Collier, Peter Fenelon (1849–1909), publisher and newspaper proprietor, was born 12 December 1849 in Myshall, Co. Carlow, son of Robert C. Collier and Catherine Collier (née Fenelon). After an education in local schools he emigrated to America at 17 and entered St Mary's seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. He did not join the priesthood, however, and after a variety of jobs, including a period as a carpenter in Dayton, Ohio, he found employment in the early 1870s as a salesman for a firm of publishers of catholic books in New York.
When his employers dismissed his novel suggestion of selling books on an instalment plan, he began publishing and selling catholic books from a basement store, on an independent basis, and built up a strong trade, founding P. F. Collier & Son Ltd in 1875. The marked success of the use of an instalment plan led him to use it as the means to expand his business, and in 1877 he began to publish the classic works of literature at low prices. Beginning with Shakespeare and Dickens, he pioneered bringing literature within popular reach through the system of small monthly payments. Over the following three decades Collier & Son printed almost 60,000,000 books at its extensive works in New York, which had a staff of 700 and could produce 20,000 volumes a day, using the most modern printing technology. These books were distributed by numerous company branches across the country, employing salesmen, deliverers, and collectors. A strong believer in the educational value of books, Collier refused to publish books which he regarded as inferior or morally suspect, such as those of Tolstoy, while an edition of the works of Balzac, whom he particularly admired, was published without Contes drolatiques, a series of Rabelaisian stories. In 1909 he introduced the Harvard classics, an inexpensive set of classics bound in maroon cloth with gold lettering, which proved particularly popular with middle-class households. He always refused to publish more expensive editions for a limited public and took great pride that his inexpensively-priced books enjoyed a mass readership, allowing him to become rich in what he regarded, with some pride, as a morally just manner.
In 1888 he launched a magazine, Once a Week, which he subsequently replaced (1896) with Collier's Weekly: An Illustrated Journal. This up-market journal, initially edited by his son Robert, campaigned against corruption and for higher standards in politics and business, becoming widely respected as an independent observer of national affairs. Its wholesome nature, and that of its proprietor, was emphasised by its refusal of advertisements for alcohol or for patent medicines, and the exclusion of articles making extravagant claims on putative investment returns. The establishment of the journal was costly, but it is claimed that Collier wished it to be a force for good rather than a commercial success.
A passionate horseman, he was the master of the Meadowbrook Hunt Club on Long Island, winning numerous prizes, including the prestigious champion cup at Philadelphia on his renowned horse Punch. For many years he played on the Rockaway polo team. He imported horses from Ireland and his visits to Ireland invariably coincided with the hunting season. In 1905 and 1906 he stayed at Athlumney House, Co. Meath, where he entertained local children, and in 1907 he stayed at Killeen Castle, the seat of the earl of Fingall, riding with the Meath hunt, and becoming its master before his death. While in Ireland he made a number of notable friends, including T. P. O'Connor (qv), and was a benefactor to Irish libraries and literary associations. He regretted being unable to start a major publishing company in Ireland to give work in his native country.
Devoutly catholic, his outlook was coloured by the poverty of his childhood and a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever in the 1870s, and he is credited with numerous charitable deeds. A boundless, almost frenzied, energy characterised all aspects of his life, and his gregarious nature helped ensure that he pursued his leisure as vigorously as his work. He died 24 April 1909 astride one of his horses at the New York Riding Club. After a service at St Patrick's cathedral, New York, he was buried on a hill overlooking his farm at Wickatunk, New Jersey.
He married (1873) Catherine Dunn of Carlow; they had one son, Robert.