Riverhead picked a good year to turn 20. In January, the Penguin Random House imprint released the bestselling On Such A Full Sea, by critical darling Chang-Rae Lee. In the spring, the final book from the late literary giant Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise, also hit the bestseller lists. Summer brought Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, one of the biggest books of the beach-going season. And this fall, A Brief History of Seven Killings novelist Marlon James landed on the cover of Publishers Weekly’s issue devoted to the best books of 2014 (Lee also made PW’s cut, in addition to another Riverhead author: Helen Oyeyemi, for Boy, Snow, Bird).
Throughout this milestone year, v-p and publisher Geoffrey Kloske admitted that those at the imprint have been “looking back a little bit more than we normally would,” taking stock of what Riverhead has accomplished and endured in the last two decades. Despite coming of age in one of the most disruptive periods in publishing history, Riverhead’s foundational goal has held firm, said Kloske. “Riverhead was [created] for discovery of emerging authors, and that’s something more or less we’ve remained true to,” he said, adding that “a good portion” of the imprint’s list is devoted to debuts or early-stage authors.
This long-term publishing strategy of building each author’s career, rather than focusing on a single format or publication, requires “elbow grease” and patience, said Kloske. “It’s really hard,” he continued. “You have to have the ability to work with someone over enough time... in order to get to that place where you can finally reach the audience you hope to.” Some of the earliest books the imprint published were by authors who are still with Riverhead today—Drown, by Junot Diaz; The Color of Water, by James McBride (whose The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction); and Lee’s Native Speaker. The roster of authors now also includes Nick Hornby, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Lamott, and Meg Wolitzer.
Founded as a division of Putnam in 1994 by Susan Petersen Kennedy, the new venture was intended to be a home for, as Kloske put it, “distinct, idiosyncratic, and voice-driven” projects. Riverhead became part of Penguin following Putnam’s purchase of Penguin and, like all of Penguin, is now part of Penguin Random House. “Penguin Random House has extraordinary capabilities,” said Kloske. “We do everything we can to leverage all those many, many strengths. But Riverhead is small. The imprint can fit in the elevator.”
Kennedy, who will step down as president of Penguin Group USA at the end of 2014, echoed Kloske’s characterization of the imprint as an intimate, author-driven place. “The quality of the writing was always important and remains so, but first and foremost Riverhead was meant to be personal,” she said. “We wanted to be personally invested in every book we published... [by] writers who made us laugh, made us cry, enlarged our understanding of the human condition. Writers who made each of us feel less alone, and writers who made the ‘other being’ before us more comprehensible. We wanted to be their midwife, their shepherd, their companion, their admirer. And we wanted to look after them as the years went by because we knew they carried something timeless.”
As Riverhead’s 22 employees stick by the imprint’s original credo, they also strive for innovation—especially in the increasingly difficult task of getting debut novels and relative unknowns into the hands of readers. One way they achieve this, Kloske said, is by creating “publicity kits like you’ve never seen before.” To that end, the imprint hired publicity director Jynne Dilling Martin away from Random House in 2011 and, this year, added associate publisher to her title.
“There is a sense that because we are so small, we are all entrusted with the entire list and making it work,” said Martin. “The overall Riverhead list is small enough that our whole publicity and marketing team reads more or less every book we publish.” Martin holds group brainstorms, where all members of the publicity and marketing departments are meant to contribute “out of box” ideas on every title. One broad tactic the imprint employs is partnering with companies to “push book content where it formerly didn’t exist,” said Martin. In the last year, Riverhead placed an “especially sexy” Etgar Keret short story on a dating site, and paired with printer MakerBot to create the first-ever 3-D-printed slipcover for On Such a Full Sea.
Martin also spearheaded the 20th-anniversary celebrations, which kicked off with a panel at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in February. In May, at BookExpo America in New York, Riverhead hosted more than 400 people at an anniversary party on the Hudson River. The highlight of the celebratory year, said Kloske, came in September, when, in conjunction with NPR’s Moth Radio Hour, five Riverhead writers—James, Wolitzer, McBride, Maile Meloy, and Jon Ronson, with Sarah Vowell as host—told stories to a sold-out audience at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, in a show titled “20 Years of Riverhead.”
In keeping with what Kloske describes as Riverhead’s “author-focused” atmosphere, the imprint’s writers have participated in various anniversary events throughout the year, in addition to the Moth collaboration. At the Riverhead holiday party in December, Wolitzer and Straub will be providing the cookies, novelist Andrea Chapin the chocolate cake, and The Miniature Wife writer Manuel Gonzales and Save the Date author Jen Doll the pies.
Looking ahead to the next twenty years, Kloske acknowledged that despite the steadfast Riverhead model, the industry’s fluctuating landscape has made change the new norm. “We do books that decades ago would have been review driven,” said Kloske. “As that space became scarcer, we had to fight harder and come up with new ideas, new gambits. Just when you think you have it all sorted, everything shifts a little bit. And that keeps it exciting.”