The year I got my first job in publishing, 2008, was one of the industry’s gloomiest. Major bookstore chains were going under: Borders was doomed and the Kindle had launched a year earlier. It was already obvious that the deepening financial crisis would gut the big publishers and cast out many of the small ones. But my fellow editorial assistants avoided these elephants in the room, and instead spent their days exchanging stories about their bosses: about how they used to frequent dinner parties with Susan Sontag or do coke with Bret Easton Ellis. These conversations depressed me. Why were we talking about the good old days of people older and more powerful than us? That the charmed lives of management often entailed bad behavior we now justly condemn only made the obsession that much more unseemly.
Four years later, I was implicated in boss stories when I went to work for Peter Mayer, one of the stars of book publishing. If anyone in the industry had the right to diffuse their nostalgia, it was Peter, who died at 82 last Friday. The publisher of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and thus the costar of l’affaire Rushdie, Peter wasn’t otherwise famous for his writers and acquisitions. He was known for his charm, his temper, his savvy, his smoking, and for the relentless dynamism he brought to an industry that often preferred to react or sit still. I never got to see him in action at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but I imagine him spending entire days in conversation with many decades’ worth of friends and colleagues.
Peter spent fourteen years at Avon at the height of the paperback era (when, as he told us, you could slap a sexy cover on Buddenbrooks and sell thousands of copies) and two decades in London as chairman of Penguin, a sleepy place until he got there in the late ’70s. At Penguin he fought and beat the warehouse workers’ union—Thatcherism just before Thatcher. But for the most part his achievements weren’t ideological: he seemed to have hundreds of new ideas and encouraged his colleagues to have them, too—and to act on them.
I worked for Peter at the Overlook Press, which he founded with his father in 1971 as a kind of busman’s holiday: on weekends in Woodstock, he’d take a break from his big publishing job in New York to work at his small publishing job. After retiring from Penguin, he turned all of his attention to Overlook, a full-time employee of his own company for the first time. While other publishing houses bought Keurig pods in bulk, sold off their bookshelves, and shuffled everyone into cubicles, Overlook remained unchanged and gloriously inefficient: a warren of underlit offices and back rooms and fire hazards, good art on every surface.
As Joseph Brodsky once said of the old FSG space on Union Square, after being exposed to American sterility, Overlook looked the way a publishing house was supposed to look. It also smelled like a publishing house. Peter wasn’t ever not smoking. He’d smoke anything that was put in front of him but had a fondness for brands so cheap they looked like knockoffs, though you couldn’t be sure of what. For a while he was smoking pack after pack of Vogues, a dainty cigarette marketed to women that he’d brought over from Russia, probably by the pallet. After that supply ran out he went back to his beloved Sheriffs. Who’d ever heard of Sheriffs?
Peter was always late and usually injured. The first time I met him, he shambled into a lunch meeting after everyone else had already eaten, a big but wobbly man with two pairs of glasses on his face and a cane under one hand. The glasses, like the cigarettes, were purchased in bulk. Not much of a cook, his idea of a practical meal was reportedly a hot dog sliced up into a microwaved bowl of pasta.
His indifference to luxury distinguished him from his peers and seemed to ground him in the present tense. An often ancient-seeming man who spoke with the long vowels of the American midcentury, he always kept moving. He invested in young people—in us—a remarkable degree of trust and authority. The past was invoked often, but always as the punchline to a good story: his sordid adventures in the Merchant Marines; the time Allen Ginsberg got into the cab he was driving and asked him to take him cross-country (Peter of course obliged); a visit with Yukio Mishima in Tokyo too bizarre and nightmarish to explain with any succinctness. He once said he published a photography book, New York in the ’70s, because he had spent that decade in his office and needed a visual guide. But the stories suggested otherwise.
Peter was enraged by Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, which accused him of doing a lot but not enough in defense of The Satanic Verses, its author, and the cause of free speech. (Though he was fond of the physical description of himself as “a big, cuddly, tousle-headed bear of a man, famously attractive to women, soft-voiced, doe-eyed.”) Peter had risked a great deal to keep the hardcover of the book in print, but for Rushdie anything short of paperback publication meant capitulation to the fatwa. I tend to side with Peter’s version of the affair over the protagonist’s account, but I smiled with recognition when I read Rushdie’s description of his publisher’s epistolary style: “In Mayer’s letters it was possible to observe an increasing syntactical convolution that mirrored an apparently knotted inner state.”
By the time I came along the letters were emails, dictated to an assistant. Most nights of the week, Peter complained about having to go home to do more dictation with other assistants, or sometimes the same assistant. What was he dictating? Curt acknowledgments of week-old email threads, meandering responses to acquisition memos long-since processed. Stray thoughts, love letters. Busy work. Often when a publicist or editor would send around a good review or a blurb, Peter would reply four or five days later to tell us that we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back. Good news was really bad news. A nice review inevitably meant that we were resting on our laurels, that failure was imminent.
A man of his time, Peter lived according to the dialectic and turned to Freud for guidance. In my favorite Peter story, his mother is at the wheel while he sits in the passenger seat. Years of rage and alienation boil over. Rather than shouting something awful, he calmly opens the door and jumps out of the moving car. (It’s the opening scene from Lady Bird, except Peter was a grown man when this transpired.) He wasn’t as decisive about business matters. The difficulty with which Peter made decisions had an almost metonymic quality: his uncertainty about spending a modest $2,000 on an acquisition seemed to channel the cumulative uncertainty of all book publishers taking (usually much bigger) bets on the next big thing.
But he’d usually take the bet, because he knew that any acquisition could be the next big thing. As a result, Overlook’s great list is as eclectic as a diner menu. It is a conglomerate publisher’s catalogue condensed into a small container: cookbooks, art books, swords and sandals thrillers, Hudson Valley lore, classic European novels, “women’s fiction,” military history, a fancy Haggadah. During my time he loved to brag about his hugely successful Lady Gaga insta-book. Or was it the Susan Boyle insta-book? His biggest triumph at Overlook wasn’t really a book at all: it was a Sudoku collection he published in the US before anyone else here caught onto the craze. In London he got mad at a cabbie who kept sitting still when the lights turned green. What was the problem? “Oh sorry, just doin’ the Sudoku, gov.” Seventy-two hours later, he’d made the deal for US rights.
Is that how it really happened? It’s impossible to say. The rhetorical force of those emails and stories and endless conversations was such that even things you knew to be true—things that had happened hours earlier—seemed to collapse into uncertainty. His versions were often ludicrous but always persuasive. The tradeoff for accepting his truths was that we could pursue almost anything interesting, anything with an upside. And as for what we didn’t want to do but had to do, that was usually interesting, too.
Everyone in publishing got some version of the talk before coming to Overlook, typically from a current or former employee, of whom there were hundreds because everyone in the industry seems to have done their time. I was told that Peter had a terrible temper, which was only partly true. By the time I got to Overlook, Peter’s stapler-throwing days were behind him. But he still yelled when he felt misunderstood, which was all the time. For a man with power and status and good looks, Peter seemed forever convinced that everyone was against him. He liked to assume the worst. At lunch one day, Peter was so enraged that our fellow diners began to stare at me and my fellow editor with muted sympathy, like we were children being berated by our parents in a public place. We didn’t understand, he shouted. We were young but already ruined by big publishing, too much in thrall to its conventions, too precious. He was giving us the freedom to do anything we wanted, and we were using it to do the same old thing.
A few months before I left, Peter sought to address institutional complacency via show and tell. He blocked off a day for everyone to sit in the conference room and take notes as he walked us through the story of the Overlook Press, with dozens of books pulled off the shelves as props. It was a history of creative thinking: the upmarket romance novel he’d snatched up for cheap; the mystical-conspiracist tome that remained a strong seller at Barnes & Noble, many years after publication; a how-to book about wood-burning stoves, inspired by a billboard, or a roadside stand, he used to drive by in Woodstock. He told us things we knew, about his acquisition of the once-storied Duckworth and the world-conquering Ardis, which gave Overlook new lists and new territories and a heroic lineage he enjoyed, though not that day. It was an angry, bitter display, like something out of a late Roth novel.
It’s self-serving to say so, but I don’t think his staff was the problem. The industry really was changing. Peter was a genius at seeing opportunities, at finding holes and filling them. He wasn’t clairvoyant, but he understood an essential truth: publishing was often arbitrary. It wasn’t wholly random, but it was close. You had to try new things all the time, on the assumption that most of them wouldn’t work, but a few might, sometimes spectacularly so. Overlook was never going to be a strictly literary publisher; it had no niche to exploit, no corner of the market to dominate. But that catholic business model had become much harder to pull off in the face of Amazon’s near-monopoly on e-books and its ever-growing chunk of the physical book market. Borders’ shelf space would never come back and Barnes & Noble’s was shrinking. The big publishers kept getting bigger, but their sales departments, on which Overlook depended, kept contracting. The newspapers were disappearing. Everything took more work. Overlook, Peter always said, punched above its weight. But what if the ring kept shrinking?
Peter understood this reality and tried to push back. He couldn’t yell at Amazon, or at the merger-obsessed CEOS, so he yelled at us. I was similar enough on paper—white, male, Jewish, a Columbia alum, quick enough with a retort—that I got off easy, though it didn’t feel that way then. Peter had the prejudices of a man his age. For the young and not young employees who didn’t check the boxes, the treatment was far worse. It was often so vicious that even at the time I wondered if I would ever be able to write something like this—a tribute that would inevitably privilege the myth over the often brutal day-to-day.
But as much as I came to love the stories, it is Peter’s sheer pragmatism—his wealth of practical knowledge, good advice, and creative thinking—that I will remember, for which I owe him endless gratitude. I left because the ratio of exhaustion to inspiration had begun to tilt toward the former—or maybe because I took too much too personally. Peter liked to declare that we were learning more at Overlook than we would anywhere else. It didn’t seem that way when in the next breath he’d start screaming that we didn’t understand anything about book covers. And yet he was right. Not about the book covers, but about almost everything else. Nothing was a given for Peter—not royalty rates, not marketing schemes, certainly not contracts, into which he loved to insert weird, unenforceable clauses.
Peter supported my acquisition of a debut novel that had been turned down by every other publisher—and then sold German rights to a house that specializes in books on maritime themes (!) for three times the US advance. He let me publish a delicate and beautiful memoir that would have gotten lost on a larger list. Nowhere else would I have had the opportunity to publish a pitch-perfect rock and roll novel while also editing horror fiction.
Right before I started at Overlook, Peter had acquired a dozen books by a big British writer of subtle romance fiction. I was tasked with presenting one of her books at Book Expo America, under the Javits Center’s cavernous ceilings. As I stood there, emphatically describing this novel’s deep emotional uplift to a dozen romance readers from across the country—and almost believing my own spiel—I knew that no other publisher would have ordered me to take such a thing on. I was learning.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.