Quirky Philadelphia publisher Quirk Books creates innovative and fun books for the Comic-Con crowd, with a resume that includes cookbooks, children’s books, art books, gag gifts, pop culture titles, and more.
This year, Quirk celebrated the 15th anniversary of its transition from book packager to book publisher. Its past as a packager — a company that pitches and creates book ideas for various publishers — is part of what led to the company’s publishing success, said Quirk Books President Brett Cohen.
Quirk Books’ owner is David Borgenicht, co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario survival series, which was one of the most successful books the company created and packaged for Chronicle Books in the late ’90s and 2000s. The success of Worst Case Scenario is part of what led to them to begin publishing what Cohen calls “irreverent reference books” on their own.
“The huge success of those books, both financially but also from a marketplace standpoint, sort of paved the way for us to transition from book packaging to book publishing, and the relationship with Chronicle Books at the time also paved the way for them to be our first distributor,” said Cohen.
In 2009, Quirk, now distributed by Penguin Random House, branched out into fiction in addition to gift books with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, a twist on the classic Jane Austen novel of manners. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies went on to be a New York Times bestseller and became a movie in 2016.
“We were taking something that people already knew and giving it a new spin, and it became this huge, international phenomenon,” Cohen said. Quirk went on to release additional mash-ups, including Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, both by Ben H. Winters, which did well.
The publisher’s next big hit was in 2011 with the company’s first YA book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which became a New York Times bestselling series and was made into a movie last fall.
Another company success is the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series by Ian Doescher, which Cohen said has been used in schools to get reluctant readers excited about literature, as well as the Kid Legends series by David Stabler and Doogie Horner, which consists of four titles that tell true tales from the childhoods of notable authors, artists, athletes, and presidents.
By publishing only 25 books a year, Quirk is able to focus on each one. This is especially important with all of Quirk’s growth and success over the last couple years, beginning with its foray into fiction, said Cohen. Adding fiction as a genre has also served to widen Quirk’s visibility among indie booksellers. At the end of 2016, the company, whose 22 staff members are led by publisher Jason Rekulak, appeared in Inc. magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the country as well as on a list of Philadelphia’s fastest-growing businesses.
After that early success, Quirk staff began thinking about how to do things better. “A lot of places would have just done more books; we really wanted to do fewer books, but do them better,” said Cohen. “So we’re trying to stick to the plan of about 25 titles per year and invest more in the marketing and design and the package as well as the author. We put the time, money, and energy into those books so we can give each one its own attention and its own breakout potential.”
Quirk has also seen success with The Last Policeman series, an Edgar Award-winning mystery/sci-fi mash-up series by Ben H. Winters, and last year with Geekerella: A Fangirl Fairy Tale by Ashley Poston, which Cohen calls “a fun mash-up of Cinderella with a Comic-Con vibe.” Other successful titles include a kids’ series called Pop Classics, which reimagines ’80s and ’90s nostalgia TV and movies into children’s picture books. The series started with Home Alone in 2015 to coincide with the movie’s 25th anniversary, and books based on the movie E.T. and The X-Files TV series debuted this past fall.
“This spring we have Back to the Future, and beyond that we have a Buffy the Vampire Slayer book. We’re really excited about doing more children’s fiction,” said Cohen.
Other new books publishing in 2018 include the company’s first dip into graphic novels with Manfried the Man by Caitlin Major and Kelly Bastow, coming May 1, which imagines a world where cats fill the role of people and keep tiny humans as their pets, “almost like a reverse Garfield,” Cohen said.
Quirk is also releasing My Lady’s Choosing, an interactive romance novel in the style of a pick-your-path adventure story, on April 3, 2018. Publishing on July 10, 2018, is The Con Artist by repeat Quirk author Fred Van Lente, about a murder at San Diego Comic-Con. Out April 3, 2018, is The Astrology of You and Me by Gary Goldschneider, which explains how to interact with different people based on astrological signs.
“I think the great thing about Quirk is we really view any category as an opportunity for us as long as we can find the right quirky approach, which to us means bringing something new and fun and different to the market,” said Cohen. “We have found that those tend to be our biggest successes.”
Going forward, Quirk is looking to increase the company’s involvement in producing films based on Quirk books, rather than just licensing the rights to a studio. When it comes to licensing, the publisher also has its own store on Zazzle.com selling T-shirts, mugs, and notebooks with designs related to Quirk books.
This year, Quirk also launched Bookpop, a two-week online virtual Comic-Con for indie retailers, librarians, and classrooms, where users could interact with authors on Facebook Live and Twitter. Besides a company blog, social media, and conferences like BookExpo and Winter Institute, of which Quirk is a co-sponsor this year, the publisher also promotes its list at four Comic-Cons a year.
According to Cohen, Quirk still creates a lot of their book ideas in-house, just like in their book packaging days; they also often hire their own authors to carry out each project. The idea for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was generated in-house, and Quirk hired Grahame-Smith to write it after having already worked with him on three or four projects, said Cohen.
“While we do accept submissions from agents and work with agented authors, we still have that mentality that every piece of the book needs to be working to make it as commercially viable as possible,” said Cohen. “It’s partly having these great, high concepts and cool ideas, but then making them commercially accessible, whether that’s through price point or its package and design. I think that’s really why we are able to navigate so many different genres.”