Peter Mayer, the Fiery Sage of Publishing

Peter Mayer founded Overlook Press, an eclectic publishing house that took risks. He was passionate. He smoked off-brand cigarettes, yelled frequently and used to throw staplers. But Mayer’s operation also provided an opportunity for young up-and-comers to learn how to work in the challenging book trade.

For n+1, Mark Krotov eulogizes this beloved complex figure and recounts his own early years in American publishing, mixing a lifetime of wisdom with the bitter pill of a contentious personality. So, why all the yelling?

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?

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