The Young, the Hip,
Luck, of course, is the farthest thing from what the books are aboutthe absolute worst thing that could happen. And what do a couple of Penn kids know about worst-case scenarios?
It depends on your perspective. Dave and Josh overlapped as undergrads at Penn, but they didn’t know each other. Dave, who grew up in Utah, was a history major and an English minor who wrote for The Daily Pennsylvanian and 34th Street and interned at Philadelphia Magazine, so he knew he liked to write.
“But mostly I used to think, ‘If only somebody would pay me for my stupid ideas,’” he recalls. “I was very affected by the first Steve Martin album, where he has a song that goes, ‘The thing that amazes me most is I get paid for doin’ this.’”
After futzing around for a year or so after college, he landed at Running Press, which is known for its creative, nontraditional books. The job turned out to be a great fit, and he learned how to take his ideas and apply the business principles that would make them sell. That’s pretty much what he does now with Quirk, his book-packaging company-turned-independent trade publisher. Quirk’s current catalog includes a book called Date Him or Dump Him and The Bathroom Companion, a book filled with interesting facts about, um, the bathroom.
Josh’s story is a little different. An English and creative-writing major who helped Kelly Professor of English Al Filreis plan readings at the Writers House when it was first getting off the ground, he aspired to become a writer. After graduation he headed to New York for a job in publishing, but before long he was living his worst-case scenarioworking in an office that was actually a stockroom and feeling a bit “like a rat in the subway.” He was able to live on the money he was making, but he couldn’t find the time to write. So he moved back to Center City Philadelphia, where he had grown up and attended Friends Select High School, and started working as a technology journalist. He says being at Penn before everyone relied on the Internet“the lazy journalist’s tool”is what taught him the art of painstaking research.
Indeed, Josh will talk quite seriously about the stuff he’s learned from researching the handbooks, even though it’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t imagine him ever doing, such as ramming, hot-wiring, and breaking into a car. These days he’s considered a kind of de facto survival expert and has been interviewed for stories in Glamour and Seventeen magazines on self-protection.
His survivalist status is something that Josh doesn’t find especially funny. Though he wouldn’t describe himself as worrywart, he likes the idea of being prepared, just in case. And he has had at least one brush with danger: His author bio notes that he once escaped knife-wielding motorcycle bandits. The incident happened while he was still at Penn, visiting Jamaica on spring break. He and his friends rented motorcycles and tooled around the island, and his Penn signet ring attracted the attention of some thieves, also on bikes. Josh refused to give them anything and drove off, eventually losing them. Which is not advice he’d give in a survival handbook, incidentally. He knows better now.
“I think the runaway success of the books is due in part to the way they treat these outlandish situations as real possibilities. That’s the humor of it,” says Dave, who cites Mel Brooks’ “2,000-Year-Old Man” as a major early influence. “[The books] work for people who get the joke and people who don’t get the joke.”
Not everyone has, especially at first. In fact, one of the first publications to do a story on the book was Soldier of Fortune, a bare-bones magazine that describes itself as “pro-military, pro-strong U.S. defense, pro-police, and pro-veteran.” (A recent issue featured a cover photo of a large man in fatigues holding a machine gun, and the cover line, “If We Stop, We’re Dead.”)
Travel and Leisure magazine also took the book seriously and was the first publication to run a serial excerpt, for which it spent “quite a large sum of money,” says Jay Mitchell, who worked at Chronicle doing public relations for the first Worst-Case book and is now the marketing and publicity director at Quirk. Mitchell also remembers the first testimonial on Amazon.com about how the book’s advice saved a man who was in Seattle during that city’s earthquake in 2001. “When I saw that I was like, ‘Oh boy,’” Mitchell says. Early on the marketing people placed serious ads for a “survival guide” in secondary newspaper markets like Texas, Oregon, and Indiana, where people were taking the information in the books literally.
More urbane readers caught the survival fever, too.
“The books tap into that urban paranoia, which I love,” says Chronicle’s Schaefer, who recently edited a book called The Joy of Worry. “That’s their target: ‘the young, the hip, and the worried.’”
With its November 1999 publishing date, the first volume certainly did speak to the culture of Y2K fever. Journalists loved the book, giving it tons of free publicity with stories about surviving whatever a millennial meltdown might bring. It got written up in USA Today, Time, People, and The New Yorker. This boosted sales considerably, but, says Schaefer, could also have sounded the books’ death knell. “We were concerned that booksellers and the media might see it as a millennium book, and the book would have a short, quick life,” he explains. “That was our worst-case scenario.”
As it turned out, the first handbook and its successors spoke to a cultural sensibility that proved larger than one hysterically anticipated New Year’s Eve. They hit big before shows like Survivor came along, and they’ve managed to continue riding the wave.
Schaefer thinks the success is due in part to the chemistry between Josh and Dave, whom he refers to as “the boys”what happens when the meticulous side of Josh meets up with Dave’s “let’s put on a show!” looniness.
“They have a persona that people respond to, which isn’t a persona at all, it’s just them being them,” Schaefer says.
Indeed, the two have the easy comedic chemistry of born performers. Promoting the Holidays book on the Today show in 2001, they finished each other’s sentences naturally, like a comedy duo.
“People think the holidays are about peace and love and all that,” Dave told Al Roker.
“But it’s really about danger!” added Josh, without missing a beat. The ordinarily more reserved Josh then hammed it up by sticking his tongue to a “frozen” pole a la the kid in Jean Shephard’s A Christmas Story.
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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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