Simon Says, 'Out!'

Once upon a time, there lived an old and powerful king. Richard was as irascible as he was clever and brave. He greatly enlarged his kingdom over decades of rule, growing rich and envied across the land. But he was unloved by his people, for Richard was a tyrant. One day a new king came from the North, richer and even more powerful. People liked him. They tittled and tattled about Richard, complained of his arrogance and overbearing ways, hinted even that he disdained the new king and his men. The new king, Sumner, had no truck with this. ""Off with his head,'' he ordered. Willy-nilly, Richard's head was in a basket.

That parable played out last week in New York's publishing world. For more than two decades, Richard Snyder had ruled venerable Simon & Schuster with a brilliant -- and brutal -- iron hand. He was a titan of the industry, coupling hardheaded business sense with inspired, often swashbuckling, literary judgment. When he took command in 1979, Simon & Schuster was struggling anemically as a $40 million-a-year book publisher. By last year revenues had exceeded $2 billion, buoyed by everything from academic texts and reference books to the latest best sellers as diverse as Howard Stern's ""Private Parts'' and Clive Cussler's ""Inca Gold.'' Yet that commercial success was not enough for Sumner Redstone, the billionaire entertainment magnate who owns Viacom Inc. -- an empire of movie theaters, the MTV and Nickelodeon cable networks and the New York Knicks and Rangers sports teams. Redstone acquired Simon & Schuster earlier this year in a bruising takeover battle for its parent, Paramount Communications. Now he wanted someone more benevolent to rule the publishing house, someone younger and perhaps a bit less independent. ""Snyder just wasn't going to work,'' says one insider. So last week Richard was summoned before Viacom's chief executive, Frank Biondi. He walked in -- and almost as quickly walked out, no longer a king.

Big perks: It was a messy affair. Some say the beheading took five minutes, others 15. All agree that Snyder was given just half a day to clear out, to relinquish the vital perquisites of high literary office: the polished wood desk, the keys to the exec bath and dining room, the personal chef, the limos. Snyder tells friends it was a complete surprise. Only recently he had been saying how great things were at Viacom, how swimmingly everything was going with Redstone & Co. Why, that very morning he'd been planning a party for Sumner. His only inkling that something might be wrong was when Redstone called to cancel, just hours before the chop.

New York's literati were aboil. Snyder was one of their own, an honored member of the club. Publishers and famous authors sprang to his defense. Investigative reporter Bob Woodward, whose relationship with Snyder goes back to Watergate and the publishing of ""All the President's Men,'' telephoned Biondi for an ""explanation.'' Superagent Mort Janklow muttered darkly about ""those people'' at Viacom, who apparently think selling books is like selling ""popcorn.'' Didn't they know that without Snyder, Simon & Schuster would be diminished, that nobody in the whole wide world could possibly begin to replace him?

Others were less surprised. Esteemed as Snyder was as a publisher and businessman, he was roundly loathed as a boss. ""Imperious.'' ""Erratic.'' ""Demanding.'' ""Manages by fear and intimidation.'' ""Mean.'' These were some of the gentler ways people described him to Newsweek, and they told tales of his reign. Many involved elevators. Snyder liked to ride alone, insiders say, and woe betide the unknowing. Such as the messenger he reputedly once fired for presuming to step aboard. Or all the staffers who got axed during the ascent or descent from their cubbyholes. It happened ""all the time,'' says one in-house editor. ""They would get on and he would fire them before they reached the lobby.''

Snyder wouldn't comment. But apparently he fired with such zeal that employees nicknamed a waiting room near his office the ""executive-departure lounge.'' Those he didn't fire, he harangued. Some insiders recount how he would hurl his in box at editors. ""Moron,'' he bellowed in editorial meetings. ""Why the f--k am I paying you?'' He heaped profanities on subordinates, men and women alike -- including his ex-wife Joni Evans, a former S&S senior editor. ""He loves to keep people off balance, insecure,'' explains one fire-ee, now a top exec at a prominent publishing house. ""Once he called me from the treadmill in his private gym. As he picked up speed, his voice just rose to this incredible scream.'' Not for nothing did Fortune rank him among ""America's toughest bosses.'' Snyder reveled in that, another insider claims. He ""would rib executives who hadn't made the list.''

Bad mix: Abrasive as he could be, Snyder inspired great loyalty among his top editors -- mainly, they say, because he was good. Yet his style didn't sit well with his new bosses at Viacom. He seemed almost instinctively to alienate them, to spark disagreements over how to run the publishing house and meld it with Viacom. ""I could give you a hundred reasons why this didn't work,'' says one senior Viacom executive. ""But it wasn't just one thing. It was all of them, together.''

The Viacom team hated Snyder's extravagance, for one. There, top execs would hop a cab or the subway to a meeting. Snyder would pull up in a stretch limo. Such ostentation especially riled Redstone. Worth more than $3 billion, he has lived in the same modest house in Newton, Mass., for 30 years and buys suits off the rack at Filene's Basement, Boston's sartorial discounter. Those big-time perks will soon be ""gone, gone, gone,'' says one Viacomer. Snyder's appetite for them was more than a needless expense; it represented a fundamental clash of values.

Viacom puts great stock in its open, collegial, freewheeling culture. It's young, hip, full of folks who spin out weekly fare for MTV and ""Beavis and Butt-head.'' Clearly, King Richard was not for them. ""We want people to be creative, to raise issues with top managers, talk out problems and share ideas,'' says this same official. That would be unthinkable at Simon & Schuster, neck-deep in bureaucracy and internecine politicking, he adds. Snyder demanded ""too much control. People were afraid to express their opinions, to be creative. There was no room for dissent or disagreement.'' The longer he was kept, the source explains, the worse the problem would become. ""Why wait?''

Not everyone buys this account. One publisher speculates that Snyder's dismissal might be an ""act of retribution.'' He favored Barry Diller, Hollywood's most famous ex-mogul, in his duel against Redstone for Paramount; now, the theory goes, it's payback time. Judith Regan, the ex-Schuster editor who published Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, claims that Snyder fell victim to a vendetta. Key lieutenants coveted his job, she intimates, and worked behind the scenes to undercut him at Viacom. Still others suggest it wasn't Snyder's style so much as his independence that brought him down. His attitude, says one Viacom adviser, could be summed up: ""Let me run the place, see you next year.''

There are lots of questions in the aftermath. For one: who's next to go? Some insiders point to editor and author Michael Korda. Simon & Schuster, they say, has lost millions on books he's written. Within the industry, there are also doubts about Snyder's successor, Jonathan Newcomb. The company's chief operating officer, he is widely considered a colorless ""numbers guy,'' out of place in the flamboyant literary world. But that may be unfair. Newcomb has overseen Simon & Schuster's education and reference divisions, accounting for more than half the company's revenues. The criticism also overlooks his experience in developing new media. Look for a ""big push'' into multimedia, the commingled new world of computers and print, Newcomb says. Look also for a series of ""global acquisitions.''

Look for something else, too. Regan expects a mass defection of editors and writers, unlikely as that may be. Some Simon & Schuster editors told Newsweek they've already been approached about joining HarperCollins, and several seem tempted. Indeed, one publisher reports that Viacom delayed moving on Snyder until Woodward's latest book, ""The Agenda,'' had safely reached bookstores. Meanwhile, Snyder has received an offer from a group of backers to buy several small houses and create a publishing company of his own -- possibly including several ""baubles'' spun off, in time, by Simon & Schuster itself. If so, who knows? Maybe Snyder will come out on top.