Survivalism’s Odd Couple: Joshua Piven (left) and David Borgenicht act out “How to Deal with a Nightmare Roommate,” from The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: College.

Like Being Struck
by Lightning

Joshua Piven C’93 has written a book about luck.

Actually, it’s about how luck works—about fantastic success stories and how they came to be. About how much of life’s pleasant surprises you can plan for, and how much is fate, a fluke. The book, As Luck Would Have It, has a chapter on the inventor of the 1970s superfad the Pet Rock; one about winning a $300-million lottery; and Josh’s favorite, the story of the 1980s one-hit-wonder-band Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny.”

He might also have included a chapter on his own story—as the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, the little humor book that could. The first handbook has sold more than 2 million copies since it was published in November of 1999, and the series that followed has been equally popular. Five years and more than four million copies later, it’s a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

“It was an amazing experience, and it still is,” says Josh’s co-author, Dave Borgenicht C’90, with some wonderment. As he talks about the book in November, just before the holiday selling season kicks into high gear, it seems luck is on his mind, too.

“Having been in publishing, and having seen what it takes to succeed even at a minor level, I was very mindful of the fact that it was extremely unusual. I imagine that you’re probably as likely to have a New York Times bestseller as you are to be struck by lightning,” Dave says.

“So I fully expect to be struck by lightning some day,” he adds quickly, and smiles. “And it’ll be a really good obituary.”

Could You Really Do That?

It was Dave who had the idea.

Growing up watching action movies, he’d always vaguely wondered, Could you really do that? Could a person deliver a baby in a taxicab if the situation presented itself?  Is it possible to defend yourself against a swarm of attacking killer bees? Can you really leap from rooftop to rooftop without, like, totally dying?

After having worked in book publishing for nine years by then, he thought a book that had fun with these outlandish situations by treating them like real-life possibilities could be commercially viable. But it would be a lot of work to get real answers to those questions—the key component to the book’s humor, as he imagined it—and at the time he was busy running Book Soup, his book-packaging company. He needed a partner who could do a lot of the heavy lifting on the research end of things.

Dave asked his friend Sarah Jordan C’90 G’91, an editor he’d worked with at the Philadelphia publishing-house Running Press, to recommend someone who was thorough, dogged, and detailed oriented—three things a journalist should be, but isn’t always—who also had a sense of humor. Josh’s name came up. He was freelancing at the time, and even though the paycheck was small, the idea appealed to him, so he took the job.

Josh went to work finding, then calling, then convincing various “experts” that he wasn’t just some goofy kid—experts like Coleman Cooney, director of the San Diego-based Bullfight School, who told him how to handle (or “deal with,” to use the book’s vernacular) a stampeding bull.

Meanwhile, Dave did what book-packagers do: He came up with all the  other details needed to pitch it to publishing companies as a finished product. He knew the book had to look and feel like a real survival guide, with sincere-appearing how-to illustrations and a sturdy, bright yellow cover. All the disasters would be treated as legitimate possibilities. The result was a handbook that was sort of fake and sort of real. On the one hand it was waggish and droll, but it also had a sweet, Boy-Scout earnestness that softened its edge. It was an unusual combination of cool-kid irony and little-kid faith in the maneuvers of superheroes.

This proved to be a winning combination. Dave took the idea to the Frankfurt Book Fair where he sold it to Chronicle Books, a full-line publisher based in San Francisco that specializes in humor and gift books. The 1999 print-run, mid-sized at 35,000 copies, did much better than expected almost immediately and was sold out for a whole month during that first holiday season. It seemed the book had tapped into something that was already there: a nascent interest in survivalism, perhaps, or a shared pop-culture reference point. Before long it made the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, and New York Times bestseller lists.

In a couple of years it had spawned a series—every publisher’s dream. In Spring of 2001 Chronicle released The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel, this one with a first printing of 500,000 copies. It also became a bestseller. Worst-Case Dating & Sex, Golf, Holidays, and Work followed. One of the most recent ones, College, debuted at No. 6 on the L.A. Times bestseller list.

Thanks to Chronicle’s expertise in ancillary publishing and Dave and Josh’s seemingly endless supply of cleverness, Worst-Case is no longer just a book but a franchise—complete with a copyright on a phrase previously kept in circulation by worrywarts—that includes a board game, greeting cards, calendars, a poster, a trivia computer-game, an illustrated journal, an address book, audio books narrated by Burt Reynolds and Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller and, in 2002, a short-lived TV series on TBS. They have imitators and parodies, including the unfortunate National Lampoon’s Worst-Case Scenario: Masturbation.

And the phenomenon has spread beyond the United States—the books have been translated into 26 languages.  The first handbook has sold more copies than any book ever published by Chronicle; the series is the most successful of all the publisher’s series. Technically, Chronicle’s coffee-table book about the Beatles, which sells at $60 a copy to Worst-Case’s $14.95 cover price, has brought in more revenue. But Josh and Dave’s book is a bigger seller.

“So you could say they’ve sold more copies than the Beatles,” quips Jay Schaefer, the Chronicle editor who acquired the first book and has been the series editor since. “And who wouldn’t want to be bigger than the Beatles?”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

Best-Case Scenario
By Katie Haegele
Photo by Bill Cramer

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