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Staying Quirky With Quirk Books

Staying Quirky With Quirk Books
Credit: Image courtesy of Brett Cohen

Since the 2002 release of The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, which spawned a television series of the same name and hit The New York Times bestseller list, Quirk Books has adhered to its own niche in the publishing world.

For Quirk Books President Brett Cohen, the company's existence as a purveyor of the oddball and unorthodox was what ultimately drove him to join the team.

"As a kid, I wasn't a huge reader. Sure, I read for school and read stuff I liked, but Quirk Books' approach really just spoke to me in a fun and different way,” he said. "The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook just felt like something different."

"Something different" is a good way to describe how Quirk Books operates. Rather than offering a massive list of releases that go straight to market, Quirk Books opts to release just 25 titles a year. Rather than putting out a cookie-cutter young adult series or another Victorian-era romance, they release titles like Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Instead of publishing a political nonfiction expose on the current administration, they release a high-concept buddy-cop novel starring former President Barack Obama and the wily Vice President Joe Biden.

When Cohen joined the company in 2001, it was a packaging company that pitched book ideas to other publishers. If those pitches were picked up, Quirk Books' team of authors and designers would execute the pitch. The final product would then be published and distributed by another company.

At the time, that model worked for Quirk Books. But as sales for the Worst-Case Scenario series began to taper off, the company needed to "make some real decisions about what the business was going to be and how we were going to make that sustainable." Those were the first times the company began thinking long-term, past its startup and seed money, Cohen said.

Most of the challenge was "trying to figure out how we turn a creative studio into a sustainable, thriving book publishing business. ... We had a lot of great things in place," he said. "We knew creative was going to be strong as we underwent our evolution. The confidence in our ideas and the marketability of those ideas were the toughest things [to get used to], but we felt really good about where we were coming from based on our history of doing that for other companies."

Change can be scary for any small business. For Quirk Books, becoming a publishing company meant assuming the risk for a book. "As a packager, you can come up with tons of ideas and you don't do anything on it until someone says, 'I want that one,'" Cohen said. "Now, we needed the confidence to invest all this time, effort and money into a book and 18 months later ... 'fingers crossed!'"

For the next few years, Quirk Books continued publishing its series of irreverent gift books, including The Baby Owner's Manual and Jokes Every Man Should Know, creating a largely successful list as it went.

Quirk Books then did what most small businesses would do in that situation: It tried to put out more products than it normally did in a year.

"We went from the first 15 to 20 titles we published ourselves to about 35 titles, but still in that same gift book category," Cohen said. "What we realized was that we were doing more product, but it wasn't gaining more profit or increasing sales exponentially, because ultimately we were competing with and cannibalizing ourselves."

That realization was important to the business. Rather than continue to bolster its publishing list, the company pledged to "do them better," scaling back its operations to 25 titles a year.

Though it makes sense for small businesses to want to grow as their success builds, Quirk Books' experience highlights that growth is only good if you do it the right way.

"Grow in ways that feel intuitive," Cohen said. "That's the lesson we learned, because we tried to grow because we either thought we should or profit was tight. In both of those cases, it's not intuitive growth – it's reactive growth."

Cohen suggests proactively seeking to understand what customers want. "Sometimes we pass on books and they go on to be successful, but I don't think we would have been successful with them because it's not what we do well. Ultimately, it stems almost from a priority system in your mind to know whether something's going to get you further or if it's just going to be more."

By 2009, Quirk Books had found its audience. Rather than sticking to book conventions and industry gatherings to get the word out, the company began taking its unique style directly to its readers at large conventions like the New York and San Diego Comic-Cons and C2E2.

As the company gained even more traction with its audience, Quirk Books branched out into other genres. By April 2009, the publisher released its first fiction title, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is exactly what the title suggests – a retelling of Jane Austen's classic with the undead roaming about.

Though it hadn't published fiction before, Quirk Books took on the novel because it complemented the company's humorous, irreverent nature. Decked out with the gory portrait of a Victorian-era woman with her bottom jaw exposed, the book went on to sell millions of copies. In February 2016, it became a feature-length movie released by Sony Pictures.

That success paved the way for more culturally prominent opportunities. In 2013, the company debuted its William Shakespeare's Star Wars series in partnership with Lucasfilm and Disney. In that popular series, the iconic space operas are made into five-act Shakespearean plays with titles like Verily, A New Hope and The Force Doth Awaken.

Today, Quirk Books continues to work with major motion-picture companies through licensing agreements with 20th Century Fox and Universal to turn classic movies like Home Alone and Back to the Future into children's books.

Cohen said the company makes sure projects fit its brand by conducting an internal exercise that focuses on its "drivers of success." Staff members consider all of the company's successes and compare them to struggling titles or releases that they felt should have done better. Then, they look at what made their successes into hits and determine whether the proposed project has those same qualities.

"We started to understand what the brand proposition was for Quirk Books, so now we try to replicate that on a continuous basis," Cohen said. "The customer understands when they see our books that it's a Quirk Book. Part of that is aesthetic, tone, title, author, price and accessibility."

For small businesses, finding a niche and making yourself stand out from the pack is incredibly important. Quirk Books' determination to stick with its oddness and follow through on years of off-kilter releases paved the way for where the company is today.

"Sticking to a model is important, but so is utilizing the fruits of that success to grow," Cohen said. "For us, the success early on as a packager enabled us to transition into a publisher. The success early on with those irreverent gift books allowed us to take chances and try fiction. The successes with fiction allowed us to broaden our categories and bring great products to different categories. Now that we're publishing in those different categories, we're considering what we invest in next."

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a BA in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese-American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.