Phyllis Grann looks back on 25 years in the book trade
Phyllis Grann
Credit: Phyllis Grann: Jay Ackerman

GRANN FINALE Ask Phyllis Grann what she’s proudest of as she looks back on 25 years with the same company, and the soon-to-retire president and CEO of Penguin Putnam Inc. doesn’t even pause: ”We’ve gone from $23 million revenues to $750 million revenues,” she says, sounding more like a captain of industry than a wordsmith. Except that the 62-year-old Grann, whose retirement announcement roiled the book industry, is also an editor; even now, she plans to honor her promise to edit thriller writer Ken Follett for the rest of his career, as well as biographer A. Scott Berg.

And therein lies the key to her success. ”If you’re going to generate revenues,” she responds, when it’s suggested that a CEO who vets plotlines (as she does for Robin Cook) is something of a rarity, ”you really need to have that close a connection with the writers.” Grann’s model for Penguin Putnam has always been the old-fashioned Hollywood studio. ”I learned from Lew [Wasserman, founder of MCA and a former owner of Putnam Berkley],” she says, ”that the most precious asset you own in a media business is the talent.” Grann’s stable of stars includes more than 20 best-selling authors, from Tom Clancy to Patricia Cornwell.

All of which raises the question: If Penguin Putnam has been doing so well, why leave? ”A difference of business philosophies with my owners, probably caused by the breadth of the Atlantic,” she answers, referring to Penguin’s parent company, Pearson PLC, based in London. Others in the industry are more forthcoming: ”She didn’t like having someone between her and Marjorie [Scardino, CEO of Pearson],” says a rival publishing executive. ”She didn’t feel she was getting enough respect.” However, Scardino responds, ”It’s not at all correct to say that Phyllis is leaving because of disagreements between us. I know it would be a better story if we had, but we didn’t. This is about Phyllis’ decision to make a change…she and I enjoy working together and are friends. I’ll miss her a lot.” Grann says she’s now open to anything, including starting over at another house. ”Who wouldn’t want her working for them?” says ICM agent Esther Newberg. ”She’s the best at what she does.”