David Rosenthal Puts on His Penguin Suit

The problem with losing your job when you’re a high-level executive in contemporary book publishing is that your options are basically to become a literary agent or do something vague and most likely super-boring involving e-books. So one could have forgiven David Rosenthal for feeling a little gloomy this past summer after being fired abruptly from Simon & Schuster and being replaced by Jonathan Karp, a guy 10 years his junior, at the head of the CBS-owned publisher’s flagship imprint. 

This week Mr. Rosenthal is celebrating a happy landing. On Tuesday morning, it was announced that come January he will be running his own boutique imprint at Penguin Group USA, arguably the healthiest of the big New York houses as well as home to a number of the 56-year-old’s former colleagues. Once he gets going, Mr. Rosenthal–whose roster at Simon & Schuster included Bob Woodward, David McCullough, Bob Dylan and Jim Cramer–will be on charge of a small but full-fledged operation at Penguin, with dedicated publicity and marketing muscle and a list totaling somewhere between 24 and 36 books per year.

Over lunch on Tuesday at the Half King in Chelsea, Mr. Rosenthal said Penguin president Susan Petersen Kennedy reached out to him shortly after his firing, and had been “aggressive and enthusiastic” in their talks. He is stoked to go work for her, he said: “People at Penguin don’t bitch about their place of employ nearly as much as people elsewhere. Everybody says, ‘The only person you ever want to work for in publishing anymore is Susan.'”

Initially, Mr. Rosenthal considered another path after he was canned–doing something Web-related, for instance, or becoming a packager, a consultant or “a guru of some kind”–but in the end he resolved to stick with traditional book publishing. It wasn’t a self-evident decision, if only because book sales have been falling so severely in recent years that many in the industry are panicked about the long-term viability of their business.

“People have been depressed!” Mr. Rosenthal said, taking a bite of a club sandwich. “The things that we all used to do that worked–not all of them are working anymore. These are smart people, who basically know how to acquire, edit and sell a book–and when the thing they used to sell 100 copies of for years suddenly sells 40 copies–it’s like, well, what the fuck do I do?”

Mr. Rosenthal, naturally, is optimistic, and intends to run a profitable operation.

“If I can’t publish books profitably, they should fire my ass again,” he said. 

The numbers he might have expected in better times, however, are understood to be out of reach.

“I think you want a few books on your list that can generate a million and a half to two million dollars in sales,” he said, “and maybe years ago with the bigger imprints–certainly at Simon & Schuster–you needed a few books that could drive three, four, and five million. I mean, that’s a little tricky now.”

Mr. Rosenthal said he is looking forward to overseeing a smaller list than he did at his old job, where he was publishing so many books–over a hundred a year–that he couldn’t even read them all. He’s also planning to publish only books he really believes in, a luxury he couldn’t afford when he worked at a place where sales expectations were such that he had to occasionally acquire titles that were “a little on the sleazy side” in order to make his numbers.

He said his iPhone had “crashed” under the volume of emails he’d received since his imprint–not yet named, though he swears it won’t be eponymous–was announced on Tuesday morning. He was touched!

“The industry can use a little zetz,” he said. “Maybe I’m this week’s little zetz. I mean, it’s a story about doing a book imprint–it’s not a story about electronics, it’s not a story about international rights, it’s not a story about a court case. It’s a story about somebody starting an imprint and doing some books! You know, it’s an old-fashioned publishing story! Holy shit!”

Having finished only half his club sandwich and made barely a dent in his fries, Mr. Rosenthal put on his reading glasses and took out his iPhone to find an email of congratulations in his in-box from none other than Mr. Karp. Mr. Rosenthal called it gracious. David Rosenthal Puts on His Penguin Suit