Two Editors Who Showed What Publishing Should Be

My colleagues Sonny Mehta and Dan Frank had an enthusiastic, expansive vision for American literary life.

Illustration of two heads made up of letters
The Atlantic

Amid the many controversies that have occurred in American book publishing, I still measure the industry by the people who showed me what it could be at its best. For the better part of my 30-plus years as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, I sat in an office next to Sonny Mehta, the former head of our company. He hired me, and over time we became great friends. When I spoke at his memorial at the New York Public Library in February 2020—he died on December 30, 2019—I said I was not yet reconciled to his death. I probably never will be.

For many years, Dan Frank sat on the opposite side of Sonny’s office. Dan was the editorial director of Pantheon, one of the imprints that Sonny supervised, but had edited many Knopf books—his authors over the years included Oliver Sacks, Cormac McCarthy, Cynthia Ozick, Jill Lepore, and James Gleick. Dan, too, was special. He died on May 24.

When I received that news, I thought of a remark the literary critic John Leonard had made about the death of someone dear to him: “I’m at a point in life where I can’t afford to lose another friend.” (When Leonard wrote this, he was almost 40, and his friend was in his 40s. I can barely remember my 40s.)

The bereavement I feel isn’t only personal. Sonny and Dan were publishers who loved books, writers, and their profession. They were two men of incredible curiosity, brilliance, generosity, civility, and humility. (If they knew that I was writing in praise of them, they would be very angry indeed.) Their deaths came during rapid marketplace changes that forced publishers to adapt, but the values that Sonny and Dan both brought to publishing will, I believe, sustain it in the future.

My two friends recognized the role that publishers play in advancing our culture by giving writers intellectual space. Dan and Sonny made both editors and writers “feel confident in being able to pursue the ideas” that mattered to them, Maria Goldverg, an editor at Pantheon, told me by email. Her sentiments were echoed in conversations I had with other colleagues. “Dan kept me grounded in the books and the mission of book publishing in a period in which the industry was changing rapidly,” said Edward Kastenmeier, an editor for several Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group imprints. “When there was chaos all around, Sonny always said, ‘Just focus on the page,’” Knopf’s editor in chief, Jordan Pavlin, told me.

Sonny, who was born in India, sought a publishing job in London after graduating from Cambridge. He was rebuffed time and time again. One interviewer asked him, with haughtiness and derision, “Mr. Mehta, DO—YOU—SPEAK—ENGLISH?” Coming off a plane from Los Angeles one time, I sailed through Customs while Sonny was stopped and had his baggage searched. It wasn’t the first time. He had developed a kind of sangfroid, however, that protected him from unwanted annoyance, unjustified criticism, bad behavior, and lies.

Sonny Mehta, editor at Knopf.
Sonny Mehta sitting at his desk in 2001. (Joyce Ravid/Getty)

Oftentimes, if you went to Sonny’s apartment on a Saturday or Sunday, every chair in his library would have a manuscript or a book proposal sitting on it. I never knew how he got through them all (or where I could sit). But he did get through them all, and found time to read for pleasure as well. As his longtime author and friend Geoffrey Ward put it in an email to me, Sonny had a “devotion to good writing without a hint of snobbery; he could get just as excited about a good thriller as he did about the most challenging novel.” Sonny’s dazzling intellect was a filtration system—if there was a fault in a proposal, he would spot it, which kept us on our toes. Nonetheless, his default position was to have his editors acquire the books they wanted. He felt that if an editor had a great passion for a book, some readers would too, and our job was to connect with them.

Sonny did not back away from controversy. When Simon & Schuster withdrew publication of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, he acquired it for Vintage, our paperback wing. (I noticed recently that Vintage had reprinted the book for the 71st time.) We also signed Julian Assange, who produced only a fragment of what we would consider to be a publishable manuscript. And we published a book raising doubts about Edward Snowden. Sonny never departed from his belief in publishing disparate voices, the most lucid we could find. We published George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Edward Said. We published a strikingly critical biography of Ralph Ellison. We published a brilliant book by a felon.

Sonny was never preoccupied by his own needs. He genuinely wanted to hear your opinion of books, music, politics, world affairs. Getting him to talk about himself was a Herculean task. He was slow to hire editors, observing them for years before offering them a job. He knew that the company’s continuity would be up to them.

Dan Frank, who attended graduate school at the University of Chicago and then decided that academia was not for him, held several jobs in publishing before Sonny hired him. Dan always thought we, not I. He had a wonderfully expansive laugh. When he embraced a book proposal, his enthusiasm was infectious; he was so eloquent, so intelligent. I know that my colleagues saved many of his notes on proposals because they were always so perceptive. Mentoring came naturally to Dan. He spent endless hours with young editors at Vintage. Several of them later became editors at Knopf and Pantheon.

Dan Frank, editor at Knopf.
Dan Frank

I never saw Dan angry, though I am told that he once yelled at an author on the phone who wanted two subtitles on his book, one on the jacket and another on the title page inside. Dan found a solution: a very long subtitle. He was the “embodiment of what a great editor does: gets out of the way, taking with him the rubble that writers put in their own path,” Maria Popova, one of Dan’s authors, told The New York Times.

Controversies always erupt in publishing. Many disputes in recent years have involved issues tangential to or separate from what the writer of a book is trying to say. The novel American Dirt, which describes the effort by a mother and son to cross the border from Mexico into the United States, was attacked for cultural appropriation because the book’s author, Jeanine Cummins, is not of Mexican descent. (Audiences seemed to find the story far more humane and emotionally resonant than Cummins’s critics on Twitter did. American Dirt sold tons of copies.) An allusion to Anne Frank in a novel by Elin Hilderbrand caused a stir, and the author excised the offending passage from future editions of her book. W. W. Norton walked away from Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth because of former students’ allegations of sexual misconduct by the author. Norton was either widely criticized or praised for its action, depending on whom you read. I can’t blame Norton for not wanting to have to endure the social-media opprobrium that was sure to come if it stood by Bailey’s book, but at the same time, this outcome carried a whiff of what the playwright and author Lillian Hellman so aptly called “scoundrel time”—the period during the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s when an accusation was more important than the proof. As many commentators have asked, why not let readers decide whether they want to buy a given book? Moreover, as others have pointed out, if we are to begin literally canceling the production of books because of their author’s bad behavior, our body of literature will be greatly reduced; we could start with Ernest Hemingway’s adultery and boorishness, the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s anti-Semitism, and Norman Mailer’s violent acts.

Social-justice movements have spurred the publishing industry to take much-needed action toward greater inclusion. Some authors are now asking for “authenticity” reads to make sure they don’t unintentionally offend or stereotype an ethnic, racial, or religious group. Diversity initiatives will make publishing houses more truly mirror America’s makeup, and the concerted effort to publish more writers of color will continue, though many industry executives admit that we still have miles to go.

Many legitimate and important concerns have surfaced on social media, but Twitter pile-ons are not the way to rectify the very real injustices of the past; rather, the solution is a commitment to expanding the range of new voices and giving writers of all sorts the intellectual space to flesh out their ideas without fear of being shouted down. I believe Sonny and Dan understood (implicitly or explicitly) that literary life is not a zero-sum game, and that constantly expanding the boundaries of public discussion—of ideas—is the best way to make sure that everyone gets a chance to be heard.

The forces seeking to narrow the public debate come from across the political spectrum, of course. Because of pressure from conservative states, some textbooks now deny or sidestep the systemic racism that has blemished our country from the outset, or challenge the theory of evolution. Threats of violence are routinely made against authors. One of mine had to cancel a bookstore appearance in North Carolina because of phoned-in threats the store received. Her book was about pit bulls. Anything that endangers civilized, free debate is troubling; an openness to divergent views is the only path to lasting progress. Condemnation and dismissal lead nowhere, but criticism can be valuable.

In addition to the threats to free speech, the publishing industry also faces serious post-pandemic economic challenges, even though total book sales continue to grow year after year. Debut authors have long had a hard time gaining traction—Alfred Knopf himself lamented this problem back in 1974, talking about books he had published in the ’50s—and the breadth of new titles in the marketplace has exacerbated this problem. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that 98 percent of books published in 2020 had sold less than 5,000 copies. (I, like every editor, have published my share of books that never found a mass audience.) More books are being sold online, and many independent bookstores, unable to welcome customers or host events for weeks or months during the pandemic, have suffered painful losses as a result. As broad as the book market has become, indie bookstores play a crucial role in the lives of authors and publishers, and their hand selling—the recommendation of works that would not otherwise stand a chance commercially—can ignite a book in their home region (and beyond). If there’s a bright spot here, it’s the loyalty that so many readers have demonstrated to their local bookstores. Publishers—and your favorite authors—need these stores to survive for years to come. As an editor who has benefited from the advocacy of local booksellers, I urge everyone to think about where you shop.

Publishers are always searching for new ways to serve their readers. Market analysts now inhabit every publishing house. I work with them—all editors do. They too have a crucial role to play, capturing important information about what readers want. (I daresay that the Times’ success in building its digital-subscription business owes much to what its analysts discovered.) And indeed, all of their work helps in the discovery of our books. People now talk about publishing as being data-driven, and while that has an element of truth, ours is still very much a business driven by editorial vision and passion. Sonny Mehta and Dan Frank were both exemplars of that vision, passion, and freedom. They worked hard to find the finest books by the finest writers, and to publish across a wide spectrum of genres. As the Knopf editor Andrew Miller wrote to me, Sonny and Dan had no interest in categorization. They lived for the effective presentation of ideas and viewpoints. That is their legacy (despite Sonny’s intense dislike for that word). And that, I believe, is the simple template for the industry’s future.

Sonny suffered from several serious maladies as the years went on, but he would not give in to them even when coming to the office became difficult. When Dan was a few weeks from the end, he would still start a phone conversation or an email by asking, “What are you reading?” The last time I saw him in person, he told me that he wanted to keep publishing books of merit and working with younger editors.

When Sonny received a lifetime-achievement award from the Center for Fiction not long before his death, he said that he didn’t want to be remembered as a publisher or an editor, but as a reader. On his last day in the office, when he confided in me that he had settled on Reagan Arthur as his successor at Knopf, he said that first and foremost she was “a reader.” I’m happy to report that our traditions continue.

Readers want the widest possible choice, and the choice is greatest, and the culture richest, when writers have the leeway to initiate a dialogue—an exchange of ideas—in which readers can freely participate. “Sonny believed that writers should write,” Geoffrey Ward told me. “Everything else was up to others.”