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Simon & Schuster turns 100. Will it stick around for the next 100?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here are some books that would not seem to have much in common - "The Great Gatsby," "How To Win Friends And Influence People," "It Ends With Us." One thing they do have in common is that all were published by Simon & Schuster, which released its first book 100 years ago today. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: A few nights ago, there was a fancy event in New York City celebrating the big birthday. Many of Simon & Schuster's star authors spoke. You had biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It is a mark of how old I am that S&S has been my publishing home for nearly one half of its 100-year history. And oh...

LIMBONG: ...It was Jerry Seinfeld griping about recording his audiobook...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY SEINFELD: Just like marching through sand with a - at the end of a bad day at the beach.

LIMBONG: ...A conversation between Judy Blume and radio host Charlamagne tha God.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: And your books have caused good trouble.

JUDY BLUME: They have caused trouble.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Trouble? (Laughter).

BLUME: Yeah. Yeah.

LIMBONG: Authors representing nearly every genre of books spoke. And the night ended with the famous journalist Bob Woodward singing the praises of Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp. But it didn't sound like a guy touting the company line. He relayed a story about how, a day earlier, Woodward and Karp got into a bit of a disagreement, a tiff, even, about Woodward's latest book. Shortly after, Woodward got an email from Karp saying, quote, "we are behind you no matter what."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB WOODWARD: We are behind you no matter what means write the effing book your way.

(LAUGHTER)

WOODWARD: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

LIMBONG: Over the past 100 years, Jonathan Karp says some things in publishing have stayed the same.

JONATHAN KARP: I do believe that, ultimately, the reading experience is usually about one reader perceiving the ideas of a writer. It's direct, it's intimate, it's personal, and I don't think that ever changes.

LIMBONG: But there are things that have changed. Publishing houses merged. Social media became the place where a book can really sell. And there's artificial intelligence, which is a concern, but...

KARP: I don't really think that it poses much of a threat to writers who are original.

LIMBONG: Karp became CEO of Simon & Schuster in May of 2020. A tough time to take the reins of any company, but at that point, Simon & Schuster was being sold by its parent company, Paramount Global. In summer 2023, the private equity firm KKR bought the company for $1.62 billion, which worried some people in book's world because private equity is known for buying companies, slashing them down to its bare parts, then selling them off. But that hasn't happened yet with Simon & Schuster.

KARP: In my view, private equity appears to be an excellent outcome for Simon & Schuster because we're going to be able to invest in ourselves. We'll become a more international company. We'll become a more expansive company.

LIMBONG: But you're also burdened by debt, right? That's sort of how it works. Are you not now more, like, specifically hyper-focused on, like, the profit aspect of the company?

KARP: Publishers have always been focused on their profits, so that's nothing new. The debt is manageable and we're a profitable, successful company.

DAN SINYKIN: Simon & Schuster has always been a little bit more of a commercial house.

LIMBONG: That's Dan Sinykin.

SINYKIN: I'm the author of "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed The Publishing Industry And American Literature."

LIMBONG: And yeah, the first book company founders Max Schuster and Richard Simon published 100 years ago wasn't "The Great Gatsby" or "Catch-22." It was a book of crossword puzzles that became a bestseller. Today, though, Sinykin is interested in where the company is investing under KKR - audiobooks, global markets, Spanish-reading audiences.

SINYKIN: They recently launched Primero Sueno Press, which is dedicated to publishing Latinx authors in English and in Spanish. They also want to deepen their sci-fi and fantasy lists. And there's one of two ways that this is going to kind of play out. Either they're going to be right and they're going to be able to find the growth in these places to the degree that they need to find growth.

LIMBONG: Or if not, there's the private equity playbook of selling parts of the company and laying off workers. But Karp says there's absolutely a space in the Simon & Schuster umbrella for interesting books that may not be immediate bestsellers, even under new ownership.

KARP: As long as we keep finding authors and publishing them well, our roster of talent will grow and we'll be a more valuable company. So I'm not waking up every morning thinking about how to make money. I'm actually waking up every morning thinking about how to publish these books better and how to make more people aware of them.

LIMBONG: Which, for a publisher, is still kind of thinking about money.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.