both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as popular best-sellers such as Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” and Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

“Mehta’s contributions to the world of letters and publishing are without precedent,” the publisher said in a statement. “His exacting standards — in editorial, production, design, marketing, and publicity — were a beacon to the book industry and beyond.”

Born Ajai Singh Mehta but known as Sonny, he grew up the son of an Indian diplomat. Upon graduating from Cambridge University, he went into book publishing. He quickly established a high-low reputation with the U.K. paperback imprint Pan Books, where he published the works of both rising literary stars like Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie as well as commercial best-sellers by Jackie Collins and Douglas Adams.

In 1987, he became the third editor in Knopf’s history — handpicked by his predecessor, Robert Gottlieb, who left to edit The New Yorker. Mehta soon became an outsize presence in the halls of parent company Random House, with his chain-smoking and signature beard.

While building the imprint with a mix of serious literature as well as popular hits, he also acquired the Vintage paperback imprint and expanded his reach internationally. His fiefdom continued to grow as did Random House, including its 1999 acquisition by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann AG and the 2012 merger with Penguin Group.