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Tipping my hat to my family's background


Learning about book publishing
Peter Mayer Publisher
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Primo Levi's book had been published in Italian and it had been offered to us or we went after it, I don't remember any longer. It was called then If This Is a Man, which is a literal translation of the Italian, it was then vulgarly – we sold the rights, the paperback rights, to Macmillan or Crowell-Collier or something like that – and they re-titled it, vulgarly, Survival in Auschwitz, and I believe it is called that today, but the more elegant title and the actual title was Primo Levi's, If This Is a Man. But, no, neither I nor Howard Greenfeld knew him, but we knew it was a great book.

And there was another great book called the Death of the Adversary, by Hans Keilson which was recently republished. They didn't mention that it had been published beforehand, but it had, by me… by us, and got enormous attention. It's a great book. They even used the Orion Press jacket without giving it any credit, but we also published Chagall's book, Ma vie (My Life) and a lot of wonderful books. But I was one of, I mean Howard bought most of the books. I bought some of them. I worked on a lot of them. I worked on a great novel… a great book about the Incas, The Royal Commentaries of Garcilaso de la Vega [sic] who was half-Indian, half-Spanish, and it's the history of the Incas. In fact, I think it's out of print and maybe the Overlook Press should bring it back.

[Q] So was it Orion… Orion was really it wasn't it, in terms of making you into a publisher? This is where you must have discovered…

Yes, I think that's true because there were so few people and I even had to remain the books that didn't sell. Howard would send me out to the remainder dealers to try to get the most money that we could for what nobody else wanted to buy, and I mean I learned about life in publishing. I don't want to say I learned about life it's too grand, but I learned what it is to have to stay alive and meet the payroll on Friday and… to acquit one's self of all one's responsibilities, payment of royalties and how authors and publishers who are essentially in the same business are often adversarial because the publisher has to stay in business and the author has to make a life out of his writing and these are not things that are, or least at the time of contract, easily put together. Sometimes it works out the book is a great success so you pay additional royalties later but, obviously, when you sign up a book you don't want to pay too much for it so that in the event it doesn't work out you're not out of business, and the agent is theoretically trying to work for both parties, but he's really the author's agent. He's trying to get the best deal for the author and that's an honourable activity, but perhaps it's not an honourable activity if you go for too much money from the wrong publisher then you may actually get a lot of money for the author, but the book may fail because it's not been published well. That will actually hurt the author more than placing the book in the right house.

So there're a lot of these judgements that have to be made, but you have to learn about warehousing and you have to learn about all sorts of things, production, that don't seem to be interesting to a lot of people who are in publishing, but at the end of the day they all matter and they all come together.

And I got very good training both at Orion and at Avon. At Avon I didn't start out by being the head of a company, but I did become the head of the company after a few years and, fortunately, what I had learned at Orion was useful and I was always… I think all my life I've been trying to learn and the dynamic today, 2014, requires that one learns again about the internet and digitalisation and content. It's content… a poem doesn't become less because of its technology or the technology of its communication, but your ability to stay alive and publish more novels or more short stories or more works of history or politics or whatever it is, is dependent on your understanding the whole. And a lot of people think that the editorial process is the only creative process, but I am someone who thinks that you can be creative at every job that exists within the publishing matrix and the people who are the best publishers are the people who understand each one of those activities, but there's a great snobbism in publishing, largely from the editorial side. They are the heart of the activity, but what's not the heart of the activity – the bones, the muscles, the tendons, the brain, the arms and legs – that heart can go nowhere without all the parts of the body all the parts of the process and I respect them all.

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: If This Is a Man, Orion Press

Duration: 7 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015