Changing of the Guard at Simon & Schuster

Talking to David Rosenthal on the phone is stressful. He makes you want to be completely on top of your game, to fluently match him in hilarious one-liners and to project total confidence. You really want him to think you’re cool. After a while you accept that he’s just always going to make the last joke. 

Mr. Rosenthal, 56, was until last week the publisher of Simon & Schuster, the flagship imprint of CBS’s publishing arm. He held the job for 13 years, all of them under Carolyn Reidy, the CEO who fired him last week and replaced him with the earnest, gifted 46-year-old Jonathan Karp.

“You know, I haven’t been satisfied with the numbers either, but over the term I’ve been here, which is a long time, we’ve delivered the numbers and created a whole lot of great books,” Mr. Rosenthal said by phone on Friday afternoon, not long before he left his office for the last time. “When your numbers are not what you’d like them to be, you’re always vulnerable. You know, it is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately moment. But it is what it is.”

On its face, the defenestration of Mr. Rosenthal signals the snuffing out of a leader who did his job with an old-fashioned boldness: a publishing executive who spoke with a knowing purr and cultivated a reputation for sneering in the face of the corporation that owned him. It also promises a new Simon & Schuster, an imprint that once defined itself as everything that pre-millennial Little Random, the potently literary Random House imprint where Mr. Karp spent his first sixteen years in the business, was not. The joke back then was that editors at Random House wore tortoise-shell glasses, while editors at Simon & Schuster, taking their cues from the flashy executive Dick Snyder, preferred aviators.

A self-conscious throwback to a time in publishing when editors felt more free to do and say what they felt like, Mr. Rosenthal represents an era at Simon & Schuster that is now properly over. That said, if there are tears shed for his managerial aesthetic, anyone who cares about the future of serious non-fiction should be rooting for Mr. Karp when he starts on June 14th. If Mr. Karp can turn the Simon & Schuster imprint around, then more good journalists and historians—and even a few novelists!—will get paid more money to write more good books. 

Mr. Rosenthal’s biggest successes at Simon & Schuster—crucially, the longtime home of powerhouse editor Alice Mayhew—were political memoir, history, and current events. He published Bob Woodward, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough, as well as Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Dylan, Jim Cramer, and Mary Higgins Clark. But in the past few year he has lost some major authors, including Michael Beschloss, James B. Stewart, and Jimmy Carter. He also recently lost Richard Ben Cramer to Mr. Karp.

Several top literary agents said they weren’t surprised that Mr. Rosenthal had been let go last Wednesday—Simon & Schuster had been struggling conspicuously, they said, and needed a reboot. Rosenthal loyalists, however, including some editors and authors, see the firing as a sacrificial gesture carried out by Ms. Reidy in order to signal to her superiors at CBS that she is actively making changes at a time when the entire company—not just Mr. Rosenthal’s imprint—is putting up unsatisfactory numbers. 

“When your team is doing badly you fire the manager,” said the humorist Christopher Cerf, son of Random House founder Bennett Cerf and chairman of the Modern Library’s board of advisors. “I’m sure there was a lot of pressure from CBS and all that.”

Ms. Reidy, who hired Mr. Rosenthal herself and sold him her house in Brooklyn ten years ago, would not comment on that theory, but Simon & Schuster corporate spokesman Adam Rothberg called it “absurd.”

Mr. Karp, who counts Mr. Rosenthal’s one-time rival Ann Godoff as his primary mentor, said Friday that he had not spoken to his predecessor since the announcement, and did not want to speculate about the reasons for his firing. 

“Maybe it’s just that things change,” he said, sitting behind a desk in his soon-to-be-former office at Hachette Book Group, where he spent the past five years running a mega-successful boutique imprint called Twelve. The imprint was just him, a few assistants, and the ambitious, energetic publicity director Cary Goldstein, who is currently helping to find a replacement for his ex-boss. Their model was to publish just one book per month, and to sell the hell out of it for that entire time. They have made bestsellers out of books like Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday, and Dave Cullen’s Columbine

Changing of the Guard at Simon & Schuster