AustLit logo
Knopf Knopf i(A37747 works by) (Organisation) assertion (a.k.a. Alfred A. Knopf; Knopf Book; Alfred A. Knopf Book)
Born: Established: 1915 ;
The material on this page is available to AustLit subscribers. If you are a subscriber or are from a subscribing organisation, please log in to gain full access. To explore options for subscribing to this unique teaching, research, and publishing resource for Australian culture and storytelling, please contact us or find out more.


Known for over eighty years for the quality of its publishing list, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. is still considered one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the United States. The first company to publish such highly acclaimed novelists as Shelby Hearon, John Hersey, and John Updike, Knopf has also been firmly committed to publishing quality works in the fields of history, science, and the environment.

The firm was established in 1915 by Alfred A. Knopf (1892-1984), who had begun his career in publishing with Doubleday, Page and Company in 1912. After quickly working his way through various positions, from accounting, manufacturing, and advertising to sales, Knopf demonstrated his potential with an original publicising campaign for Joseph Conrad's novel Chance (1913). The book, which had been lying on the back shelves of the company for some ten years, went on to sell 50,000 copies. The campaign, which included the publication of an illustrated booklet on Conrad and letters of praise for the author's work by prominent American writers, also saw Conrad's earlier publications begin to sell again. Knopf left Doubleday, Page and Company the following year to work as an assistant and travelling salesman for publisher Mitchell Kennerley, but when Kennerley discovered that Knopf was in the process of starting his own firm, he fired him.

With just under five thousand dollars behind him, Knopf launched his company in 1915 in a one-room office on West 42nd Street, New York City. Inspired by the windmill symbol used by William Heinemann and Company, he adopted the borzoi (a breed of domestic dog, also known as the Russian wolfhound) as his trademark, an idea suggested by his then fiancée Blanche Wolf (1894-1966). Wolf went on to play an integral part in the publishing house until her death. Herbert A. Johnson and Margaret Beckett write that the firm's success, especially in the early days when the Knopfs were still in their early to mid-20s, was due primarily to their personalities and their unwavering belief in the virtue of publishing books worthy of the imprint (p.204).

From the start, Knopf demonstrated that his company would be unique. The first published book, Emile Augier's Four Plays, was bound in orange and blue, and the binding emphasised the imprint more than its author or title. Ten more books were published in 1915, many of them Russian translations, which were easy to obtain in sheets from England. The firm's first year also saw Carl Van Vechten begin his professional and personal association with the Knopfs, a relationship that would last for several decades. The firm expanded rapidly over the next few years, publishing twenty-nine books in 1916 (including its first big success, W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions) and thirty-seven books the following year.

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. was officially incorporated in 1918, with its founder as president, Blanche Knopf as vice-president, and Samuel Knopf (Alfred's father) as treasurer. Among the authors it published before 1920 were Kahlil Gibran, H. L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Dorothy Richardson, Carl Van Vechten, T. S. Eliot, and E. L. Grant Watson (q.v.), a British author who wrote a number of works set in Australia.

The 1920s became a period of extensive growth for Knopf, not only in terms of expanding its publications and organisational infrastructure, but also in contracting new authors and establishing new publishing ventures. In 1921, Alfred and Blanche made the first of numerous trips overseas in search of new talent. This first venture saw them visit Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France. In addition to Europe, they made numerous trips through Asia and Latin America. Knopf was very much at the forefront of American literary trends: they signed, for example, Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes. Knopf also increased the publishing opportunities for women writers.

In 1922, the firm moved its headquarters to the Hecksher Building on the corner of 57th St. and 5th Avenue, and the following year began publishing The American Mercury. Founded by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, the magazine featured writing by some of the most important American writers of the 1920s and 1930s. The Knopf/Mencken/Nathan partnership ended eleven years later, largely in response to economic rationalism forced on Knopf by the Depression. (The American Mercury eventually closed down in 1981 after years of controversy and decades of declining sales.) For many years, however, the magazine featured a monthly advertisement for the Borzoi Broadside, a periodical that later became known as the Borzoi Quarterly. Written by Alfred Knopf, the Borzoi featured philosophical comments by the publisher and reviews of new books.

Among the more significant writers published by Knopf during the 1920s and 1930s were Thomas Beer, Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Chandler, Wallace Stevens (q.v.), D. H. Lawrence (q.v.), Thomas Mann (q.v.), Katherine Mansfield (q.v.), Helen Simpson (q.v.), and W. J. Turner (q.v.). 'By the end of the decade', write Johnson and Beckett, 'Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. was considered one of the most innovative and prestigious publishing houses in the United States' (p.208). This reputation was built not only on its prestigious list of authors but also the physical quality of many the books it published, whose jackets were aesthetically designed rather than being produced as an afterthought. The Knopf look often included brightly colored dust jackets, well-made bindings, and attractive fonts.

Over the next three decades, Knopf continued to expand, despite undergoing its first financial crisis in 1935. The early 1930s also saw William A. Koshland begin his fifty or more years' association with the company: he eventually rose to president and chairman of the board. In 1939, the company's headquarters again changed, this time moving to 501 Madison Avenue. By the late 1940s, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. was solidly established in the literary marketplace. Although operational management was still very much under the control of Alfred and Blanche Knopf, they allowed their editors some latitude when it came to pursuing literary areas that held some personal interest to them. By then, the company had also established a team of literary scouts who sought out new talent both within the USA and overseas.

In 1954, the Knopfs' son, Alfred 'Pat' Jnr, added the paperback imprint Vintage Books to the firm, but some five years later he decided to establish own publishing house, Atheneum. In 1960, the year after their son left the company, the Knopfs sold the company (including Vintage Books) to Random House. The deal not only allowed Knopf to retain its editorial and imprint autonomy, but saw Alfred and Blanche join the board of directors at Random House.

Blanche Knopf, who had become president of the company in 1957, died in 1966, and her position was taken over by William A. Koshland. Two years later, Robert Gottlieb, formerly of Simon and Schuster, joined the firm as vice-president. In 1969, Knopf moved once more, this time with Random House, to 201 East 50th Street. Four years later, Alfred Knopf officially retired, thus making way for Gottlieb to become president and editor in chief. Gottlieb remained in the position until 1987, at which time Ajai Singh 'Sonny' Mehta became president.

In 1991, Knopf revived the Everyman's Library series. Originally published in England in the early twentieth century, Everyman's comprises a selection of classic literature from around the world, published in affordable hardcover editions. The series has grown over the years to include lines of Children's Classics and Pocket Poets.

German-based corporation Bertelsmann AG acquired Random House in 1998, and restructured the company as the Random House Group. The Knopf publishing division was subsequently merged with Doubleday to become the Knopf Doubleday Group. The group's imprints include Vintage/Anchor Books, Schocken Books, Pantheon Books, Everyman's Library, and Nan A. Talese.

Among the Australian or Australian-based authors to be published by Knopf are Shirley Hazzard, Joan Colebrook, Margo Lanagan, Michael Talbot, Lyn Hancock, Carolyn F. Logan, Rod Jones, Jill Ker Conway, Janette Turner Hospital, Roger McDonald, Wendy Orr, and Venero Armanno (qq.v.).

During its period of operation, Knopf has also published at least one book by the following Nobel prize-winning authors: Ivo Andric, Ivan A. Bunin, Elias Canetti, T. S. Eliot (q.v.), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (q.v.), Knut Hamsun (q.v.), Johannes V. Jensen, Yasunari Kawabata, Halldor X. Laxness, Thomas Mann, Wladyslaw S. Reymont, George Seferis (q.v.), Mikhail Sholokhov, Frans E. Sillanpaa, Isaac Bashevis Singer (q.v.), Sigrid Undset, and Verner von Heidenstam.

Most Referenced Works


  • Further Reference

    'Alfred A. Knopf.' (Obituary.) Publisher's Weekly 226 (24 Aug. 1984), pp.20-21.

    'Alfred A. Knopf Inc. Organizational History.' Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Online (sighted: 18/04/2011).

    Alfred A. Knopf, Quarter Century. Norwood, Mass: Plimpton Press, 1940.

    'Fifty Years of the Borzoi.' Publishers' Weekly 187 (1 Feb. 1965), pp.48-54.

    Hellman, Geoffrey T. 'Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf.' New Yorker (20 Nov. 1948), pp.44-57.

    --- 'Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf.' New Yorker (27 Nov. 1948), pp.36-52.

    --- 'Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf.' New Yorker (4 Dec. 1948), pp.40-53.

    Knopf, Alfred, A. 'Book Publishing: The Changes I've Seen.' Atlantic 200 (Dec. 1957), pp.155-56, 158, 160.

    --- 'My First Job.' Atlantic 202 (Aug. 1958), pp.79-80.

    Portrait of a Publisher, 1915-1965. New York: The Typophiles, 1965.

Last amended 5 Mar 2014 13:55:31
Other mentions of "" in AustLit: