Richard Snyder, ‘warrior-king’ of publishing who presided over rise of Simon & Schuster, dead at 90

Richard Snyder, a visionary and imperious executive at Simon & Schuster who presided over the publisher’s exponential rise during the second half of the 20th century and helped define an era of growing corporate power, has died

Hillel Italie
Wednesday 07 June 2023 21:29 BST
Obit Richard Snyder
Obit Richard Snyder (AP1977)

Richard Snyder, a visionary and imperious executive at Simon & Schuster who in bold-faced style presided over the publisher’s exponential rise during the second half of the 20th century and helped define an era of consolidation and growing corporate power, has died. He was 90.

Snyder died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, according to his son Matthew Snyder, who said he had been in failing health.

“Dick Snyder led Simon & Schuster through some of its most storied and eventful years," the company said Wednesday in a statement. “He built Simon & Schuster into one of the largest and most influential publishing companies in the world, known for headline-making nonfiction, bestselling fiction and timeless classics.”

Snyder was among those who helped transform the industry. When he joined Simon & Schuster as a sales assistant in the early 1960s, publishing houses were mostly privately owned, some still run by their founders. By the time he was forced out by Viacom in 1994, Simon & Schuster and such rivals as Random House and HarperCollins were under corporate ownership and had bought out numerous former competitors.

President of Simon & Schuster starting in 1970, and CEO from 1978 to 1994, Snyder built a modern company in ways all too modern for the world of books. Simon & Schuster's revenues multiplied from around $40 million annually in the 1970s to more than $2 billion by the mid-1990s, making it at the time the country’s largest publisher, a position now held by Penguin Random House.

Bestsellers during Snyder’s reign included Mary Higgins Clark’s crime thrillers and such Pulitzer Prize winners as David McCullough’s “Truman” and Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” Snyder also was an early advocate for electronic publishing and computerizing business operations, and he vastly expanded Simon & Schuster by purchasing such educational companies as Prentice Hall and Esquire Inc., spending more than $1 billion overall on acquisitions.

'You cannot be a publisher any longer without also being a businessman,'' Snyder told The New York Times in 1984. “The thought that you can publish just because you love books is a sure prescription for failure.''

Those who knew him could not help talking about him. The New Yorker labeled him a “warrior-king,” and former Simon & Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb recalled his “Ahab-like determination to see Simon & Schuster outgrow Random House.” Colleagues who departed the company shared stories about his profane, peak-volume tirades, although Gottlieb would note that “this famously difficult man could command loyalty, respect and even affection.” Another Simon & Schuster editor, Michael Korda, wrote of Snyder’s “skin-deep” commitment to literary fiction — because “most of it loses money.”

Simon & Schuster did publish Philip Roth, Graham Greene and Joan Didion, among others, and Snyder played a direct role in making the company a favorite home for the inside story on Washington. In fall 1972, as the Watergate scandal was taking off, Snyder personally lobbied Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for a book on their groundbreaking journalism, what became “All the President’s Men.” He met them at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, on a day they had erred on a key fact about President Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and convinced them to publish with Simon & Schuster — even though a rival was offering more money.

“Dick looked us straight in the eye and he was very direct and I felt we'd get his total backing,” Woodward, who would liken Snyder's strength and impulsiveness to qualities he found in Post Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee, told The New York Times in 1992. “I was right. If he'd ever ducked, or flinched or blinked, I'd say so. But he never has. He's brave. He cares. He always does what he says he'll do. And he's tough, tough, tough."

Released in June 1974, two months before Nixon’s resignation, “All the President’s Men” was a landmark in American publishing, a book-length investigative work on a sitting president and his administration. It spent months on bestseller lists, was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie of the same name and helped launch a wave of timely political releases — including Woodward and Bernstein’s coda on the Nixon years, “Final Days” — that has continued to the present day.

“With surefire instinct, Dick made ‘All the President’s Men’ not only newsworthy but news,” Korda wrote in his 1999 memoir, “Another Life.” “This was what the French call ‘les actualities,’ news as it happens.”

Simon & Schuster eventually signed up memoirs by such fallen Nixon officials as John Dean, John Ehrlichman and John Mitchell, along with books by Nixon himself and Ronald Reagan, whose memoir was released just months before Simon & Schuster published Kitty Kelley’s notorious “Nancy Reagan,” which suggested the former first lady had an affair with Frank Sinatra. Woodward has stayed with Simon & Schuster for decades, his long run of No. 1 sellers including “Veil,” “Plan of Attack” and the Trump-era “Fear.” Some of the country’s most popular historians, including McCullough and fellow Pulitzer winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, were longtime Simon & Schuster authors.

Snyder rose and fell by the hard and random rules of corporate culture. His power grew even as the company changed ownership and organization several times, but soon after Viacom purchased Simon & Schuster in 1994, he was fired for not being a “team player” and his career never recovered. He attempted to revive the children’s imprint Golden Books, for which he worked early in his career, but the business went bankrupt and within a few years was sold.

Snyder also endowed a lecture series at his alma mater, Tufts University, with Woodward among the speakers. In the late 1980s, he helped establish the nonprofit National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards.

He was married four times, most recently to Terresa Liu Snyder, and had four children. His most notable marriage was to fellow publishing executive Joni Evans, with their decade as one of the industry’s leading power couples — Korda would call them the book world's “Prince Charles and Lady Di” — ending with a very public divorce in the late 1980s.

Born in Brooklyn, Snyder would remember himself as a poor student in a house without books who expected to join his father’s overcoat business. When his father turned him away, he instead found work as a trainee at Doubleday, where his immersion in numbers and the fine print of contracts set him apart. Within two years, he was at Simon & Schuster. Doubleday fired him, he later told the Times, for “telling them how wrong they were doing everything.''

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