A Talk with Simon & Schuster’s CEO Carolyn Reidy

Students at Simon & Schuster with CEO Carolyn Reidy

Students in the Master of Science in Publishing program at NYU recently had the opportunity to sit down with Simon & Schuster’s President and CEO Carolyn Reidy as she discussed her career, the evolution and future of publishing, and her advice for publishing hopefuls.“ Publishing requires passion,” she told the group. “It takes people with backgrounds in all areas. No matter your interest or skill, it can be used in publishing.”

Reidy, who graduated from Middlebury College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Russian, and continued on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Indiana University, never intended to pursue a career in publishing. “I started out in academia. I thought I’d love teaching, and I did,” she explains. Moving to New York with her husband, who was then a graduate student, she figured she would put her excellent typing skills to work and pay the bills for a few years before returning to the classroom. Reidy accepted a job in the subsidiary rights department of Random House in 1976—and never looked back.

So, what exactly does a CEO do? “My current role is making it possible for everyone else to do their jobs as well as representing the company to its owners, CBS,” She explained. This may be a rather small sentence for such a big job, but don’t let it fool you. Reidy is leading her company through an era of change, and she knows her stuff. To those of us just starting out, she had ample advice. “For the most part, in publishing you learn by doing, by apprenticeship” she said. ”But that doesn’t mean you have no influence. From day one, you might know something more about a particular topic than the person sitting next to you,” she noted.

And in many cases, that knowledge pays off. Reidy pointed to two projects that would have escaped her knowledge had they not been brought to her attention by savvy employees. When an editor came to her with a proposal for “Knitting for Dogs” (Fireside, 2005), Reidy was skeptical. But the editor convinced her that there was a market for people who wanted to knit for their dogs—and the book sold incredibly well. Citing another example, Reidy explained that when a passionate editor wanted to acquire “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, the conventional wisdom was that Irish-themed books traditionally didn’t sell well. Nevertheless, she took a chance, and “Angela’s Ashes” went on to be a major bestseller, winning the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

What’s next in publishing? “Something completely different,” Reidy says. “The new generation has grown up differently—they’ve grown up digitally—and their minds are necessarily different.” She told the audience that their generation will have to discover what comes next because more established publishing professionals may not recognize it. “What would I say to someone coming on the publishing scene?” she asked. “Join us. Right now the industry is going through more change than in my whole career of 30 years. Those who join now will determine the future—where it will go.”

On E-Publishing and the new e-Era

Reidy then launched into a brief history of digital publishing, harking back to the first e-readers, Rocket Reader and SoftBook in 1988. Although they didn’t take off, these early e-readers did make the selling of e-book rights a standard practice for publishing houses. Then, in 2000, Simon & Schuster published Stephen King’s “Riding the Bullet” as the world’s first mass-market e-book, available for download at $2.50. The project sold an unprecedented 600,000 downloads. (There would have been more had the system not crashed.) Reidy then chronicled the launch of the Sony Reader in 2006, the Kindle in 2007 and the Kindle 2 and Nook in 2009, which spurred a jump in e-book sales to 4% of the market. Now, with the advent of the iPad, she anticipates far greater growth of e-books over the coming few years.

Inevitably, the subject of e-book pricing came up. Reidy, like most publishers, was unhappy with the $9.99 price offered to consumers by Amazon and other e-retailers, believing it would ultimately be destructive to the publishing industry, to e-books, to authors, and to physical bookstores which can’t compete with such a low price point. Now, with the release of the iPad publishers are moving to an agency model in which the price is set by the publisher and their e-retailers get a predetermined commission for making the sale—a move that Reidy supports .

As the conversation moved on, Reidy pointed to other potential advances for e-books, such as the announcement of Google Editions, Google’s new e-bookstore, which will enable independent booksellers to distribute books through online storefronts. She also cited grabbable author widgets that will allow authors to sell their own books anywhere on the web.

Students Ask, Reidy Answers

At the end of her talk, Reidy invited students to throw a few questions her way. Here are some highlights:

Q: What is the right price for an e-book?

A: We’re doing a lot of analysis on this, but probably about $2 less than what Amazon is charging as the prevailing price for a physical book

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in digital publishing?

A: No one has been able to duplicate the browsing experience of a physical bookstore. That is what we need to figure out—if you know how to do that, come work for us.

Q: What does Google Editions bring to the publishing scene?

A: Google storefronts will help independent bookstores, but only strong independents will survive. They need the Google storefront to keep their customers who want digital books and to make it as easy to shop there as it is to shop online. If the change to e-books is 5-10% a year, noted Reidy, the independents can adapt. A more rapid rise could be destructive, as it was in the music industry, where stores couldn’t keep up with the shift to digital.

Q: What is the cost structure for e-books?

A: All of the originating costs for e-books are the same (editing, production, and plant costs). You save about $1.75 in print costs, and you also save on warehousing and returns. Altogether it’s about $3 cheaper to produce an e-book than a print copy.

Q: How has a PhD in English impacted your career in publishing?

A: Not in the least, though in the beginning, I thought of it as a fall-back plan in case publishing didn’t work out.

Publishing did work out for Reidy, and NYU’s students were incredibly lucky to benefit from the experience and wisdom she gathered along the way.

by April Osborn


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