Carolyn Reidy is being remembered as a straight-shooting, publishing-loving people person CEO who cared deeply about her authors, her staff, and the book world. Reidy, who began her publishing career in the subsidiary rights department at Random House in 1974 and rose to become CEO of Simon & Schuster in 2008, died from a heart attack on May 12, 10 days after her 71st birthday. She steered S&S through the Great Recession, publishing’s digital disruption, and a slow-growth sales environment to keep it a commercial and critical success. While taking great pride in S&S’s long list of award-winning authors, she was also proud of the company’s record of 19 consecutive quarters of profit growth, which was snapped in the fourth quarter of 2019.
At the time of her death, Reidy was still at the helm of S&S, the country’s third-largest trade book publisher, and was running the company as its current owner, ViacomCBS, looks for a buyer. “Carolyn was a passionate and beloved leader who helped make Simon & Schuster what it is today: one of the most successful and respected consumer publishing houses in the business,” said Bob Bakish, president and CEO of ViacomCBS. “Over the course of almost 30 years at the company—and 12 as CEO—Carolyn nurtured relationships with important and popular writers, oversaw the publishing of numerous culture-shaping bestsellers, and broadened Simon & Schuster’s audience by pushing into new formats and international markets. And, most impressively, Carolyn did this while staying true to who she was—a straight shooter who led with heart and humor, was a fierce advocate for her people and a mentor to many.”
Indeed, despite the fact that publishing is dominated by women, few occupy leadership roles at large trade houses, and Reidy was seen as an inspiration by many. She kept S&S among the biggest trade publishers largely through organic initiatives. The 2016 purchase of Adams Media was the only acquisition the company made during her tenure as CEO.
Reidy’s vehicle of choice for internal growth was the creation of new imprints. Each imprint was formed with a specific mission. Tiller Press, launched this year, focuses on using data to publish culturally relevant books. Signal Press, created in 2019, publishes titles related to politics and social justice issues, as well as biographies. Previous imprints included Gallery 13, established to publish graphic novels, and Salaam Reads, a children’s imprint dedicated to books of interest to Muslim children. 37 Ink was created in 2013 to bring more diverse authors and titles to the company.
Another favorite initiative of Reidy was the expansion of S&S’s distribution business. To support that growth, in 2019 the company opened a second warehouse—a 300,000-sq.-ft facility in Milan, Tenn. S&S’s distribution business now has more than 70 clients
The publisher’s international business also grew under Reidy’s watch. In 2013, S&S Canada expanded its operations to include editorial and publishing activities for its titles that originate in Canada. Two years earlier, S&S India was established to publish and sell S&S’s titles and those of its distribution clients to the country’s English-language readers.
Reidy was an optimistic champion of books. After S&S posted a small sales increase in this year’s first quarter over 2019, she acknowledged that the rest of year was likely to be difficult. Still, she had no doubt that the book business would bounce back. With Covid-19 dampening book sales, Reidy told PW that what she found “most heartening” about the state of the business was that “the demand for books is still there,” noting, “Consumers are finding books despite different inconveniences.”
Reidy’s commitment to the industry was seen in the different organizations in which she played an active role. She was chair of the Association of American Publishers and was still on the board this year. She also had been on the boards of the National Book Foundation and of Literacy Partners.
Reidy picked up her fair share of awards and was named person of the year by PW in 2017. In 2018 she was the publisher honoree at PEN America’s annual gala, where she gave a stirring defense of free speech. Against the background of growing criticism of the press by government officials and threats to block the publication of some books, Reidy proclaimed, “It is repugnant when someone, anyone—whether it is the general public, media pundits, local school boards, or the government—tries to stop us from publishing, to dictate who or what we can publish, or to limit who can purchase or read the books that we publish.” And she spoke of the need to “reassert our core belief that free speech, the actual discussion and debate of ideas... is and needs to remain the right of every citizen in our society, along with our obligation to protect that speech. When it comes to the right of unfettered discourse we should not, we cannot, accept dissent-quashing tyranny from any side of the political spectrum.”
Reidy’s true place in the current publishing era is perhaps best captured in the many tributes made by industry colleagues and friends in the past week. In announcing her death to the S&S staff, Dennis Eulau, executive v-p, operations and CFO, wrote of Reidy’s “rare combination of business acumen and creative genius that made her a once-in-a-lifetime publishing executive.” He continued, “She walked through life with an abundance of joy, and loved to celebrate the accomplishments and milestones of her colleagues and friends with great generosity and fanfare. That so many of us at Simon & Schuster have been friends and colleagues with her for many, many years says everything about the kind of person and leader she was, and we will all miss her terribly.”
Gail Hochman, president of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, called Reidy a unique publishing executive—”a successful corporate person with a very big heart.” She added, “I think there will be many candles lit for her.”