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:: By Beth Finke

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Peer Review ::

Arc of Triumph

Book publisher Mitch Rogatz has found a winning formula.

Mitch Rogatz, MBA’85, stepped out of his Glencoe, Illinois, home to fetch the New York Times. The founder and president of Triumph Books, the nation’s leading sports-book publisher, flipped to the best-seller list that spring day in 2001 as he does every Sunday morning “just for fun”—and stopped dead in his tracks. “OK, who put this in?” he remembers thinking. “I get it. April 1.”

It was no April Fool’s joke. Triumph’s Dale Earnhardt: Remembering the Intimidator was the No. 1 paperback. “It was surreal,” says Rogatz, who never gave the books section a glance until 1985, when he took a job with Chicago-based Bonus Books. Fresh out of the GSB, he managed marketing, sales, distribution, and accounting—“everything but editorial.”

A former Arthur Andersen consultant, Rogatz picked publishing as a “more sexy” alternative to the usual investment banking or consulting route. One of the first book projects he worked on was Ditka: An Autobiography. When the Bears won the 1986 Super Bowl, the book became a Chicago best-seller. “The entire city was going Bears crazy,” Rogatz recalls. “Coach Ditka was so colorful and so much in the news, his book was literally flying off shelves.”

The easy success with Ditka turned out to be the worst thing that could happen to Bonus. Going for a repeat, the company signed other coaches to write books, awarding generous advance royalties that were never recouped. A “numbers guy” with little say in the company’s direction, Rogatz grew frustrated.

So in 1989 he started Triumph Books in Chicago’s Printers Row neighborhood. “I was the only employee for the first 18 months or so,” he says, describing the windowless box of a room Triumph rented in a shared office suite. Considering sports just one avenue, Rogatz looked at entertainment and business genres as well. “I hoped a couple would take off and allow me to get some sort of momentum going.” It wasn’t that simple. Ideas for a Chicago tavern guide (never published) and a video of Ditka coaching via wireless microphone (never produced) fell flat, while a collection of American Library Association (ALA) book reviews sold few copies. An international business desk reference for Arthur Andersen & Co. was a modest success, Rogatz says, “but it took every last penny I had.”

“I was disheartened,” he admits—but not beaten. Trusting that the work he’d done to establish national sales and distribution networks would pay off, he kept at it. “Put your head down,” he told himself. “Keep your legs going, keep on going.”

The one-man marathon eventually landed Rogatz at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). “Having the ALA and Arthur Andersen as two publishing partners got me through the NCAA’s boardroom mentality,” he says, explaining how he cut a deal to repackage the organization’s 1993 football media guides into consumer products. “I plugged them into my national sales network, got them into bookstores.” Triumph scored. The NCAA contracted with Rogatz to update and sell guides for other collegiate sports. “It paid some bills,” he says. “And it let me keep on going.”

Twelve years later, with a staff of 20 and annual gross sales of $15 million, Triumph Books dominates the sports-publishing niche and is known for its quick turnaround. “The folks at Triumph are actually able to work at the frenetic pace of the media,” marvels Nancy Buzby, director of merchandising at the Boston Globe. She and Rogatz started talking about a Red Sox World Series instant book during the 2004 playoffs. “Any other publisher would’ve thought we were on crack,” says Buzby. Globe writers did the editorial work and Triumph cranked out a new chapter with each series game. “We had over 250,000 copies into stores up and down the Northeast within five business days of the last pitch,” boasts Rogatz. This past October Triumph’s White Sox commemorative books landed in stores only two days after the team’s World Series victory.

“To make this ‘instant book’ concept have a chance, we have to have a newspaper mentality,” Rogatz says. Triumph also prints coffee-table books, biographies, and autobiographies that take longer to produce. Although in an average year only five percent of titles are ‘instants,’ they make up a significant chunk of units printed.

With the Dale Earnhardt volume, for example, Triumph produced 350,000 commemorative paperbacks and had them in stores within ten days of the NASCAR star’s February 18, 2001, death at the Daytona 500. “The book was no literary masterpiece, but it was a great product for what it was meant to be—a pictorial remembrance,” Rogatz says. It was on the best-seller list for 13 weeks.

Like a proud father, Rogatz is reluctant to pick any one book, even a New York Times best-seller, as his favorite. “They’re all fun, the little instant when the book comes in from the printer, the first time you hold it in your hand....” His voice trails off before the business side kicks back in. “Of course it’s certainly more enjoyable when it sells.”

Despite being the son of Chicago CBS sports announcer Bruce Roberts and captain of his high-school basketball team, Rogatz is not a big sports fan. He rooted for Texas in this year’s Rose Bowl, but only because Triumph had a book in the queue if the Longhorns won. “If they didn’t win, we were gonna just trash it,” he says. “I was for Texas all the way that night.” (Texas beat USC 41–38).

Rogatz is equally excited about this fall’s lineup, which includes an autobiography by Superbowl favorite Jerome (The Bus) Bettis, a book from football great Paul Hornung about Coach Vince Lombardi, and a biography on hockey legend Bobby Orr. With a shelf-full of books ready to go, Rogatz looks forward to another winning season.

Editor’s note: On May 8, 2006 Triumph Books was acquired by Random House Publishing Group. Triumph will become an imprint of the group, retaining its name and focus. Its entire full-time staff, including Rogatz, who has been named president of Triumph Books, will continue to be based in Chicago.