January 11, 2018

Rodale Books goes the way of the random penguin


In 1930, Jerome Irving (J.I.) Rodale, feeling encouraged by the success of his family’s electric switch manufacturing business, started a small, eccentric publishing company. With the idea of mixing periodicals and book content, Rodale, Inc. marketed itself as an intellectual brand, focused on self-improvement. Their first publications was 1937’s Verb-Finder, something akin to Roget’s Thesaurus, but specifically for verbs.

It was several years later when J.I. Rodale bought a farm that the vision of the company we know today really took form. Cultivating land in the wake of the Dust Bowl, he discovered sustainable farming and a return to agriculture principles that focused on soil conservation, non-chemical pest management, and heirloom seed preservation — in essence, a germ of what would become the organic food movement. With an audience of small farmers and health-conscious people around the world, Rodale envisioned a publishing company that could spread his version of wellness to the masses.

One success followed after the other. Organic Farming and Gardening (now simply Organic Gardening) became the highest circulation horticulture magazine in the world. Still, its success was nothing compared with those of subsequent Rodale publications like Men’s Health and Runner’s World. Sadly, in the year that Runner’s World began printing, J.I. Rodale collapsed dead on an episode of the Dick Cavett Show that never aired because of the incident. (The incident is briefly discussed by Dick Cavett in the documentary Unforgettable.)

Rodale also had a string of New York Times bestselling books that propelled dieting fads into the colloquial lexicon — The South Beach DietThe Abs Diet, and Wheat Belly became household terms, some of which linger long after the crazes they described have lost popularity. Rodale also published the still-bestselling Thug Kitchen kitchbook, and Al Gore’s pivotal An Inconvenient Truth, among many others.

Eight decades of independent publishing success under private, family ownership.

All that changed in October of last year when Hearst purchased the company. Conducted under the leadership of CEO Maria Rodale, the sale included the entirety of the book publishing enterprise and “20 [magazine] titles in the U.S. and more than 300 editions and websites in 31 languages and 77 countries around the world.”

Now, Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly reports this week that known gobbler of publishers Penguin Random House has bought the trade book operation from Hearst for an undisclosed sum:

With the purchase, Rodale Books’ adult nonfiction titles will be released under the Rodale Books imprint. It will become part of the Crown Publishing Group, and will be an imprint of its Illustrated and Lifestyle division, comprised of the Harmony, Ten Speed Press, and Clarkson Potter publishing programs.

It’s unclear yet how many if any of the Rodale staff will make the move to PRH. They’re keeping employees on at least for the transition, to maintain the current list and release schedule.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.