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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How to Be a Publishing Action Hero 

Don't be fooled. Whether sitting in his book-cluttered office, or posing on nearby spiraling stairs, David Borgenicht only looks like a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. But whenever his wife, Lois Lane ... errrrrt, rewind. Forget the phone booths, forget explanations involving red kryptonite and tights, this guy's special powers kick into action in making books. Look! There on the shelves! It's ten or more versions of The Worst Case Scenario Handbook! It's Pocket Mom and Pocket Dad! It's My First Book of Business Ethics! Why, it's a whole slew of how-tos, often with wry high concepts that make you crack a smile. Down a narrow street in Old City lies Borgenicht's biz, Quirk Books, which is helping put Philadelphia back on the publishing map. It's not as big as Center City's 34-year-old Running Press, which also sports whimsical titles, like Pimp My Cubicle, He Talk Like a White Boy, and Farting Fred and the Dog Show. Indeed, Borgenicht got his start at Running Press, working his way up in about six years from Penn-grad editorial assistant to senior acquisitions editor, before striking out on his own in 1997. "I wanted to do some different kinds of books, and I had an entrepreneurial bug," he said. "I wanted to do my own thing, run my own company." So he began as a book packager, dubbing his enterprise Book Soup (with a wink to the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup). "We did very much what film and TV producers do," he explained. "We'd come up with ideas, put together the team that makes it -- writer, designer, illustrator, editor -- and then go sell it to another publisher." The enterprise soared with The Worst Case Scenario Handbook -- his extreme survival-guide idea, executed mostly by fellow Penn wordsmith Joshua Piven. The money helped transmogrify Book Soup into Quirk, a publishing rowhouse with about 20 employees, 25 to 30 titles a year, and yearly sales of $5 million and climbing. (Publisher's Weekly ranked Quirk third-fastest growing small independent publisher in 2005, ninth this year.) "That's without Worst Case," the line still put out by Chronicle Books, which also handles Quirk's distribution and sales, he says. While Quirk's titles often amuse (the Gnome and Garden is a "gnovelty" kit complete with mini mythical figure), Borgenicht almost always keeps practical appeal and target markets in mind. Even The Brick Testament, which reconstructs Bible stories with Legos, taps a progressive religious audience willing to risk a little irreverence. "I very much believe in the power of humor to educate, to entertain, to change the world maybe," he says. Quirk's best-seller so far, however, has been the far more practical Baby Owner's Manual, written by brother Joe with their pediatrician dad, Louis. (Joe had a baby first; David's daughter is 4, his son approaching 2.) Upcoming titles: The Superman Handbook, which will offer tips such as "How to knock out a villain" just in time for this summer's Superman movie, and Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour, a kitschy $40 collectible that Elvis fans and tourists can find this fall. Asked if he'd ever write How to Be a Book Packager, David Borgenicht said, ironically, that knowledge isn't everything. If he'd known upfront what he's since learned, he might never have ventured out on his own. He says: "I think sometimes it's better to be a little ignorant and just take that leap because you believe in it."

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