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Changing jobs


Getting noticed by Private Eye
Peter Mayer Publisher
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[Q] I'd love to know how you sold those books to Smiths, I mean, what one should imagine how that works.

Well, there was somebody that… our Sales Head, not our Sales Head, but the sales rep saw, I don't remember his name, and he came back and he said, they don't want any, because there's not enough margin in the 60p and they don't think they will work and it's basically a promotion for Penguin and Smiths is not in the business of promoting Penguin, but making money selling books. Well, this was a disaster for us, because I needed to get a big order from somewhere, and Smiths was then a bigger retailer in books than it is today proportionately at least.  I don't know the figures today of Smiths as a bookseller. 

So I said well, let me try.  Well, maybe I succeeded not because I was very good at it, but just because not too often at Smiths saw the head of a company come in as a rep.  So there may have been a novelty to it.  Anyway, I got the order and we were away and we were off and running. 

[Q] A million.

The first printing… the first printing was even larger. But the first order that we got was already a million copies, just for the Smiths stores.  And… it worked, the public liked the books, too.  Of course what was charming was that every book that we sold looked like a Penguin, so it was all an extraordinary marketing experience for Penguin.  

In fact, it's quite interesting. Private Eye and Richard Ingram took the mickey out of everybody all the years that I was in England at that time.  But they never commented on Penguin or me, until one day they did.  And… it was a very funny piece, I'd love to have it today, and of course one could still find it, but they took some exception to our marketing skills, and they said this American, Peter Mayer, had taken Penguin downmarket, but… and perhaps the emblem of his taking Penguin downmarket was his marketing.  And I remember, I went to Peter Carston and I said, what should I do? It was said not so nicely, after 17 years of being totally ignored by Private Eye.  Not that I wanted to be paid attention to by Private Eye because they nearly always said something awful about you. 

I suppose I was glad that they ignored us.  But the one time was… and they used the marketing abilities that Penguin had in a sort of invidious comment, the fact that we were good marketers was why we had gone downmarket, or something like that.  So I said to Peter Carston, who was my friend in all things British, who explained many things to me, and helped me, I'd like to think I helped him too, but I said, what should I do, and he said well, with Private Eye you just ignore them. But I didn't, because it was not my nature.  I said, dear Richard – I had met him – glad you noticed. That was the only time.  Something about our marketing skills, glad you noticed.

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: WH Smiths, Penguin Books, Private Eye, Richard Ingrams

Duration: 4 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015