Reading about the death of legendary Penguin publisher Peter Mayer at 82 reminded me of an episode in the late 1970s that demonstrated the makings of that dear man as one of the book industry’s most charismatic leaders.
It happened after book publishers in the United States and England signed a consent decree in the mid-1970s that released English-language reprint rights to competitive bidding among different houses throughout the world.
The consent decree was created to level the playing field by weakening the dominance of London- and New York-based houses. So Peter Mayer — having climbed the ranks at Avon and Pocket Books to run Penguin’s international operation as CEO — traveled to Australia, New Zealand (often referred to in shorthand as ANZ, never as “down under”) and other countries to buck up the Penguin troops, as it were.
I was traveling through Australia and New Zealand at the same time, reporting for Publishers Weekly on the effect of the consent decree. This was a wondrous, in-between period for any reporter in ANZ because remnants of UK colonialism were in the midst of fading away — though too slowly for some. Many people still referred to England as “home,” and guests still sang “God Save the Queen” at ceremonial dinners. But a new belief in home-based institutions had begun to take over.
In book publishing, it was hoped, the consent decree would also help to diminish the particular colonialist notion that ANZ authors had to be published abroad before they were taken seriously at home. This had been true of Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds) and Thomas Keneally (soon to write Schindler’s List). But with the bidding process for acquiring books now open to local houses, it was hoped that dependency on the “parent” company or country would lose its hold.
So Penguin interviews figured mightily in my travels. Since its founding in 1935, Penguin’s series of color-coded paperbacks had become recognized and trusted the world over, giving ANZ branch offices a leg up in launching unknown local authors to international markets. Now, though, a belief spread among other houses, from Harper Australia and Random New Zealand to the independent Angus and Robertson, that the consent decree would break up that Penguin advantage.
Thus Peter Mayer, whom I had admired from afar but met only once in person, had his work cut out for him. Penguin had hit a low point for the first time since its founding in 1935, so who knew if this was the right time for its new CEO to fly 10,000 miles and visit the hinterlands? But word had it that Peter hit the ground running; he was a’vistin’ book trade folk like a house afire. Wherever I went in either country, people would say that Peter Mayer was either a city behind or a city ahead of me, and it always seemed that his visits had a profound effect on everyone who met him. Some said “incendiary,” but in a good way.
For example, if I interviewed staff members in a Penguin office before Peter Mayer came through, answers to my questions usually took a noncommittal direction — daily accounts and predictable data were trotted out to show titles selling briskly and markets responding nicely, and so forth. Few risked an opinion about the consent decree or, really, about anything.
However, after Peter Mayer had been there, it felt like everybody from warehouse handlers to managing directors came rushing out with eyes shining to meet me excitedly and blurt out things like this:
Well, we used to sell to bookstores once a season, but now we’re going to do inventory checks and co-op ads and author signings even for the smallest books because we’ve got the legacy to turn this consent decree around, you see? Here, look at this advance title list: we’re picking up more local authors than ever and our crossover [trade to text] numbers are going up because real growth is in the offing, but first let’s introduce you to this editor and that sales rep, and do you want some tea? Are you going to the ABPA (Australian Book Publishers Association) dinner and have you heard of this small press and that new bookstore?
It was curious at first because I thought that Peter as the top Penguin exec would visit Penguin’s offices throughout ANZ and then, you know, leave. But his infectious we’re-all-in-this-together outlook about books compelled him to stop in at bookstores and wholesalers and competing publishers and author signings everywhere he went.
And each time he got somewhere, he’d strike up a conversation without regard to rank or privilege. To Peter it was a gift to work with books at any level — for publishers, for example, to sign an author with huge potential despite the house’s small budget; or to announce a large hardcover printing but reserve enough f&g’s (folded and gathered sheets) to bulk up the paperback run. It might be a gamble to offer discounts for unknown authors like one-free-for-ten (meaning the bookstore would get the 10th copy free, a crazy idea since most buyers ordered a maximum of three books by unknowns), but what the hell — if we believe in our writers, let’s take some chances.
Peter also liked to rummage around bookstores asking questions of everybody: Why were some books placed face out rather than spine out or as “endcaps” (end-of-the-aisle displays)? How had the buyer convinced publishers, who usually dreaded the idea of paying for bookstores’ advertising, to accumulate stats from previous orders to cover almost the whole bill?
I should mention that everybody on the sales side knew how to do these basic things. They did not need the boss from London to instruct them on their job. The difference was that Peter made it all fun again, made the risks of returns and bad reviews worth it and, again and again shared that vision he knew we all had, that working with books at any level was a privilege, a kind of art in itself.
I put the “we” in there because even hearing about such things third or fourth hand, I got just as revved up as anybody else. I remembered that years before, a younger Peter Mayer had taken a group of students through an Avon warehouse as part of a Publishing Procedures course in Boston. As a member of this group, I was not alone worrying that the book industry had become arrogant and stuffy and mired in the Dark Ages. So I was struck by Peter’s enthusiasm over little things, like new ways to glue signatures in paperback books, or how one day it would be possible to print all books on acid-free paper, so one day the pages wouldn’t turn brown and crackly the older the book got.
True, Peter Mayer had been billed as part of the new breed of publishing — hungry for new ideas, not stuffy, hugely ambitious for himself and his house and unashamed about driving a cab for a living (of course this made him all the more romantic) before he started in book publishing. Most important, he was no phony. Showing us around that ice-cold warehouse, he picked up, pawed at, held to his heart and even recited parts of so many titles that it was clear he loved reading for its own sake, a rare quality in our trade.
Peter left us at the end of that tour with a challenge. The paperback industry might cover the world with millions of reprints, but the house was always looking for the next, best one. Could any of us think of a critically well-received hardcover that hadn’t been reprinted in paper? Standing at a loading dock in that B.C. (Before Computers) era, this was not an easy thing to research.
I think my candidate was A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which prompted a “Great idea!” response from Peter, who then remembered that Bantam had picked it up in 1953. (How nice of him not to mention that any book on the bestseller list as long as the Knowles novel had been would be snapped up fast.)
Ah well, he shrugged, as if to say, that’s the joy of publishing — hundreds of other good books are out there waiting for all of us, so why are we standing here?
That’s the question I heard ringing through the book trade these past decades as collapse from a new era seemed inevitable. For every industry, it seems, you’re lucky if you get one Peter Mayer in a lifetime.