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Klaus Peters, 77; publisher of mathematical books

Mr. Peters insisted on careful copy editing and invested in features such as color graphics.
Mr. Peters insisted on careful copy editing and invested in features such as color graphics.Handout

Sometimes years would pass between the first time book publisher Klaus Peters met a mathematician and the day he popped the question.

"His signature quality was everybody liked him," said David Mumford, a professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University. "He was incredibly kind and warm, and he loved hearing about what was going on in mathematics. And then he would say, 'Why don't you write that down. Why don't you let me publish your book?' "

With his wife, Alice, Mr. Peters launched AK Peters publishing in 1992, mainly focusing over the years on mathematical sciences, physics, and computer science. They also welcomed authors whose interests didn't fit neatly into those categories, such as Robert J. Lang, a pioneer of the cross-disciplinary combination of mathematics and origami.

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"Klaus approached me," Lang recalled, "and he said, 'It seems the time is right for a book about origami and mathematics. Would you be interested in writing that book?' "

Mr. Peters, a mathematician himself before concluding that he could have a more lasting impact as a publisher, died of a heart ailment July 7 in MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham. He was 77, lived in Sherborn, and previously resided in Wellesley.

"Many, many mathematicians knew him as the first person to go to," said Elwyn Berlekamp, a professor of mathematics emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. "He really looked after the authors. And he really had high standards."

During the years he ran his own firm, and when Mr. Peters was an executive at other publishing houses, "his strength was making connections between people, and that's a lot of what publishing is about: finding those connections and bringing those books to creation and to a wider audience," said his daughter Susannah Sieper of Boulder, Colo., who formerly worked with her parents.

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To do so, Mr. Peters drew from a wealth of in-person impressions. He seemed to know everyone in mathematics.

"He had the ability to stay in contact with everybody. We all still marvel at it," his wife said.

After Mr. Peters died, his wife and children wanted to contact those who knew him "and he had 4,500 addresses in his cellphone," Alice said. "People whose books he published 40 years ago were in there. He kept in touch with all these people. He was that kind of person."

Popular with authors, Mr. Peters was willing to invest more than other publishers in features such as color graphics to better convey information. He insisted on careful copy editing and fixing even small mistakes for subsequent editions.

Lang, who has written books for other publishing houses, said they all did a fine job, but "none of them had the passion to create a landmark publication like Klaus did."

"It was a business," Lang said, "but first and foremost he really wanted to create books that were works of art," an increasingly rare quality in publishing for mathematics and most other topics.

Professors typically know they won't get rich publishing books in fields that rarely produce bestsellers. Instead, Berlekamp said, they want to have an impact and get the word out about their work. Mr. Peters made that happen while publishing books that remained affordable.

"Klaus was certainly a stickler for keeping the price reasonable," said Berlekamp, who was an investor in AK Peters and served on its board.

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Born in Wuppertal, Germany, Mr. Peters was the first in his family to attend a university. Studying mathematics, he graduated from the University of Munster and received a doctorate from the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg. He stayed on there to become an assistant professor before being offered the chance in 1964 to work at Springer Verlag publishing, where he became mathematics editor and scientific director.

In the essay "Why Publish Mathematics?" that Notices of the AMS republished in 2009, Mr. Peters wrote about taking the editing job, and how a well-known mathematician "tried to persuade me to give up that crazy idea. 'Didn't I understand the unmatchable pleasure of sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper for weeks and even months until suddenly you are struck by an inspiration that will yield a breakthrough in a mathematical problem? How could I give that up?' "

Mr. Peters explained that he "could do more for mathematics by representing the profession inside a publishing company than by the small chance that I would prove a theorem that would change mathematical history."

In the eyes of his admirers, Mr. Peters carved out as memorable a career by becoming so attentive to authors and so committed to quality.

He worked for Springer Verlag until 1978 and then moved to Birkhauser Boston, where he was president and publisher, leaving in 1986. Mr. Peters spent the next several years with a couple of other publishing houses, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, before opening AK Peters, based in Natick.

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During his career, Mr. Peters was a pioneer of innovations such as quickly publishing the text and notes of lectures or seminars at conferences. "This became an instant hit and spread to other fields," Mumford said.

In 1972, Mr. Peters married Alice Merker, whom he met when she was mathematics editor for Springer Verlag in New York City.

They sold AK Peters to another publishing firm two years ago, and Mr. Peters continued to work as a publishing consultant.

He had "developed very early a great love of music," his wife said, and he played the recorder. He also could hear a piece of obscure classical music on the radio and immediately recite details about the composition and the composer.

Sharing such details with those around him, Mr. Peters "always wanted you to be able to hear what he was hearing," his daughter said, and he was just as attentive to conversations.

"He always took the time to listen to everybody and was genuinely interested in what people were saying," she said. "Whether it was advice you were looking for, or if you just wanted to tell him what you were doing that day, he really wanted to hear it."

A service has been held for Mr. Peters, who in addition to his wife, Alice, and daughter Susannah leaves a son, Jonathan of Seattle; another daughter, Rebecca Mortensen of Campbell, N.Y., and seven grandchildren.

"Everyone he met was important to him. Even those who only knew him for a short time considered him a friend," Rebecca said at her father's service.

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"He took the time to listen and learn about who they were, and he saw the good in all people," she said. "He was always able find a common thread to tie them together, whether it be music, mathematics, art, culture, politics."

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.