Carolyn K. Reidy
From her earliest days as a reader, when she’d hide under the covers with a flashlight and a novel, “not wanting to do something so prosaic as go to sleep,” Carolyn Reidy chose books that made an explicit point of engaging the audience and quite literally drawing it into the story. “There was a series of historical novels with titles like You Were There at the Signing of the Declaration of Independence or You Were There at the Oklahoma Gold Rush,” she remembers. “Every book had a little boy and a little girl in it that were meant to stand in for the reader.”
This initial appreciation for the potential connection between books and readers grew into a passionate interest in the writer-reader relationship, which Reidy explored as a doctoral candidate in the Department of English in IU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Her dissertation dealt with the emergence of the unreliable narrator in the high Victorian novel and how that narrative style created a new type of reader who didn’t need to be led through the text.
“The ability to conduct a close textual analysis and examine what the author was trying to do with the writing has stood me in good stead to this day,” says Reidy, now the CEO of Simon & Schuster and a 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. “When we’re looking at books to publish, we have to ask not only, ‘Is it good?’ but also ‘Who is the audience and can we figure out how to reach it?’ And, ‘What relationship does the author imagine with the reader?’”
For Reidy, facilitating that relationship is what makes her job so compelling. She originally enrolled at IU with the expectation of working in academia, but when she took an entry-level job in publishing – in the rights department at Random House in 1976 – she immediately “fell in love.”
“I was taken with the potential for actually affecting the careers of authors and helping them reach their audiences rather than just studying them after the fact,” she explains.
What Reidy couldn’t have anticipated in the ’70s was that changing technology and the emergence of digital platforms would eventually give her the opportunity to influence not just what was read and written, but the future of publishing itself.
“I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years, but there’s never been a time like this when the decisions we make today will actually shape the industry,” she says. “Normally, as you become older, you learn how to be an expert and you gain confidence. But there is no received wisdom about publishing in the digital world. We’ve got the make the wisdom ourselves.”
Despite this upheaval, Reidy says the core principles she learned when studying English have continued to guide her. “The habits of mind that I learned at Indiana University have really been of great help to me. No matter how much things are changing, the basic role of a publisher is still to help authors find their audience, which goes back to the writer-reader relationship I studied at IU.”
By Elisabeth Andrews