a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


Working the lobster shift at the New York Times


Summoned to see the boss
Peter Mayer Publisher
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

Richard Berlin was the man who followed William Randolph Hearst in the Hearst Corporation, he was the president of it, very conservative, to say the least. I, of course, didn't know him and he didn't know me. I was just working for his company, but he would like to see me. I couldn't believe why this man wanted to see me. It just didn't occur to me at all, but I told the messenger I would be in at two o'clock or sometime when I was supposed to see him, and I came into his office which was an enormous office, only it wasn't his. It was his secretary's office.

The secretary's office was so large and all wood-panelled and it had white carpet. The white carpet was very deep. You sank into it almost up to your ankles as you proceeded forward to the secretary's desk and I said, 'I'm Peter Mayer from Avon Books. Mr Berlin wanted to see me,' or wants to see me. Oh, would I sit over there, and there was a very well appointed leather chair and I sat in there and looked around the room and I saw, Jesus Christ! There were American eagles everywhere, there were flags, there were pictures of Douglas McArthur going ashore at either Iwo Jima or Okinawa. It was pictures of Patton taking on the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge or the Ardennes. There were pictures of Ike and Roosevelt shaking hands, and everywhere there were reproduction of Washington crossing the Delaware and, well, I was certainly very glad to be an American and I had been raised suitably patriotically. I had said the pledge of allegiance and I thought America was a great country, but I was hardly a jingoist and certainly didn't have any military sense of my forward path in American life.

And I was deep into looking at this world around me when a buzzer rang and the secretary said, 'You can go in now', and the door opened sort of by itself, and I went into another room where the carpet was even deeper. I think I wandered forward up to my knee almost in wool pile and there was more: bayonets were crossed and at the end of the room there was a hemisphere of a desk going from the window to the wall and behind the hemisphere there was a man sitting, very ruddy-faced and with white hair. I took it to be and he was, Richard Berlin, the head of the Hearst Corporation, the man who after Hearst apparently saved the Hearst Corporation. He had been brought in by a banker in Boston named, Semenyenko I think to save what was left of the Hearst Corporation after Hearst's last years when he apparently didn't run it too well or things went adrift, I don't know. I've never been a student of what happened then.

And then there was a hatch such as you see in a bar which I took, you could lay raise so that the bar girl could get out or get in and I guess that was how he got in behind this hemisphere. And he sat there and he said, 'Come on in, Pete!' Well, nobody had ever called me, Pete except maybe in the army when I'd been in the army, but mostly they called me 'shithead', and I came forward to him and he said, 'Sit down, Pete!' So I did and he then said, 'Been reading the paper this morning and this guy, Mike Gold, had died. Did you have anything to do with him?' So I said… oh, this is becoming clear, communist and so on… so I said, 'Yes, sir, I did'. He said, 'Did you know him?' So I said, 'No, I didn't know him, but I had acquired the rights...' 'Did you? And who did you ask permission of?' So I said, 'Well, I didn't need permission', I think I bought it for $1500 and that that was well under my limit where I could buy books without asking permission. 'So you just bought it?' So I said, 'I guess that's right. I just bought it'. And he said, 'You didn't ask anybody's permission?' So I said, no, I didn't.

He said, 'It says in the obituary that I read this morning that the last eight lines of the book comes from the...' and he practically throttled on this, 'the Communist Manifesto, “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose, but your chains”'. I said, 'Yes, that's the end of the novel, you're right'. 'And you felt you could just publish that book without asking anybody's permission here?' I said, 'Well, the only limit on me was the money and I thought it was an important…' 'Important?!' I said, 'Well, I thought it was important book to publish. It's part of America's social history'. He said, 'Well, what do you mean by that?'

'Well', 'I said just like The Grapes of Wrath or the classic example of the agrarian proletarian…' 'Prolet…?!' 'Agrarian proletarian novel, this is sort of a classic example of the urban proletarian novel and it should be available for people to read'. 'Well, this beats all. Get out. And you, how long have you been working here?' So I said, three years. 'And you like it here?' I said, yes, it's a good job. 'Well, how did it sell?' Well, I said it's in a fourth... 'Fourth printing?' 'It's in a fourth printing and we've sold about 40,000 copies'. And he got up from his chair and he put his arm out to shake my hand and he said, 'It's great to meet you, Pete, and thank you very much'. And then I said to myself as I wandered out of the one office into the other office with this white carpet, with these eagles and bayonets, I finally get it. American capitalism is okay, all you have to do is make money and nobody gives a shit about anything. If you make money you can do anything and, well, that was the story of my, well, one of my many experiences in my early days as a 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: Hearst Corporation, Avon Books, Richard Berlin, Mike Gold

Duration: 8 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015