Peter Mayer at Penguin

Last week Pater Mayer died. He was a giant of the publishing industry. An American, he was in 1978 given the job of rescuing the venerable British publishers Penguin, which then had become almost defunct. He turned it into a global brand, and a major force in publishing. He transformed publishing in India by founding of Penguin India.

Ten years later came the event that was to define both Mayer and Penguin. In September 1988 Penguin published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The following year, on Valentine’s Day 1989, came the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie. It was a turning point in publishing and in public debate. Mayer and Penguin were extraordinarily strong in insisting, despite the threats and pressure, that they continue publishing the book.

After the Rushdie affair, Mayer decided to leave Penguin, and set up his own independent company Overlook, co-founded with his father, as a ‘home for distinguished books “overlooked” by larger houses’. Independence, he believed, was ‘a quality of mind’ and ‘freedom to express dissent’. He was, Mayer acknowledged, ‘a bit of a trouble-maker by nature’: ‘trouble is at the heart of what we do, in the sense that worthwhile books trouble our complacency – sharpening our minds and senses. Some are even dangerous, and they too must be published.’

Mayer was a brave, principled man, to whom anyone who believes in publishing and in free speech owes a great debt. I interviewed him in 2008 for my book From Fatwa to Jihad. It was the first time he had talked publicly about the Rushdie affair. As a tribute to Peter Mayer, I am republishing here the interview.


Interview with Peter Mayer
From Fatwa to Jihad, pp 10-15

The Satanic Verses

Peter Mayer, Penguin’s CEO, was in New York on Valentine’s Day 1989. Early in the morning he received a call from Patrick Wright, the head of sales in London. ‘Have you seen the headlines?’, Wright asked. ‘What headlines?’, Mayer wanted to know. ‘The Ayatollah Khomeini’, Wright said, ‘has issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie’. ‘What’s a fatwa?’, asked a bemused Mayer.

Mayer went out to get a paper. The news was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. ‘I was astonished’, he says, ‘to see the headlines. The New York Times dealt with world stories. I was just a publisher of a novel. I still did not see it as a world event.’

As Penguin CEO, Mayer was at the heart of the mayhem unleashed by the fatwa. He has never talked about it before, but it is an issue that twenty years on still causes him both pain and bafflement.

‘If you’re a publisher, you will always find people offended by books you publish’, he observes. ‘That’s the fate of being a publisher. I have published books that have offended Jews and Christians. Five or six of them. People wrote to Penguin trying to suppress those books. I wrote back, explaining that as a publisher I cannot just publish books that offend no one. It was generally a civilized dialogue. We originally put The Satanic Verses controversy in the same category. We thought we were dealing with the same kind of thing, the same kind of offence. Our view was that it would soon be sorted out by dialogue, as these things always were. What we wanted to say to Muslims who were upset was that this was a novel, by a serious writer, and the right to publish included the right to publish such books. It’s what we said in all these cases. One relied on the sanity of secular democracy – that people met together, discussed their differences and sorted them out. It never occurred to us that this time it might be different or that it would become such a huge worldwide event.’

As a liberal, Mayer says, he ‘accepted that Muslims may have needed protection from discrimination and hatred. But the idea that non-Muslims should be prevented from reading a novel never entered my head. I never saw “rights” as meaning the right of the minority to impose on the majority. I saw it as meaning that the majority rules, but that minorities must have their rights protected. Those rights had to be based on the law of the land; they could not be rights that the minority simply arrogates to itself.’

When Mayer first read the manuscript of The Satanic Verses, he saw it quite straightforwardly as ‘a serious novel by a serious writer. I still don’t think that Penguin did anything extraordinary in publishing it.  We never set out to incite or to inflame or to offend. We did not see the novel as blasphemous or anti-Islamic. The question never came up. Neither Salman Rushdie nor his agent alerted us to it being a controversial book. And a publisher should not have to be an authority on the Qur’an.’

The first intimation of trouble came with Kushwant Singh’s report on the possible reaction in India. ’He opined that it might cause “communal violence”’, says Mayer. ‘But Penguin only had a tiny office in India. We might have sold perhaps 150 copies. So we did not see it as a big issue.’

Even the protests in Britain barely registered. In hindsight the activities of the UKACIA and of the Bolton protestors, the intervention of Jamaat-e-Islami and the backroom manoeuvrings of the Saudi authorities all seem highly significant. In 1988, however, they caused hardly a ripple. ‘I cannot recall the protests here in the UK before the fatwa’, Mayer admits. He insists that he received no letter of complaint from the protestors, nor any request for a meeting. ‘If I had I would have responded as I did to all the other letters I received.’

The fatwa transformed the affair, an event both terrifying and confusing.  ‘My immediate thought’, Mayer recalls, ‘was to be frightened for Salman. And frightened for Penguin staff. I didn’t know what the reach was of a fatwa, whether it could travel beyond Tehran.’

The day following the fatwa, armed police started patrolling the street outside Penguin offices. Special X-ray machines were installed to check packages for explosives. Some staff wore bullet-proof vests. ‘My fear’, says Mayer, ‘was that a member of Penguin staff would be shot or stabbed to death and note pinned on them, “This is what happens to people who work for Penguin”.  I felt a terrible responsibility for all the staff. If anyone had been killed because of the decision to continue publishing The Satanic Verses it would have been sense of guilt I would have carried to the end of my life.’

Satanic Verses burning

Mayer himself was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation.  ‘I had letters written in blood pushed under the door of my house. I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’ To this day he does not from whom the letters and calls came.

The Special Branch offered Mayer armed protection and a bullet-proof vest. ‘I said no. Of course I was scared. In New York I remember thinking, I could come out of my apartment block, there might be a car waiting outside, engine revving, and I could get sprayed by a couple of machine guns. As easy as that.” But my view was that if my number’s up, my number’s up. And I did not want to live like a victim. I did not see myself as a victim.’

Mayer still seethes with rage not simply at the intimidation he faced but also at what he sees as the callousness of others towards his predicament. ‘My daughter was nearly expelled from her school’, he recalls. ‘A group of parents said, “What would happen if the Iranians sent a hit squad and got the wrong girl?” And I was thinking, “What, you think my daughter is the right girl?”.’

In New York he applied for a co-op apartment. ‘There were objections that the Iranians could send a hit squad and target the wrong apartment’, he says. ‘As if I had done something wrong.’

Despite the constant threat of violence, Mayer never wavered in his commitment to The Satanic Verses. And Penguin never wavered in its backing of his judgement. ‘An emergency meeting of the Penguin board unanimously supported the continued publication of the novel’, Mayer recalls. ‘I told the board, “You have to take the long view. Any climbdown now will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish. If we capitulate, there will be no publishing as we know it.”’

The board supported Mayer, as did Pearson, Penguin’s parent company. But there was considerable unease within the organisation.  ‘People would take me aside in the corridor and say, “I have Muslim friends who are very upset, it’s an anti-Muslim book.” Or, ‘It’s not right to offend Muslims, you should withdraw the book.’ And I would say, “That would be the thin end of the wedge. Next year we publish another book. And another group says you can’t do that, it’s offensive.”  My view was, and still remains, that rights you possess that are not used are not rights at all.’

There was, as Mayer recalls it, almost a frontier mentality within Penguin. ‘We had never had to have this kind of discussion before’, he observes. ‘Today there is a constant stream of discussion about multiculturalism and minority rights and sharia law. Not then. We had never had to think about free speech, or about why we were publishers.’

Out of countless discussions, both in formal board meetings and in ad hoc chats with colleagues, Mayer and his colleagues ‘developed the argument that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book.  How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it. We all came to agree that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession and which, since the invention of movable type, have brought it respect. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did.’

Pater Mayer

The only point at which Penguin wobbled was over the publication of the paperback. ‘Salman Rushdie thought that only publication of the paperback would bring an end to the terror and death threats. I did not agree. I feared that it might inflame, like a poker in the eye of the critics. I told Rushdie, “We will publish it but only when it won’t inflame”.’

There was a time in the middle of 1990 when the furore seemed to have died down. Mayer decided that the time had arrived for a paperback edition and picked a date. There was, he says, ‘a huge debate within Penguin. It was the most dramatic board meeting I’ve ever been in. But they finally agreed to go ahead with the paperback. The idea was to print the paperback surreptitiously and to release it out of the blue without the normal two to three months publicity that would normally attend such a publication’.

Mayer was due to fly to America straight after the board meeting. Just as he arrived at Heathrow he received an urgent phone call. One of Penguin’s bookstores in London had been firebombed, thankfully with no casualties. Mayer returned straight to his London office. The paperback was postponed. ‘We still had every intention of publishing it’, Mayer says. ‘But we just could not publish it at that time. Salman Rushdie wanted to publish it straight away. Eventually he bought back the rights to the paperback edition and set up a consortium of publishers to bring it out.’

Twenty years on, Mayer remains defiantly proud of Penguin’s stance. ‘Neither our decision to publish The Satanic Verses, nor the subsequent decision to continue publishing it despite the violence and the death threats, was taken to put us on the side of the angels. We were just doing our job – publishing a novel we wanted to publish by a well-known author. Yet I am not sure any other company would have done what we did. It was not in our corporate interest to continue publishing The Satanic Verses. We faced an enormous financial burden because of the security measures we were forced to take. Every Penguin employee was a potential target for terrorists and the whole affair disrupted the rest of our publishing business for years. But politically it was important not to give in to terror. It was important to defend the right to publish freely. And I am not the sort of person who easily backs down.’



The top photo of Peter Mayer in the Penguin office was taken in 1979 by Eamon McCabe for the Observer. The image of the burning Satanic Verses is by Garry Clarkson; my thanks to Garry for allowing me publish his iconic photo.


  1. The scourge of identity politics is now so endemic, especially within the academy and among the illiberal left (who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Islamists during the Rushdie affair), that it’s doubtful we’ll see Mayer’s like again. The Aunt Julias and Uncle Toms of the PC brigade virtually monopolize the definition of what is and isn’t of cultural value, even though they don’t yet monopolize the debate (not quite). These days, it’s all about ‘controlling the narrative’, which is the same as saying ‘silencing dissent’. Deviationism is treated as some sort of crime against your own kind, and the deviationist is regarded as a quisling. The nationalism that typifies so much right-wing populism, and the inverted nationalism that typifies so much left-wing populism (where the identity of the Other elicits the kind of regressive fervor previously flaunted by the nativist), does not augur well for the future of free speech in the Open Society. As a toxic version of capitalism reproduces the very imbalances that led to the great recession, a great retreat from the vertiginous responsibilities of freedom is well underway. Our future no longer looks bright. In Pater Mayer we may well have seen the last of a dying breed.

    RIP, mate.

  2. harlan leyside

    Kushwant Singh did more than simply report back to Penguin ‘on the possible reaction in India: “communal violence”’. According to Rushdie (addressing himself in the 3rd person, as ‘the author’ in Joseph Anton):

    ’Khushwant Singh, called for a ban in the Illustrated Weekly of India as a measure to prevent trouble. He thus became the first member of the small group of world writers who joined the censorship lobby. Khushwant Singh further claimed that he had been asked for his advice by Penguin and had warned the author and publishers of the consequences of publication. “The author was unaware of any such warning. if it was ever given, it was never received.”’ Moreover, he saw a review and advanced extract in India Today ‘as the match that lit the fire.. The last sentence of the article, ‘The Satanic Verses is bound to trigger an avalanche of protests…’ was an open invitation for those protests to begin.’

    Mayer may well have been brave to continue supporting publication, but some of what he says seems contradictory. ‘If anyone had been killed because of the decision to continue publishing The Satanic Verses it would have been sense of guilt I would have carried to the end of my life.’ Many people were killed, even if all UK Penguin staff survived. He ‘seethes with rage.. at.. parents [who] said, “What would happen if the Iranians sent a hit squad and got the wrong girl?”’ and says ‘there were objections that the Iranians could send a hit squad and target the wrong apartment. As if I had done something wrong.’ Well, to many Muslims, he had. It seems understandable that parents and landlords might see themselves and others as innocents, caught up in a fight hardly of their choosing.

    ‘Despite the constant threat of violence, Mayer never wavered in his commitment to The Satanic Verses.’ While Mayer should be praised for his stance, it was because of the threats and the Fatwa, that what would have otherwise been at most a modest seller, became a massive one, making millions for author and publishers alike. Would they have been so strongly supportive if the sales slumped instead of skyrocketed?

    Rushdie also wobbled over the paperback:

    Salman Rushdie surprised everyone on Christmas Eve when he signed a declaration affirming his Islamic faith and calling for Viking-Penguin, the publisher of The Satanic Verses, neither to issue the book in paperback nor to allow it to be translated. [La Times, 12/28/1990]

    Only after this attempt at mollification failed, did he change his mind and side again with those wanting the paperback published. While both Rushdie and Mayer’s reticent over publishing paperback versions was understandable from a safety perspective, withholding it was a ’climbdown [that].. will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish.. We will publish it but only when it won’t inflame”? That’s a partial capitulation.

    But maybe that’s just nitpicking; and easily done here, by me, safely from the sidelines, long after the events. Would that there were more like Mayer today, to resist and defy pernicious political correctness and increasing attempts to perversely punish society for the alleged wrong doings of artists. Trying to ban artworks for the sins of their creators is cutting noses off to spite faces. Yet cries go out like:

    ’We have come together to call for a worldwide mute on R&B singer, Robert “R” Kelly, due to his 25 year history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse allegations. 

    These campaigners see denying such artists (and everyone who works for them) financial reward, as a punishment. But that’s ass-backwards. The people being punished are all those wanting to experience his art and pay for the privilege. People are mostly a mix of positive and negative; they give and they take. Giving should and must be encouraged and supported, even and especially by those who either take too much or take what’s forbidden to take.

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