The Quirky Side of Publishing
Five years ago, the newly formed Quirk Books was a baby in the book publishing industry achieving very adult-like success. In its first year, the Philadelphia-based independent book publisher sold 150,000 copies of “The Action Hero’s Handbook.” In the years that followed, the company sustained that level of success by consistently thinking outside the box—or rather, outside the book.
“I’ve always thought of Quirk as ultimately not just a publishing company, “ says President and Founder David Borgenicht, who co-wrote “The Action Hero’s Handbook” as well as a variety of other popular titles, including “The Worst-Case Scenario” series. “We’ve always had the attitude of an entertainment company. We produce creative, informative, irreverent, gifty content that has potential in bookstores, gift stores, has reached people online … [and] in other forms of merchandise. … That’s always been a big part of the mission and the brand. …”
Borgenicht spoke with Book Business about his fresh, nontraditional approach to publishing, and how he has extended his quirky brand far beyond the book and the bookstore.
● What are the biggest challenges you’re facing as a publisher?
David Borgenicht: Quirk Books is now … entering its sixth year of business. So we’re out of infancy and into toddler-hood, if not the tween years. I think, to some extent, the challenges we face are the same as any business in this stage—in terms of looking at our strengths and weaknesses and opportunities now that we have some history, and deciding where to go next.
… The [other] challenges we’re now facing: … I think because of the kinds of books we’ve created and succeeded with, such as “The Worst-Case Scenario” series, the handbooks [and] the hip parenting books [and] the irreverent reference books we’ve made, there’s more competition than ever from other publishers. Other publishers have caught on to our dirty, little secret. I think books need to continue to evolve, and publishers need to think about books as we do—not just as text and art, but as objects of desire that can compete with video games and iPods and DVDs, and all the other things that are vying for people’s entertainment time and dollars these days. ... I think for publishers to continue to succeed, and for Quirk to continue to succeed, we need to think of ourselves all as trendsetters and exciting creators of entertainment product, as much as we think of ourselves as makers of books. … We all need to continue to create new formats [and] new business opportunities, because of the fact [that] we are very much the starting place for a lot of the entertainment that’s created … [such as] hit movies and TV shows and other merchandise. I really hope that the industry as a whole embraces that fact and really starts to publish in that way. It’s certainly an attitude that we have and that has served us well, and will continue to be a major part of our future success. …
● How do you remain competitive in this environment?
Borgenicht: … After the first couple of years, we made a very conscious shift in the type of titles we published. The first couple of seasons of Quirk Books were much heavier on the impulse [books] than the last several seasons. We had great success with [impulse] titles that were very front-list driven, but it was a short life cycle. … Those kinds of books don’t backlist. The books that we’ve seen really backlist, like “The Baby Owner’s Manual,” are books that we’ve consistently sold like 50,000 or 60,000 [copies] per year. … [Therefore,] we’ve very consciously shifted the balance of Quirk from 50-percent impulse and 50-percent irreverent reference to more in favor of the irreverent reference that we create so well. … We also made a conscious shift to find the high end of quirky. Most of the books in our first few years were under $20, and, over the past couple years, we’ve found ways to publish Quirk books at $25 and $40 and higher price points, which obviously helps a lot. We don’t sell 150,000 copies of those titles, but selling 40,000 [copies] of a $40 book is just as good.
● How has rights and licensing played a role in your business?
Borgenicht: … One of the things that makes Quirk unique is that we originate or develop the concept for 75 percent to 80 percent of the books we publish. … [So,] we can control most of the rights and the subrights and most of the merchandising rights, and we’ve really made that a major part of our business already. … We acquire books from agents and packagers as well, but because most [of our books] are conceived and developed in-house, that gives Quirk a unique opportunity to maximize subrights and licensing and other channels of revenue from the content we create. And that does position us to be an entertainment company more than a lot of publishers have an opportunity to be. … We’re not a publisher that just does a land-grab for rights, but we very consciously maximize and look to sell our books in all the different ways you can sell books, at all different kinds of retailers and to all different kinds of licensers, in all different kinds of mediums. …
● How do you set financial goals for Quirk?
Borgenicht: Setting financial goals has been an interesting challenge for us. … We didn’t have to struggle for cash from the start, because the books were selling in much larger numbers than one would reasonably think a small, startup publisher would sell. We also had the benefit of owning “The Worst-Case Scenario” brand, which was a huge franchise from a licensing and a publishing perspective, and that was bringing in a lot of revenue as well. …
We almost postponed the startup phase for a couple of years until the realities of publishing set in a bit, and we started to see returns and looked at how much inventory we had that wasn’t moving anymore, and had to really address the kinds of questions a startup business usually has to address in the first couple of years. … Now, [we have] the benefit of history behind us in a lot of different areas [such as] our retail sales … and our growth and profitability in custom publishing. … [And] as we see the history and potential of … more digital and more Web-oriented ventures, it becomes easier to set financial goals. In general, we believe that by the end of 2010, we can be a company that generates half its revenue outside of the retail environment of book publishing. We’re not there yet, but right now I think the potential of subrights, licensing, nontraditional custom publishing and other new areas is really significant, and is going to be a big part of our future.
… By thinking of Quirk as an entertainment company and a creator of quirky products, it gives us an opportunity to look at other kinds of companies that are having successes, whether they’re toy companies or stationery companies or Web sites, and look at their business models and take some calculated risks about where we want to go. … It’s risky to the extent that we’re not looking at our existing accounts and projecting growth just based on those existing accounts. At the same time, when you look at … the flatness that exists in terms of bookselling, and the softness that exists in the retail marketplace, I feel like it’s less of a risk to try to expand in the areas of new business and licensing and rights than there is in just relying on all our key accounts to be around forever. …
● Last year, your company inked a deal with CBS Interactive, in which CBS produced a series of webisodes based on the Quirk title, “How to Survive a Horror Movie.” What has the reaction been to the webisodes?
Borgenicht: … People were definitely intrigued and admired, or were jealous of, the fact that a major media company was essentially becoming a marketing partner for our book, in addition to giving us a little bit of money to license it. The deal we did with CBS was much more of a marketing and promotional deal than it was a big licensing deal. … It impacted sales of the book. ... It was a book that we had modest expectations for, but … it became a book that was much more a sleeper success last year.
● How did that deal come about?
Borgenicht: … [It came] about because of the author’s connections. … We’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past five years building up relationships and connections in Hollywood. … I think the [CBS deal] is … indirectly a result of those efforts. The author we hired to write the book was someone who, at one point, we were working with in a “producerial” capacity … to pitch a TV series based on our “Baby Owner’s Manual.” So [the deal was a result] of the fact that we were networking out there, and pitching shows and getting options and pilots signed.
… We have [also] done some custom publishing with film studios now for books based on some of their [movies]. [For example,] we did a book with Paramount last year, a “Blades of Glory” quote book, which we didn’t distribute to the trades. … We produced [it] for Paramount to sell to Circuit City with the DVD [as a package]. … We’ve really seen the power of the entertainment industry as a whole, and have the attitude that we’re a part of it. …
● Will you be focusing on more of these types of deals in the future?
Borgenicht: Online licensing is definitely a big part of our present and future. We’ve done deals with several Web sites, licensing our content to them. … We did a major deal a year ago with [cooking site] Chow.com for many of our field guides and cookbooks. They licensed the content for their site … and, in exchange, they paid us some money, but also promote the books. … We’ve also done a similar deal with these very clever social networking sites for pet lovers, Dogster and Catster, for our dog owner’s and cat owner’s manuals. … So it’s really just the tip of the iceberg for us in terms of pursuing that as another potential business and marketing opportunity.