Our Exit Interview with Jack Romanos

By Neal Comment

jack-romanos-interview.jpgSo what’s it like to be leaving Simon & Schuster on a string of unprecedented quarterly financials? I asked Jack Romanos as we sat in his office a few weeks before his retirement at the end of 2007. “It’s kind of a dream scenario,” he laughed. “And it’s a testament to all the hard work we’ve done over the years to create publishing programs and build the business… The company runs effectively. The management team is strong. And then we had the great fortune of having The Secret fall out of the sky, but if we took The Secret out, we would still be having an amazing year.” He smiled, then added, “But we’ll leave it in.”

So why leave now, when things are going so well? “I got old,” he laughed again. But, really, it’s all about keeping a promise he made to himself several years ago to retire when he turned 65. “The only question I had over the years was whether I would keep that promise… I will certainly want to stay involved [in publishing] in some way, and I’m not going to go into hiding, but I’m looking forward to not having a job for the first time since I was a teenager.”

Romanos has been in book publishing all his adult life, since joining Fawcett straight out of college, back when it was an independent publishing company. “It was a small company and it afforded me a lot of room to grow,” he recalled, “but I realized that if I was going to be good in this business, the education I needed was in New York.” He landed first at Bantam, where he hit it big by acquiring and publishing a guide to solving the Rubik’s Cube puzzle (which, small world, provided me with a steady stream of “work” in sixth grade, once I memorized all the moves). He sat directly across the desk from Oscar Dystel, then the head of Bantam, and credits his mentor with giving him “a graduate course in publishing.” (And, too, Dick Snyder: “He shaped the businessman in me, and Oscar shaped the publisher.”)

Romanos came to S&S in 1985, and he pays tribute to Viacom and CBS executives past and present such as John Dolgen and Les Moonves for helping him make the transition from being a book publisher to a CEO, a position that, in his phrasing, “combines the art of publishing with the business.” He realized early on that that meant abandoning an entirely hands-on approach to the editorial side of things. “The company was too big and too compicated to do both [editorial and corporate work],” he explained. “You have to concentrate on developing the company’s publishing strategy, and then trust that the editors will get you the books, that their vision for the books will materialize.”

One especially difficult challenge came in 1998, when Viacom sold the educational, professional, and reference divisions to Pearson, gutting S&S of most of its infrastructure in the process. “We had to uncouple ourselves from the bigger company and create a new infrastructure,” Romanos remembered. “It was nothing like what I’d signed up for. Everybody woke up, the blankets were pulled off us, and we were naked and had to get dressed.”

Romanos refuses to take all the credit for that survival, though, or the successful years that have followed. “What was nice about Simon & Schuster was that it was a company that prided itself on its team,” he said. “It’s probably a much easier company to run because of that.” He has high hopes for his successor, Carolyn Reidy, who he brought into the company back in 1992, praising her “intimate knowledge” of S&S operations. “You don’t want to bring somebody in who feels like she has to tear the company apart and put her own stamp on it,” he explained. “Carolyn knows how S&S works. She knows the people. She knows the financial expectations.”

Looking to the future, he said, “the single most important task for the CEO of any publishing company will be to develop and implement the strategy to take their company into the digital age. The impact of digital publishing will be as profound as that of paperbacks in the 1940s and 1950s.” There is a significant challenge, he conceded, in keeping younger generations interested in reading; “I don’t have the answers, but I do think that digital publishing will offer some opportunities…But it’s always been about the words, and new ways to package the words.”

But Romanos has never completely divested himself from the literary side of publishing, and before I left, he made sure to tell me about one of his favorite authors, Vince Flynn, and how his latest novel, Protect and Defend, was debuting at the top of the Times bestseller list. “To see Vince’s audience grow and his brand rize like that…” Romanos smiled again. “Now I can go in peace.”