David Rosenthal is no stranger to corporate culture. This is one reason why he covets the size of Blue Rider Press, his relatively new boutique imprint at Penguin. Size, in part, has been the key to Blue Rider’s success: at a little over two years old, the imprint has been profitable since launch.
A former magazine editor—he held top posts at Rolling Stone and New York—Rosenthal arrived at Penguin to some fanfare in late 2010, after Jonathan Karp was brought in to replace him at Simon & Schuster, where he oversaw the flagship imprint for 13 years. An editor known for his prowess with nonfiction—big names he’s edited and/or acquired run the gamut from David McCullough to Bob Woodward and Jon Krakauer to Bob Dylan—the status of Blue Rider as a small imprint within a much larger corporate entity seems to be working. Penguin president Susan Petersen Kennedy is also pleased. “It’s not surprising that Blue Rider Press has become a successful, award-winning, respected imprint. What’s surprising is how quickly they’ve accomplished it,” she told PW.
Blue Rider—the name is derived, as Rosenthal said at the time of the press’s introduction, from a German modernist art movement of the early 20th century—has been publishing books for just about two years. The staff of eight includes many S&S veterans like Rosenthal. On the editorial side, in addition to Rosenthal, is executive editor Sarah Hochman, and editor Vanessa Kehren. Rosenthal sticks largely to sports and political titles, and “what you might call the boys’ fiction,” while Hochman tends toward the literary fiction and Kehren to the more commercial fiction and “really popular and smart nonfiction.” Associate publisher Aileen Boyle often handles the celebrity books.
Publishing across the spectrum in category and size—initial printings have been anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000—Blue Rider has had a mix of expected hits and sleepers. In 2012, nine of the imprint’s 24 titles hit bestseller lists. According to numbers provided by the press, one of Blue Rider’s bestselling titles of 2011 was Stephanie Madoff Mack’s The End of Normal, which has over 79,000 copies in circulation across three printings and “strong e-book sales.” Goodnight iPad by Ann Droyd, which was also released in 2011, now has 262,000 copies in circulation over 11 printings. Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman’s The Dude and the Zen Master, published in 2013, has fared well too, with 48,000 copies in print over three printings. And one of the press’s biggest titles, still new in its sales cycle, is Neil Young’s memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, which came out in September and, after 356,000 copies were produced over four printings, has landed on numerous bestseller lists and is posting “strong e-book sales.”
And, though he’s a star pitcher now, R.A. Dickey was not a big name when his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, was released by Blue Rider in March 2012. When the Toronto Blue Jays pitcher was with the New York Mets and a lesser name on the team’s lineup, expectations for the book were modest. That the title was well received, and that Dickey went on to achieve a late career breakout (winning the Cy Young in 2012 after years shuttling between the major and minor leagues), have helped the book immeasurably. Rosenthal said the title “came out of nowhere” and is up to, in print and digital, over 100,000 units sold. (It has also been adapted by Dickey into the recently released children’s title, Throwing Strikes, from Dial Books for Young Readers.)
Last year Blue Rider released 24 original hardcovers and, Rosenthal estimated, it will publish the same number this year. Though he credits the imprint’s success to picking the right titles and marketing them effectively—he described the list as “select books I’m fond of that I think have an opportunity not only to stand as good books but that can also be published well”—he believes smaller is, indeed, better. “I’ve had to publish over 100 books a year at Simon & Schuster and now, doing 25–30 titles a year... it’s a lot better. You can focus more. You can talk to writers more. The large imprints are blessed with size, size being something that disguises a whole lot of good things as well as a whole lot of problems. We’re kind of bare. Every book is important, and you can experiment, too.”