The undead have created a whole new life for Quirk Books, the brains — or rather the BRAAAINS! — behind the monster best-seller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Quirk, an independent publisher that started with a series of tongue-in-cheek guides for surviving highly unlikely misfortunes, has established the hybrid “mashup” genre bending of out-of-copyright classics and horror-fied kitsch.
“It has in a way become kind of a modern, or a postmodern, classic,” said Quirk president and founder David Borgenicht, whose 15-person staff works in an inconspicuous building on a cobblestone-paved side street in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. “That wasn’t at all our intent. It was simply too crazy not to publish.”
Ever look at something and ask yourself why you didn’t think of it first? That’s one way Quirk comes up with its titles.
“When we have an idea and say, `If this was a book, I’d buy it,’” Borgenicht said, “that instinct is key.”
It was creative director Jason Rekulak’s idea to add lumbering hordes of discourteous flesh-eaters to Jane Austen’s 19th-century comedy of manners, “Pride and Prejudice,” spawning a monstrous hit.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Quirk’s first foray into fiction, debuted in April 2009 at No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list. It since has sold more than a million copies, been translated into nearly two dozen languages, been made into a graphic novel and an iPhone game, and been optioned for the big screen.
“Quirk has great quality to their books and an incredible design sense,” said University of Baltimore professor Arnold T. Blumberg, who teaches a class on zombies in popular culture. “It’s kind of heartening: You hear about how old-fashioned print is dying and here’s a company creating things that get widespread attention, good-looking books that stand out on the shelf, that you want to own.”
The book’s success says as much about the iconic nature of “Pride and Prejudice” as it does about the popularity of zombies, he added.
“Jane Austen, and that one book especially, has become a major cultural touchstone for so many people,” he said.
The runaway success of “Zombies” established Quirk, a privately held company that does not release financial data, as creator of the mashup genre. It also launched a cottage industry of copycats from “Jayne Slayre” to “Little Vampire Women.”
“To some extent it saturates the market, but at the same time we know what made `Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ work wasn’t just the title,” Borgenicht said. “It’s a lot more thoughtful, hard work in order to create something that will be remembered and read, that goes beyond being just a gratuitous novelty.”
When the blogosphere started buzzing months before the release of “Zombies,” Rekulak knew the company had a hit and wanted to capitalize on the momentum. He quickly came up with “Sense and Sensibility and SeaMonsters,” released just five months after its predecessor, which also became a best-seller with more than 375,000 copies in print.
“There are discussions and articles about the (mashup) trend, what it all means, where it came from. I can say undisputedly that it came from Jason at Quirk Books, directly from his head,” said “Sea Monsters” author Ben H. Winters.
Winters, who also wrote sci-fi Tolstoy mashup “Android Karenina” for Quirk, said the company’s success lies in its “clearly defined aesthetic.”
“It’s parody but it doesn’t feel cynical,” he said. “They’re laid back, funny, interesting people doing laid back, funny, interesting work.”
Quirk recently left the Victorian era for space, the final frontier, with “Night of the Living Trekkies” and its heroes using their science-nerd knowledge to battle zombies descending on the hallowed ground of a Star Trek convention.
“All the Trekkie stuff checks out,” Rekulak said. “We have yet to receive a single angry letter — and you know if there was a problem, we’d get them.”
About a decade ago, Quirk made its bones with outlandish how-to handbooks combining information and humor with clever graphic design and packaging. “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook,” co-written by Borgenicht and released in 1999, offers funny-but-true illustrated tips on surviving shark attacks, quicksand and other implausible calamities.
“It became a huge hit and got us up and running as a real company,” Borgenicht said. “It’s the best business plan ever — get a best-seller right out of the gate.”
More than a dozen “Worst-Case” books, cards, games and calendars followed, which “brought us financial and industry capital and gave me the clarity of vision about the kind of books I wanted us to do, which is really entertaining, crossover books.”
Quirk has since published 200-plus titles with irreverent takes on history, dating, childbirth, cooking, pop culture, fitness and careers. Among the less risque titles, found in places ranging from Williams-Sonoma and Urban Outfitters to bookstores and comic book shops: “Booze Cakes,” “The Encyclopedia Shatnerica,” and “The Big Book of Porn.”
“Every aspect of the book has to work as hard as it can: great concept, great title, great package, great writer, great marketing,” Borgenicht said. “If you have that, you’ve got something of value.”
Ideas are usually generated by Quirk’s creative team. Once a concept is green-lighted, freelance writers are hired to work with in-house editors and graphic designers — a setup that allows the company to control more of the rights to their titles and more easily adapt them into other formats.
Readers should expect more mashups with classic novels as well as all-original content like “Trekkies” in the coming year. Borgenicht also hinted at a “sci-fi slash political satire” book on deck for 2012, in time for the next presidential election.
“We provide something that’s entertaining and informative and cool that you’d be proud to display on your coffee table, or the back of your toilet,” he said. “And, you know, for my money, we’re perfectly happy to be on the back of your toilet — more reading goes on there than at the coffee table.”