Remembering book publisher Peter Mayer

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On Friday, May 11, charismatic and influential book publisher Peter Mayer died at 82 years old. Known for the energy and passion he brought to book publishing, Mayer achieved international recognition for his work, in particular during his time as CEO of Penguin Books and as the founder and publisher of Overlook Press.

In a statement announcing Mayer’s death, Overlook Press wrote: “Over his legendary, six-decade career in book publishing—which included nineteen years spent as the CEO of Penguin Books—Peter had a profound influence on several generations of authors and publishers, a legacy that is sure to endure.”

Among numerous professional awards and honors, Mayer was named as a Chevalier and Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. And in 2008, the London Book Fair honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mayer, born in London in 1936 and raised in America, began working in publishing in 1961 and worked his way up the ranks to become Publisher and President of Pocket Books in 1976.

In 1978, he was appointed CEO of Penguin Books in the UK, which was languishing at the time. During his tenure there, which lasted until 1996, Mayer is credited with turning Penguin into a profitable business and expanding its international presence.

However, his transition to Penguin and the UK was not without challenges. In an interview with the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mayer described how some in the UK reacted to having an American take over at Penguin: “At the beginning, I did indeed encounter barriers in London; above all the British media was against my appointment because Penguin was such a British company. […] Fortunately, there were others who saw the necessity of a change at Penguin, and when I revived the company in the eighties, it was perhaps proof that an American isn’t just a hinderance.”

During his time at Penguin, Mayer opened offices in China and India, and he oversaw the publication of Salman Rushdie’s famous novel, The Satanic Verses. The book was first published in 1988, and in 1989, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his famous fatwa ordering the killing of Rushdie.

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