The unexpected death of Dick Robinson, the longtime chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic, on June 5 at age 84 leaves a huge leadership hole at the company. He’s been associated with Scholastic since being hired in 1962 as associate editor of one its magazines. Robinson held the three highest-ranking positions at Scholastic and was the primary architect in building one of the world’s most prominent publishers and distributors of children’s literature. He has been a constant presence at a company that has undergone tremendous change since he was named president in 1974.
“We are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Dick Robinson,” Scholastic’s board of directors said in a statement. “Dick was a true visionary in the world of children’s books and an unrelenting advocate for children’s literacy and education with a remarkable passion his entire life. The company’s directors and employees, as well as the many educators, parents, and students whose lives he touched, mourn his loss.”
With annual revenues of about $1.5 billion, Scholastic was the 10th-largest publisher in the world in 2019, according to the Livres Hebdo and Publishers Weekly annual ranking. It is also unique in the industry. Scholastic is the dominant player in the school book fair and book club markets; has a trade operation that, at $307 million in fiscal 2020, would on its own be the sixth-largest trade house; operates a $287 million education business that focuses on the publication of supplementary materials and magazines; and has a $324 million international division.
And after more than 100 years in business, Scholastic is still something of a family-run company. It was founded in 1920 by Maurice R. “Robbie” Robinson, Dick Robinson’s father, as a publisher of youth magazines, and went on to release its first book in 1926 before branching out into the book club business in 1948, international publishing in 1957, and educational publishing in 1961. Under its corporate charter, members of the Robinson family own all of the outstanding shares of Scholastic’s Class A stock, meaning no significant transaction, including the sale of the company, can happen without approval from the family.
The Dick Robinson era
During Robinson’s tenure, Scholastic acquired activity kit publisher Klutz, production company Weston Woods Studio, and encyclopedia publisher Grolier, and launched the influential kids’ graphic novel imprint Graphix in 2005. Its trade publishing arm also published such zeitgeist-dominating series as the Baby-Sitters Club (by Ann M. Martin), Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Dog Man (Dav Pilkey), Goosebumps (R.L. Stine), Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), the Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), and the Magic School Bus (Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen).
Scholastic’s impact on American culture has largely been overlooked considering that, in addition to selling hundreds of millions books, scores of its titles were turned into films, many of them blockbusters, and were also the basis for television shows, apps, and even Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats (Clifford the Big Red Dog). The company’s ability to discover franchise-making authors is due in large part, insiders say, to Robinson’s willingness to take risks and then fully support his editors and publishers.
While Scholastic was enjoying success on the trade side, it also became one of the first publishers to mount a major technology effort for the school market. The division reached $249 million in sales in 2015, but, realizing it was competing with larger companies in the educational space, Scholastic sold the unit to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for $575 million. In a statement on the deal, Robinson said the company had a “historic opportunity” to further grow its core businesses by “renewing its focus on books and reading in schools and at home.”
Indeed, books, reading, literacy, and supporting teachers and schools were at the core of Robinson’s philosophy. “His true North was to help kids,” a former employee said.
With its school book fairs and book clubs, the Scholastic brand is one of the few in publishing that enjoys widespread consumer awareness, especially among teachers, schoolchildren, and parents. To help gauge how to get children more interested in reading, in 2006, the company released the first Kids & Family Reading Report, which shares the views of children and parents on reading books for fun. The seventh edition of that report was released in 2019.
Robinson’s commitment to reading—he considered reading a civil right—was widely admired throughout the publishing industry. The National Book Foundation awarded him its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community in 2017. “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them,” he said upon accepting the Literarian Award. “Scholastic is privileged to be the link between the child, the school, and the book.”
In 2019, PEN America honored Robinson at its annual gala, at which he spoke about the power of the book. “We have been banned in schools in the ’30s and ’50s for being too soft on communism; in the ’40s and the ’60s for promoting liberal views on race, civil rights, and the Vietnam War; in the ’70s for articles on student rights—not a popular subject in schools; in the ’80s and ’90s for climate change; and in the 2000s for the Iraq War,” he told the audience. “Despite these controversies and temporary bans, schools have relied on our balanced approach to help the young gain basic knowledge about their world, with the larger goal of helping kids know how to build and maintain a fragile democracy.”
Robinson was also a pillar of the publishing industry. A former chairman of the AAP’s board of directors, he was the longest-serving director in the organization’s history, serving on the board for 32 years, from 1989 until his death. AAP CEO Maria Pallante called him an “extraordinary leader,” noting that “Dick believed deeply in the power of publishing to inspire students and drive progress.”
Brian Napack, the CEO of John Wiley and current chair of AAP, described Robinson as a “major force in publishing,” adding, “He lived his mission to inspire and educate through literature, and to improve the world with empathy and understanding.”
Perhaps Robinson’s most important attribute was his total commitment to Scholastic and its employees. He is said to have known the names of most everyone who works there and would send notes to many to thank them for their work on particular projects. “His personal attention was uncanny,” an insider said.
Replacing the heart of Scholastic will not be an easy task. The company hopes to appoint an interim head soon, but until then, operations will be overseen by a joint committee.
Dick Robinson in 1980 with his father, Scholastic founder Maurice Robinson.