Richard E. Snyder, the imperious publishing executive who built Simon & Schuster into the nation’s largest book publisher, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
The cause was heart failure, said his son Matthew, who lives in California and had moved his father there as his health declined from sepsis and other problems.
Through unmitigated ambition, tenacity and gut intuition, and without ever becoming an engaged reader himself, Mr. Snyder helped transform a New York-based industry of clubby literary connoisseurs into a global enterprise made up of conglomerates run by celebrity moguls.
He acquired scores of companies, including Macmillan and prominent educational publishers. He recruited as authors the Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, former President Ronald Reagan, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Graham Greene, Larry McMurtry, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Mary Higgins Clark, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo and David McCullough.
And he enlisted Alice Mayhew, Michael Korda, Jim Silberman and Nan Talese as top editors and then generally deferred to their professional judgment.
Mr. Snyder, who stumbled into book publishing as a young college graduate, began working at Simon & Schuster in 1960. He was its president from 1975 to 1986, chief executive from 1978 to 1994 and chairman from 1986 to 1994.
By 1994, annual revenue had soared to $2 billion from $40 million in 1975. During his tenure, the company’s trade book division won at least a half-dozen Pulitzer Prizes.
Regarded as a dynamo inside the publishing industry, Mr. Snyder was probably best known to the public for two high-profile episodes: his bitter divorce in 1990 from Joni Evans, whom he had hired at Simon & Schuster and who had become a trailblazer for women in a male-dominated publishing culture; and his abrupt dismissal from Simon & Schuster in 1994 following the company’s purchase by Viacom.
Saddled with debt from the purchase, Viacom began divesting itself of the subsidiaries that Mr. Snyder had acquired in making Simon & Schuster a success.
Mr. Snyder was distinguished by his signature tinted aviator glasses, his barely readable handwriting, his Brooklyn accent and his temper. While some former employees remembered him as a valuable mentor — Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein would characterize him as “avuncular” — Mr. Snyder never won any personality contests.
“There’s a tendency to see only the dark side of Dick,” Mr. Korda, a friend and colleague for decades, said in a telephone interview, “but he was genuinely a visionary who did to some degree revolutionize publishing. He was quite a radical innovator and led the way for book publishing from a privately owned cottage industry into a real business in which it was possible for people to work and make a living.”
In his book “Another Life: A Memoir of Other People” (1999), Mr. Korda wrote of Mr. Snyder, “He was like a tightly wound spring, and to those who knew him he seemed often to be holding himself back from an explosion of temper by sheer willpower.”
“One guessed, too, that his bark and his bite were likely to be equally unpleasant,” Mr. Korda added, “especially when it came to ill-prepared or sloppy work or a reluctance to go the extra mile.”
Charles Hayward, who left Simon & Schuster to become president of Little, Brown, was quoted in The New York Times Magazine in 1995 as saying that “it was part of Dick’s style to use degradation and humiliation to control people.”
But Paul D. Neuthaler, the former chief executive of Bantam Doubleday Dell and a former colleague, said in an interview that Mr. Snyder “was a genius publisher and my favorite tough guy and mentor.” And Susan Kamil, who worked for Ms. Evans at Simon & Schuster and joined her later at Random House, was quoted by New York magazine in 1987 as saying that Mr. Snyder had “taught me everything — not just business lessons, life lessons — and I’ll always be grateful.”
In a statement issued after Mr. Snyder’s death, Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein, whom Mr. Snyder had enlisted to write their landmark Watergate-era books, “All the President’s Men” (1974) and “The Final Days” (1976), said: “We chose to publish with Dick because of his commitment to the unfettered truth and his promise that he would back us no matter where the Watergate story led.”
Richard Elliot Snyder, who was known as Dick, was born on April 6, 1933, in Brooklyn to Jack and Molly (Rothman) Snyder. His father was an owner of a men’s overcoat business.
After attending Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn and graduating from Tufts University in 1955, he was drafted into the Army. He expected to join his father’s apparel company, but, as he told Roger Rosenblatt for The Times Magazine profile in 1995, when he showed up for work, his father showed him the door and said, “Better a son than a partner.”
When a friend went for an interview at Doubleday in Manhattan, Mr. Snyder tagged along, and before long was hired as a trainee. He was named assistant marketing director in 1958 after demonstrating that he was one of the few people at Doubleday who knew the precise number of books that had been published, ordered, sold and returned in a given period — an ability he likened to his father’s feel for the value of fabric for overcoats.
“He could rub the material of a jacket between his thumb and forefinger,” Mr. Snyder said in The Times Magazine profile, “and in no more than a second, proclaim, ‘$3.34 a yard.’ He would be right to the penny. I had that gift of feel when it came to books.”
In a climate that Mr. Snyder helped create, he billed himself as a businessman rather than as a man of letters. As Mr. Korda put it, “There’s no law that says that publishers have to read books; Dick had a wonderful instinct for relying on his editors.”
Mr. Snyder’s three other marriages, to Ruth Freund, Laura Yorke and Terresa Liu, also ended in divorce. In addition to his son Matthew, from his marriage to Ms. Freund, he is survived by a daughter from that marriage, Jackie; two other sons, Richard Elliott Snyder Jr. and Coleman Yorke, from his marriage to Ms. Yorke; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Snyder thrived under Simon & Schuster’s ownership by Gulf and Western Industries, which bought the company in 1975. But when the owner’s founder and chairman, Charles G. Bludhorn, died in 1983 and was succeeded by Martin Davis, an executive at Paramount Pictures, a Gulf and Western subsidiary, Mr. Snyder feuded with him. At one point Mr. Davis rejected his advice to invest in an educational publisher being offered at a fire sale price.
After he was fired by Viacom, Mr. Snyder formed an investment group that, in 1996, acquired Western Publishing and its children’s publishing division, Golden Books. But turning the company around proved problematic, and it was sold.
At the request of Norman Mailer, Mr. Snyder was instrumental in reviving International PEN, which promotes literature and free expression, and helped establish the foundation that presents the National Book Awards.
Mr. Snyder never denied that he was a tough taskmaster, but, he said, he did not demand more of others than he did of himself.
“Ninety‐nine percent of the people in this industry are highly intelligent, so that quality doesn’t distinguish anyone,” he told The Times in 1979. “The people who succeed are those who have the greatest commitment. Maybe it’s a neurotic commitment I look for, the person who will spend the last five minutes doing a task. You want someone who does something that is impossible and then is worried the next day that he can’t duplicate it.”
Amplifying his self-analysis, Mr. Snyder revealed another aspect of his balky behavior, which he attributed to his upbringing as a hyperactive only child and sketchy student raised in a home devoid of books by parents whose primary passion was playing gin rummy.
“I was quite rebellious, and think my parents felt I was going on the wrong track,” he said. “They were very permissive, and guess I kept wishing they had exercised more authority. I can remember going to ‘Annie Hall’ with Joni when it opened. There was that great line when Woody Allen gets a ticket from a cop, rips it up and says, ‘It’s not your fault, I just can’t deal with authority.’
“I poked Joni and said, ‘That was me.’”
Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. @samrob12
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