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Introducing changes at Penguin Books


Making friends in the world of publishing
Peter Mayer Publisher
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Well, I had some editorial responsibilities at Orion and did publish quite a few books. But somebody was watching over me, this man Howard Greenfeld and… who became a friend.  When I went to Avon [Books], I was now in charge of the company, well, first I was the education editor which somebody said, what does that mean, I said, well I'm in charge of the better socks and shoes, and I had this unexpected success with a book that I mentioned to you, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, which led to my becoming the editor-in-chief and finally the publisher.

And I think I had to hire people now, and I knew something about what was required in every department because I'd had some experience in two places, Avon, where I was working, but also at Orion before that.  I had some friends in publishing as well.  I pretty much knew what I wanted, I didn't know if we would be successful or not, but we were successful.  We were very successful, we were the tiniest of publishing companies and we took on the largest. The largest company was Bantam and we were the smallest; there were about ten companies between Bantam, the largest, and ourselves at Avon, the smallest. But we had best-seller after best-seller.  Books got offered to us, just as they were offered to the other ten paperback publishers, and we sometimes won the rights for them at auction, sometimes expensively, sometimes not so expensively.  But we were right very often. I had wonderful colleagues, a woman named Judith Weber, who came actually from Bantam, Nancy Coffey who came, I think, from Putnam or Coward-McCann, I've forgotten, and more than anyone else, Bob Wyatt, who came from a book store where I used to buy books and I discovered he knew as much as I did about books and probably more.  So, get him off the shop floor and get him into my publishing company. 

We worked together for 10 or 11 years, we are still friends and he's not working in publishing any more, as I probably shouldn't be either, but I still am.  He's probably wiser.  And he still does a lot of editorial work though, but he does it not working for a company, he does it on his own.  I'm still a besotted publisher. 

Peter Mayer (1936-2018) was an American independent publisher who was president of The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc, a New York-based publishing company he founded with his father in 1971. At the time of Overlook's founding, Mayer was head of Avon Books, a large New York-based paperback publisher. There, he successfully launched the trade paperback as a viable alternative to mass market and hardcover formats. From 1978 to 1996 he was CEO of Penguin Books, where he introduced a flexible style in editorial, marketing, and production. More recently, Mayer had financially revived both Ardis, a publisher of Russian literature in English, and Duckworth, an independent publishing house in the UK.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Avon Books, Bob Wyatt

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015