Cover Story: The Two Sides of David Borgenicht
Amid the gussied up romances, male action fables and screenplay-bound interpersonal dramas making up The New York Times’ trade fiction best-seller list, one book stands out like a corpse at a wedding. It’s called “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” currently the only book on the list to combine gory scenes of zombie mayhem with the romantic exploits of a beloved Victorian-era literary heroine. Nothing in the book world in recent months has made the kind of splash (or should we say, splatter) that this title has, from the frantic Internet buzz greeting the announcement in February of its publication to the huge sales following its release this spring. The book has even been added to the curriculum at several university English departments.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was the brainchild of Jason Rekulak, editorial director at Quirk Books, a small publisher headquartered along a genteel block in the Old City section of Philadelphia. “We thought it was hilarious,” recalls company President and Publisher David Borgenicht. “I was a little uncertain as to whether it would find a market, who it would appeal to, but we all agreed the idea was too crazy not to try it.”
Combining a Jane Austen classic with schlock horror may be unpalatable to some, but such unorthodox pairings have proven a recipe for success at Quirk Books, which has also gained notice for an unconventional sales and licensing strategy designed to put its books, in the words of Borgenicht, “in the world at large.”
“I think it’s the attitude that the books we create need to be as compelling as iPhones,” he says. “If you are thinking about books that are going to sell in places other than bookstores, then you are not just competing with other books. You are competing with t-shirts and fart makers and candlesticks and music and DVDs and all these things.”
In an era of platform-neutral thinking, the most radical notion Quirk brings to the table is not that of dropping zombies into classic fiction. It’s seeing the printed book itself as central to a business model. If conventional books are like letters, nice to have, but losing ground to electronic delivery, then Quirk books are like singing telegrams—flashy, attention-grabbing and irreplaceable.
“Because we are trying to create books that cross over outside of the book trade, we need to create books that are objects of desire in all the ways that they can be,” Borgenicht says. “We want you to walk into a store and notice it because the cover looks great. Maybe then you read the title, and you’re amused because it’s a clever concept, and then when you open it up you find—surprisingly—that it’s really good, or there’s something really useful in there, and you buy it. We always want people to have that kind of experience.”
Borgenicht cut his teeth at Running Press in the ’90s, where he came to appreciate nontraditional bookselling strategies. Even then, he says, bookstores were beginning to feel pressure from other sales channels, and returns were, of course, a perennial problem. He saw the advantage of creating products that had a “broader reach and bigger brand,” and consequently, when he launched Quirk in 2002, he decided it was important to establish a strong brand identity.
“I wanted consumers to know what a Quirk book is, and come to our Web site because they think we are cool and interesting,” he says. “I wanted us to be a publishing company with the attitude of an entertainment company—that is to say, we are not just publishers, we are not just providers of content, we are here for entertainment as much as video games and iPods. We are another cool option.”
By approaching book publishing with the sensibility of an entertainment company, Borgenicht was able to embrace the idea of the crossover or hybrid book—encyclopedias that were also funny, for instance, or a reference book designed as a gift book. He left his enduring mark on the industry right out of the gate with the “Worst-Case Scenario” book series (he co-authored the inaugural book and several others in the series), launched in partnership with Chronicle Books—“probably the best publisher out there at getting books sold in nontraditional places,” he says.
Sales of the “Worst-Case Scenario” books were initially fueled by specialty and gift shops, and the brand was licensed in a number of formats. Within a few years of the series’ release, the brand truly did seem to be everywhere, eventually even spawning a reality TV series.
From there, Quirk moved into a variety of titles, from relationships to comedy, pop-culture history and gardening. Borgenicht stresses that he is always open to new book ideas and innovative ways to sell them, adding that bookstores have been, and will continue to be, an important part of this mix, and have, in fact, played a big role in the success of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
“My vision from the early days at Running Press was to create books that I knew could sell in a lot of different ways in a lot of different places to a lot of different people,” he says.
Quirk has never had a big marketing budget, Borgenicht says, relying on the built-in publicity that comes from publishing series and sequels (in which a self-reinforcing brand helps both front and backlist titles), as well as word of mouth. “When you can get people talking about your books, that is the best strategy,” he says. “If you get booksellers talking about it, you sell to more booksellers. If you get more consumers talking about it, you sell to more consumers. We try to come up with books that people want to share.”
Another aspect of Borgenicht’s vision for the company was to avoid large acquisition fees by developing projects in-house and hiring outside writers. “As a result,” he says, “we end up being able to control more of the rights to [an idea] which, in turn, means we are able to do more licensing and marketing with it.”
Such an arrangement allows for a high level of creativity, and an ability to look at wider trends in pop culture and develop products that fit the moment; it also makes it easier to plan and establish strong brands and marketable franchises. If such an approach sounds less like the book industry than, say, a software development company, Borgenicht doesn’t mind the comparison.
“We [publishers] are at [our] best when we are innovative, finding great, new voices and coming up with cool, new concepts, and putting them out to the marketplace and creating buzz-worthy books,” he says. “What we need more of is publishers with great instincts, willing to take risks.”
Citing recent comments by Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Karp of Hachette Book Group imprint Twelve, who has criticized the industry for its habit of releasing books that adhere to proven or trendy formulas and themes, Borgenicht says there are too many “me too” publishers out there, “… trying to grab each other’s authors or knock each other off. We’ve had plenty of that happen to us, and we just tend not to care because we know we are a company that values that innovative, creative impulse rather than an author or a format.”
Aspects of Quirk’s approach are popping up in recent ventures, such as HarperStudio, which seek to cultivate an edgy, entrepreneurial spirit and experimentation in marketing and distribution. Borgenicht believes there needs to be a realization that older paradigms of book acquisition, development and marketing need to be brought in line with wider trends in media, as well as consumer expectations. In this competitive environment, books, he has said, need to work harder—as, presumably, publishers do, too.
“Nobody needs any more books,” he says, “so we have to make them want them. There has to be a compelling reason for something to exist these days.”
What all this means for the likelihood of another zombie-meets-classic-literature tome showing up soon on the best-seller lists is anyone’s guess. Captain Ahab meets Frankenstein, anyone?