History of Overlook Press

Publisher Peter Mayer, on the history of the Overlook Press:

The company was never meant to be a publishing company; I was in 1971 employed by Avon Books and wanted to publish a book inappropriate to Avon but very special to my family, a book in German, AUFBAU, an anthology from a famous German-language newspaper. The owners of Avon had no objection and so a company was set up to publish this one book, which had prospects of just about zero. My father, a retired glove manufacturer, offered to help me with it. So on weekends in Woodstock in upstate New York in a shed previously used to store apples he and I shipped copies of the book … no order was ever bigger than a single copy. Curiously, the book was successful when a German publisher took it on for Germany and the Bertelsmann Book Club bought it as well. My father asked me if there weren’t other things that we could publish that wouldn’t be a conflict of interest with my job as a paperback publisher. I scratched my head and thought about the brilliant paperback originals that Jason Epstein had published at Anchor Books, none of which was available in hardcover at a time when libraries didn’t buy paperbacks. So Overlook—which got its name from the mountain where the apple orchard featured prominently—very very slightly expanded. [Over the years I’ve been happy to discover that most people think Overlook’s name relates to a penchant we have to publish books that for one reason or another have been “overlooked.”] In that category fit books like Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, P.G. Wodehouse’s more than 90 novels in hardback, Charles Portis’s True Grit, the 27 Freddy the Pig children’s books by Walter Brooks, and The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. There are many other rediscovered books republished today, too many to name here. And these rediscoveries run grandly alongside our new book publishing.

I picked the elephant as our logo after reading the last issue of LIFE magazine, in which an eight-page spread about elephants displayed their kindliness to each other, followed by another eight-page spread of the US and the Vietcong fighting and killing each other, and I thought people are often not very nice to each other. I thought about the elephants. My neighbor, friend, artist and author Milton Glaser was given the task of creating a logo, and he picked a very nice elephant to illustrate, and put wings on him, telling me that if I could make an elephant fly, I could do anything.

Well, with wonderful colleagues over these 42 years, we haven’t been able to do everything, but we are more than a little still flying and as independent as ever, facing both the adversity and opportunities of a new age in which print and electronic media will bring reading to more people—just as Penguin Books and Allen Lane did that for millions of people worldwide in 1935 when he thrust forward with his brilliantly conceived publishing company. We have much more modest goals, and within them we have grown considerably since 1971: we have a backlist of 1,500 titles and publish give or take about 100 books a year. Along the way, we’ve had such standout success as Robert Littell’s The Company, Charles McCarry’s Old Boys, Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five RingsSudoku, and Charles Portis’s True Grit, some of which have sold in the many hundreds of thousands of copies.

We have acquired two companies—Ardis, the esteemed publisher of titles of Russian interest; and in London, Duckworth, founded by Virginia Woolf’s half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, and independent for over 100 years.

We are fiercely dedicated to authors and generally try to publish everything they write or have written. We have an amazingly long list of books translated from Spanish, German, Dutch, and Russian. This has been something other than a goldmine but we press on. We also from time to time publish facsimile editions of famous books people have heard of but never seen, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah. We have an ever larger history list, today emphasizing American, European, and Ancient History.

Most of all, we are conspicuously independent, are thrilled to have spent every minute of our 42 years in the sales bosom of Penguin, a company that means a great deal to me. We’re in-step with the rapidly evolving times with our e-book program while hanging on tenaciously to the concept of a well-made physical book. Colleagues like Tracy Carns, George Davidson and Bernie Schleifer have been with us so long that I don’t know any longer when they joined us, but we also are attracted to and have continued to attract first rate newer colleagues who, over time, provide us with new inspiration to accompany my rather traditional ideas. Librarians and booksellers, of the latter whether independent or chain, whether individual or wholesalers, are our backbone, excepting for an ever stiffer backbone—readers. To all of them, and to the media that has been very kind to us, thank you.

I think my father would be very pleased that we’re still here, publishing books at the old stand.