Weisbach, Simon & Schuster vice-president and editor-at-large
Summit, New Jersey.
First job: Editorial assistant at Bantam Books. Career highlights: Senior
editor at Bantam Books; publisher of Rob Weisbach Books. First Sunday Times section he reads:
a string of high-profile successes (Brad Meltzer's The Tenth Justice),
equally high-profile failures (Whoopi Goldberg's Book), and the folding
in 1999 of his flashy eponymous book imprint, Rob Weisbach disappeared off the
media radar. Now, the Boy Editor, pioneer of the multimillion-dollar advance,
and, invariably, "Wunderkind" is
as a synergy whiz for Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster. But
it looks like he has yet to unpack. His office, around the corner from editor-in-chief
Michael Korda, is still, as he sheepishly notes, a very bare space filled with
office furniture leftovers; and he demurs that "the job's still new to
me." But recently, he opened up to mediabistro.com about his new gig, synergy's
bad rap, and what he's been up to these past few years.
You didn't do the Yale English
B.A., Radcliffe Publishing Course thing. In fact you dropped out of college
I'd just gotten to the point where I'd worked and lived on my
own for several years, and I just wanted to get out and do something. One of
the first ways I made money was as a freelance proofreader and copy editor for
corporations. My dad, who was a publisher and editor, taught me how to proofread
and copy-edit, and that's what pulled me into the biz. I graduated from Andover,
took a year off to make some money, went to Stanford on and off, and after about
three years of that, I decided to take a shot at a job in publishing, even though
I didn't have a degree. I didn't think anyone would have any hesitation in hiring
me, since I had some [copy-editing and proof-reading] experience.
So I came back home to New Jersey, and started reading the paper.
I read about a managing editor job at Bantam that was the first job I
applied for. [Laughs.] They redirected me, and I got a job working for
Deb Futter, who ran the Bantam new fiction line and also repackaged the Bantam
Classics, and for Steve Rubin, the publisher of Doubleday. It was a good fit
because I'd studied poetry and had, I suppose, a more literary inclination,
and Bantam, as you know, is a very mass-market publishing house. Growing up
in mass-market publishing is the best education you can get: They're very focused
on distribution, so it makes you very aware of the process. It interested me
a great deal: What makes people buy books? What makes a book intriguing to a
consumer? It's what motivated me to have my own imprint: the ability to create
and implement a marketing sales strategy, publicity, jackets, all that.
Then you realized one day what? You're not going to
find the next big writer sitting around reading the
Well, as an assistant, you aren't really working with agents the
way your boss is. You don't have the same flow of material. The idea of going
into an untapped area, like entertainment, appealed to me. If I could be a resourceful
assistant, then I could also spend time looking for my own projects. That's
how I ended up approaching Whoopi Goldberg about doing a book, which was my
first acquisition as an associate editor. I found out who managed her, and got
in touch. Starting from scratch, you have to assume they don't want to do a
book and figure out if they have one in them that they just haven't thought
At Bantam, I graduated fairly quickly to higher editorial spots
after making some acquisitions. I'd had three number-one New York Times bestsellers
in a row Jerry Seinfeld [SeinLanguage], Paul Reiser [Couplehood],
Ellen DeGeneres [My Point And I Do Have One]. Plenty of celebrities
have book proposals, but my idea was to work with people who had a vision and
a voice. You know, it's a funny misconception about me that comes up a lot:
I've never done a celebrity memoir in my life. All of my books are extensions
of people's creative work, whether it's Tim Burton's illustrations, Ethan Coen's
short stories, or Jerry Seinfeld's humor. People lump celebrity stuff into what
I do. I'm not particularly interested in celebrity.
Then you left Bantam to create your own imprint, Rob Weisbach
Books, at William Morrow.
Having had an unusual measure of success, I was approached by
other editors and happened to receive three excellent offers, one from Morrow.
We negotiated an interesting deal: In creating a new imprint, I had a unusual
level of authority and autonomy, but I knew if I was going to put my name on
the product, it would be necessary to helm all of those aspects. I reported
to the CEO of the Hearst book group instead of reporting to the publisher, as
most other Morrow imprints did.
You sort of disappeared after you left Morrow [HarperCollins
acquired Morrow in 1999] and your imprint folded. Everyone's been wondering
what you've been up to.
When I left Morrow, I actually had the opportunity to stay. I
was offered a couple of imprints to helm at HarperCollins. But I was very clear
that if I stayed, I'd want my imprint. I think they were surprised I didn't
take them up on their offer. But I was pretty devoted to what I was doing. I
had a publisher come up to me the day after I left Morrow and say, "Why
didn't you bring your imprint to us?" That made me anxious, because I could
imagine the same thing happening again a publisher getting tired of everything
except its own Harper brand.
I had many job offers at the time. I'd been approached about doing
an entertainment website, hosting a TV talk show about writers and books, helping
a magazine with marketing, and other publishing jobs. None of them seemed an
exciting improvement on what I was doing, so I hired a consultant and worked
on trying to pull [those different kinds of] businesses magazines, television,
the Internet, and books in particular together into a multiplatform business.
Since it's something that may eventually resurface at some point, I don't want
to go into great detail, but I'll tell you that I did have a proposal and an
offer of financing before September 11.
And after September 11?
They decided they didn't want to be making investments at this
It sounds like what Talk Miramax tried to do.
I don't think so. They didn't do TV. [Pause.] Anyway, the
idea had a lot to do with this big complaint in our industry that younger people
don't buy books and aren't interested in writing but no one's trying
very hard to find and market content that will be intriguing to
people of a certain age and sensibility. That was something we were pretty
successful at, actually.
Is it something that you'd want to launch again at some point?
To be truly independent (which is very important when launching
something that doesn't have a traditional place in your industry), you have
to be independently wealthy. It's important in terms of the kinds of decisions
you can make. That's the situation I had at Morrow, and it was really unusual.
The idea of creating that again as part of another house would be really challenging.
It's not exactly something I'd attempt to do again.
Officially, you're vice president and editor-at-large at Simon
& Schuster, working on "cross-platform" projects. What does that
There are two different elements to the job: Developing projects
that are somewhat entrepreneurial but essentially editorial, like finding interesting
talent, whether through the literary community or through agents; and then more
strategic work with my colleagues here at Simon & Schuster and within the
Viacom family CBS, Paramount, Infinity Radio, Comedy Central, Showtime,
MTV, and so on.
The idea is that I'll hopefully push interesting writers in that
direction, introduce a book talent to, say, CBS News or Infinity Radio to develop
some other form of entertainment that springs from their work or talent. Some
of the authors I've worked with in the past have the ability to translate to
other media. Someone like a Brad
Meltzer, who became quite a cottage industry. Brad's now developing new
shows for television, and working on not only his own books but contributing
to other books. The example that comes up a lot is like getting
CBS comedian to write a book.
Like Ray Romano.
Right. I don't see the job as that obvious
or necessarily celebrity-related. I hope I can do
more fun and interesting projects, though I'm still brand new on the job. I'm
told that was part of the appeal of having me here [at Simon & Schuster].
Many of my books have been "project"-like the Rent book
I did based on the musical, Tim Burton's The Melancholy Deathof Oyster
Boy, a real cult classic, which came from a collection of Edward Gorey-like
illustrations and poems I saw.
But a lot of people are skeptical of "synergy" these
Yeah, synergy for synergy's sake isn't a good
idea, but if you have a project that naturally has another partner in another
realm, then they can help each other. I think synergy's gotten a bad rap.
You're like the Tina Brown of the publishing industry
you've attained success at a very early age, received widespread praise and
scorn under an intense media spotlight, and are seen as a pioneer of buzz and
big advances, of the Hollywoodization of publishing. Do you feel a kinship with
Well, if you see that, I won't fight the comparison. It's interesting.
No, I don't feel a particular kinship with her. I've never met her, but I think
there's something about that impression many people have about me that
I'm a Hollywood slickster. I think my background, my real interests, and the
way I approach publishing aren't so much about buzz. I really am interested
in helping writers do fun and inventive things.
Does that impression people have irk you?
I'm so immune to it. Articles have been written about me for years.
I have a lot of friends who are journalists, and I understand that's a much
easier story to tell. The fact is Whoopi Goldberg comes up in every story that's
written about me but Brad Meltzer doesn't.
Let's make another parallel: Phyllis
Grann was another widely watched publishing industry move that turned out
to generate not very much press at all after she made the move [from Penguin
Putnam to Random House].
I know Phyllis. I have great respect for her. I can't speak to
the nature of her role, and I'm sure it's at a much different level and nature
than what I'm doing, but I will say that I am going to be doing strategic work
that's perhaps a little less obvious than publishing a list of books that has
my name on every copy. For someone who's gotten a lot of attention for acquisitions,
as Phyllis has and I have, the job is going to be more behind-the-scenes.
Who have you been reading lately?
I love Colson Whitehead. I just read Scott Lasser's All I Could
Get he's one of my old authors, now published by Knopf. Jonathan
Safran Foer is a very smart and totally original writer.
You've worked with gay writers in the past like Bob Smith and
Dale Peck. Will there be any particular focus on gay writers at S&S?
Because I'm gay and because, like most editors, I have an interest
in books that reflect my own experience, I'll probably be paying attention to
Wolfson, I think, has a great book in him.
Any parting advice for a lowly editorial assistant reading
Be a loyal, kick-ass assistant, because at first, the only reason
you're there is the editor you work for. While you're doing that, learn how
the business actually works, sales and distribution in particular. Get to know
some booksellers and ask them about the challenges they face they probably
care more about the book-lover than anyone, and are, in many ways, the heroes
of this business. Then, only pursue the books you understand intimately and
acquire a book only if you can promise that you'd really spend $25 if you saw
it in a bookstore. Publishing to yourself, not some phantom consumer, makes
you a smarter publisher. Finally, always do the right thing when it comes to
your authors. You may publish hundreds of books in your career; they may publish