Thursday, Aug 20, 2009 Dedicated Issue: Quirk Books

Quirk Books thanks booksellers for making Pride and Prejudice and Zombies an International Best Seller!

Quirk Books: Life now comes with an Owner's Manual

Quirk: The Stuff (and Jokes) Every Man Should Know by Brett Cohen

Quirk: Your one-stop shop for Halloween

The Secret Lives Series from Quirk Books

Editors' Note

In Honor of an Irreference Publisher

With support from the publisher, Shelf Awareness offers this dedicated issue about Quirk Books, one of the funkiest publishers in the business.


Read the cannon


Quirk Books: A History

Located in a quaint, quirky building on a quaint, quirky cobblestone street near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Quirk Books started in 2002 with what founder, president and publisher David Borgenicht called "an amazing launch."

With both "industry capital and true capital" from the monster hit Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, which Borgenicht had co-written and published with Chronicle Books, the company's first titles "sold in ridiculous quantities," he said. Instantly "we had growth and a track record as a startup publisher." The company was helped in large part by Chronicle, its distributor, which, Borgenicht said, got Quirk titles into a range of accounts.

The company's aim, which has remained constant, was on creating books that "sell as much outside bookstores as in bookstores" and are "not just resources but in many cases gift books," Borgenicht said. "They are crossovers, meant to be bought by readers and gift givers--gifts as much as resource." Quirk also aims, he said, to create books that "become buzzworthy, the object of desire and conversation, and priced to reach the largest audience possible."

Now Quirk Books has another monster hit, but the house is in a different, more solid position, Borgenicht said, one that came in response to a correction that followed the initial growth spurt. "The downside of having a really successful start was that we didn't go through the usual bootstrapping," Borgenicht continued. "We didn't have to ask the usual questions: Are we printing too much? Are we spending too much? Are we publishing too much?"

But that period eventually arrived, and Quirk Books spent "a lot of time refocusing and restructuring to position ourselves to succeed over the long run and not be a kind of flash-in-the-pan phenomenon," Borgenicht said. "We learned the lessons of going too fast and not controlling the business enough."

During the time of restructuring, Quirk "honed" its approach. "We don't want necessarily to publish more and more books," Borgenicht said. "We're trying to publish more of the better ones." As a result, the company cut back its list to about 25 a year from as many as 35. Similarly the staff, which started with five in 2002 and had as many as 21 at one point, now numbers 15.

This spring Quirk was ready when it published Pride and Prejudice and Zombies--the bestselling title in its history--which has led to "another period of incredible growth," Borgenicht said. This latest spurt of "growth and bestsellerdom" has given the company a foundation "to be a publisher that will be around for a long, long time," he stated.


Quirk Books: Everyday Astrology by Gary Goldschneider

Monster Mash: The Launching of Quirk Classics

Quirk Classics has typical quirky beginnings. As editorial director Jason Rekulak remembered it, he noticed what he called "creative copyright infringement" on the Internet: for example, TV shows taking movie trailer footage and inserting it into their own shows. He wondered how Quirk Books might do something like that without getting sued. This led him to write up two lists, one consisting of well-known public domain titles like War and Peace, Moby Dick and Jane Eyre. The other list was of "things to enhance" the titles that included pirates, ninjas, robots, monkeys and more. He drew a line between Pride and Prejudice and zombies. "As soon as I drew that line," he said. "I knew I had it."

He read parts of Austen's book and easily envisioned an "enhanced" version, he said. For example, "Mr. Bennet sharpening a dagger or cleaning a musket while Mrs. Bennet was talking." Rekulak approached Seth Grahame-Smith, with whom he had worked before on such titles as How to Survive a Horror Movie. Grahame-Smith liked the idea immediately.

The book was supposed to come out last month with a print run of 10,000. But in February a blogger obtained from a distributor the cover image and back cover blurb of the book and wrote about it. The information went viral "in a way we've always wanted to do," Rekulak noted, and there was immediate movie interest.

The book moved to the top 100 in Amazon and stayed there. Quirk moved the publication date to April 1, and "the anticipation for it was ridiculous." Most reviews were positive. "A few Austen fans were upset," but most like the book, Rekulak said. The book is still on the New York Times bestseller lists and has more than 850,000 copies in print and has been sold for translation into 19 other languages.

The buzz was "indie driven as well as consumer and fan driven," Rekulak continued. "People just rallied around it."

As sometimes happens with Quirk titles, some retailers were confused about where to shelve Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The book has been put in YA, fiction, humor and SF. Nielsen has categorized it as nonfiction parody. As it took off, most retailers moved it to the front of the store, meeting customer demand. "We struggle with categories all the time, especially because we're doing unconventional formats and titles," Rekulak said. The company does offer category recommendations on all titles.

After the wild success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Quirk Books decided to continue the theme and created Quirk Classics. The second title, also featuring a Penguin Classics-style design, is Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

It's a crowded field now, but Quirk's Austen-based bestseller allow Quirk to express some pride, if not prejudice. "Supernatural romance is booming," Rekulak commented. "And after the Twilight series, we have the best branded supernatural romance."

In devising the second Quirk Classics title, Rekulak quickly decided to continue with Jane Austen. For one, she stirs more passion than most classic authors and is more familiar than many. "Everyone knows Pride and Prejudice from reading it in high school," Rekulak said.

He decided not to use zombies again because of overexposure. He considered vampires. "People said we had to do vampires," Rekulak said. But vampires aren't funny, he continued, and "at least three Austen vampire books were being crashed for the fall."

Rekulak's ghoul of choice for the new book, sea monsters, draw on "fun Celtic mythology, Jules Verne, Lost and Jaws," among other things. He hired Ben H. Winters to collaborate with Austen. The first printing for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is 300,000, and pub date is September.

Last month at Comic Con in San Diego, response to the second Quirk Classics title was "phenomenal," Rekulak reported. Show attendees were buying sea monster giant squid T-shirts. "In that world, sea monsters are very popular," he noted.

Quirk has plans to publish two more titles in the Quirk Classics series, one in March 2010 and another in June 2010.

Quirk Books: CSI and Interactive Mystery by Sam Stall

Book Brahmin: Ben H. Winters

In Quirk Books's follow-up to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, co-authored by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Ben H. Winters teams up with Austen to plumb the salt-water depths with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Here he answers a few questions we posed:

On your nightstand now:

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn--both contemporary fiction, both super enjoyable. Also, I became a big fan of Jules Verne while writing Sea Monsters, and I'm finishing up The Mysterious Island.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I don't know if the Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook counts. If not, I'll go with The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I must have read that book a hundred times.

Your top five authors:

Charles Dickens, P.D. James, Mark Twain, David McCullough, and (hoping I can include one playwright) Martin McDonagh.

Book you've faked reading:

Robert Caro's three-volume Years of Lyndon Johnson. I kept talking big about how I was going to read it, until my wife called my bluff by buying all three volumes for my birthday. Now they're in my closet, taunting me. Bluff called!

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. Anytime someone talks about Midnight's Children, I do that annoying thing: "If you liked Midnight's Children, you'll love The Tin Drum."

Book you've bought for the cover:

Seamus Heaney's verse translation of Beowulf (great sea monster story, by the way). It's this warrior's face, draped in chain-mail, and it makes you go, "This isn't musty old poetry--this is action/adventure!"

Book that changed your life:

I used to read Dave Barry's syndicated column in the Washington Post and buy the collections when they came out. He really made me laugh and inspired me to start writing funny things. I'm sure I shamefully ripped him off when I wrote my college humor column.

Favorite line from a book:

It's hard to pick one line, but the section in David Copperfield where David gets drunk for the first time is my favorite funny passage in literature. "I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair--only my hair, nothing else--looked drunk."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

What it's like co-writing with Jane Austen:

Infinitely rewarding. Austen is clever, decorous, and very funny in her own sly way. In other words, she's the perfect straight man.

Type of sea monster you'd most like to encounter again:

I had a lot of fun creating the "Devonshire Fang Beast"--mostly in foreshadowing it. I think I shall miss him most of all.

Type of sea monster you'd least like to encounter again:

There's this nasty demonic sea-scorpion thing that attaches itself (literally, not in the Austen sense) to one of the protagonists. That thing freaks me out.

What was the most fun part of this assignment:

Seeking out the delightful vocabulary words Austen might have used to describe the monsters, if she had included them in the first place; words like "mucocutaneous" and "bioluminescence."

Quirk Licensed Books--and Interactive Mysteries

Quirk has taken a slightly different approach to its licensed books, choosing to work with long-established brands such as DC Comics, Lucasfilm and Elvis Presley instead of "flavor of the month" licenses. "We want to publish only licensed books that are good books first, licensed books second--so that the license becomes the icing on the cake," Borgenicht said. Quirk's most successful licensed books have been The Batman Handbook, The Indiana Jones Handbook and Graceland: An Interactive Tour.

Quirk's upcoming interactive book CSI: An Interactive Mystery, is based on the CBS TV hit show CSI: Las Vegas. Like the other interactive mysteries Qurik has published (The Crimes of Dr. Watson, Batman: Murder at Wayne Manor and Dracula's Heir), this original CSI novella includes removable clues and ephemera to help readers solve the crime: in this case, plastic evidence bags and evidence folders containing photographs, notes and a cut-up sheet of paper that has to be pieced back together to be read. There's also a haiku anthology with bloodstains on its pages and blueprints that fold out. The company wanted to include a bag with hair in it, but "it looked fake," Rekulak said.

Rekulak noted that CSI: Las Vegas, "is arguably one of the most popular TV shows on the planet," with more than 84 million viewers in the U.S. and abroad in 2008.


Quirky Humor

No joke: Quirk does not consider itself a humor publisher. "We try to avoid books that will go into the humor section," Rekulak said. "We tend to do books that exist in other parts of the store but happen to be funny." David Borgenicht called these titles "irreference books: hybrids of humor and reference. They are two concepts of books mushed together like Reese's Peanut Butter cups. We take two things that don't go together and create something new that works."

A crucial element of these is that there is a serious side to the books. As Borgenicht put it: "They have real substance that and are not just a joke. The reader learns something from them."

One example is The Baby Owner's Manual, which contains the kind of information from a pediatrician found in other parenting books but has a kind of presentation that seems like "something translated from English to Japanese and back to English," as Rekulak put it. The book, published in 2003, has "no contractions, no jokes," he continued. Because it reads and looks like a TV manual, it had appeal around the world, selling more than 400,000 copies in the U.S. and has been translated into 22 languages. Like The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, it has given birth to a series of books such as The Dog Owner's Manual and The Sex Instruction Manual.

Still, Borgenicht noted that although the company has "gravitated toward more quirky substantive books, we sometimes do a ridiculous humor book because we have to." One example is The Quotable Douchebag, which has a September 1 pub date. The book features "brash and arrogant" quotations from famous men and women.

"Some bookstore accounts don't want to go near The Quotable Douchebag," Rekulak said. "If I were a sales rep, maybe I couldn't present it to some accounts, but with others I couldn't wait to show them."

Another example of ridiculous humor is Penis Pokey, a 2006 board book with no text and holes strategically placed on each illustrated page. The proposal came in the slush pile, and Rekulak thought it would not work. But, he said, "Everyone came in to borrow the dummy to show others," an unusual response. Already more than 150,000 copies have sold.

This fall's list includes what one might call Son of Penis Pokey: The Penis Pokey Activity Book, which includes a pen (!) to be used on some connect-the-dot pictures, a maze and blank pages. Other titles are Dirty Jokes Every Man Should Know, The Secret Lives of Great Composers and Everyday Astrology by Gary Goldschneider, author of The Secret Language of Birthdays. Together with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, they should make this a quality season for Quirk.



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