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You can’t have a kissing couple on the cover of a Penguin book!


Turning around Penguin's fortunes
Peter Mayer Publisher
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The first book that was published under this different policy was The Far Pavilions.  And somebody said, well, were are we going to get £50,000 from?  So I said, from the author.  From the author?  I said, yes, from the author - what's her royalty?  So somebody told me it was 10%, let us say, for the paperback.  I said, well, we give her 7.5%.  But that's not fair, others said. I said, "Well, it all depends what you mean by fair.  What if we sell so many copies of her book that, despite the reduction in her royalty, she winds up with more money?" They said, "Well, can you guarantee that?" I said, "No, but I can believe in it, and we can work toward it".  Well, how will we do that?  I said, well, we'll double the retail price of the book.  You mean, instead of £1.25, it will be £2.50?  I said, absolutely.  And so, her 7.5% will be 7.5% of £2.50.  That's a lot better than 10% of £1.95, isn't it?

Well, people were dumbfounded by this.  We can't do this this unilaterally.  You'll have to get her approval to reduce her royalty.  I said, I'll do that.  Who's her agent?  They told me the agent was, I think, Jacqueline Korn.  So I said, well, I'll have lunch with her.

Well, Jacqueline Korn says, you can't do that.  You can't reduce… she's a bestseller… you can't reduce her royalty.  I said, I can, because, if we keep her royalty the way it is, we'll [only] spend £5,000 on the book.  But if you do what I say, we'll spend £50,000 on the book.  And Jacqueline Korn says, where can I sign?

So, we reduced Molly Kaye's royalty from, I think it was from 10% to 7.5%.  We doubled the retail price of the book.  We agreed, I think, also, as part of the… getting Molly to lower her royalty, to print twice as many copies as we otherwise would have.  And we did the book in B format, a larger format, to make it look like it was worth £2.50 instead of £1.25.

So, all of these things were put together. The author and agent agreed.  And we sold, in the first year, I think, 400,000 copies.  And Penguin was off and running.  Molly Kaye loved us.  The agent loved us.  Everybody in British publishing knew what we had done.  And we were off and running.

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: The Far Pavilions, Penguin Books, MM Kaye

Duration: 2 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015