“I was a huge collector of Mad magazine when I was a kid,” Jason Rekulak says. “I would go to flea markets and buy old ones from the sixties just to complete my collection. With a lot of movies, I’d read the parody version before I actually saw the movie, since a lot of them were rated R. I was reading about The Godfather in Mad magazine before I actually watched it.”
It makes sense that Rekulak, the publisher at Quirk Books, grew up reading Mad. You may not recognize the name of his small literary press at first, but you’ve certainly seen the books he’s published. Rekulak’s the man who brought literary mashups into the mainstream market with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2008. Ben H. Winters’ Edgar Award-winning The Last Policeman and Ransom Riggs’ #1 New York Times bestseller Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children wouldn’t exist without his direction either.
The stories he publishes now appear pretty similar to the tales he grew up reading and watching. Alongside being a big fan of Mad, Rekulak remembers being attracted to horror from a young age.
“I have this really vivid memory of going to see the original Richard Donner Superman when I was six or seven,” he says. “The theater put the trailer for Dawn of the Dead, the Romero film, before that movie and it was a mistake. This was a Saturday afternoon matinee with little children there. If you watch it on YouTube, it’s a horrifying trailer. My mother was freaking out, but I really wanted to see it.”
The influence of parody and horror on a young Rekulak clearly played a role in his faith in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, arguably Quirk Books’ most popular book. The premise seems almost too outlandish to exist, but the novel’s sales figures and fan base speak volumes to how Rekulak not only discovered a successful literary niche but helped create one as well.
“At the time we did that book, it was during the ascendancy of YouTube,” he says. “All this cool copyright infringement was happening. I started thinking about how much TV changed even in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Sometimes I’ll go back and watch an old show, even from the ‘90s, and the storytelling in television is incredibly different. But I don’t know if you see that kind of transformation in fiction. The book grew out of that, too: the idea of getting under the hood and changing something structurally to make something different.”
How did Rekulak know the book would be a success? He didn’t. In fact, it met with some resistance when it was first pitched around.
“People would say, ‘Well, Jane Austen fans are not gonna like this book because of all the blood and violence and gore, and horror fans are going to hate this book because of all the Regency romance.’ But another part of me just felt like it was right—that the two belonged together—and maybe there was more overlap between those two audiences than you would’ve imagined.”
It’s not the only time one of Rekulak’s hunches paid off. When it came to The Last Policeman, the issue wasn’t that it was an absurd idea but that it was one of the least absurd ideas Quirk Books was considering. Ben H. Winters, the novel’s author, had done a few literary mashups for the imprint akin to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but The Last Policeman was a more conventionally written novel.
“When we did that book, that was our least crazy work of fiction,” Rekulak says. “It was this extremely well-written mystery/science fiction novel with all these wonderful, literary qualities. I was really trying to get it out there, but I was wondering how we could do it. There are a lot of great books that come out every year and everyone struggles to get attention for them. So I was really gratified, because that book did really well. We got a lot of attention for it, and it all capped off when it won an Edgar Award. It was our first mystery!”
Needless to say, winning an Edgar Award for the first mystery novel you publish is a huge deal. You can hear in Rekulak’s voice that he gets as excited about these books as anyone who may read them. And the relationships he describes between himself and his writers sound like the epitome of humble and inspiring collaboration.
Rekulak is a publisher more devoted to quality than quantity and it shows. For him, it comes down to the beauty of working at a small press like Quirk Books over a huge publishing house. There’s less pressure to make big sales and more time to focus on discovering and creating some of the most original books on the market. So how does he find these kinds of manuscripts?
“It’s just an instinctive thing,” Rekulak says. “When [you] walk into Barnes & Noble, you walk into the sections and look at the books and they all just look like clones of each other. The covers all look the same. You read the flap and the flaps all sound the same. We’d rather just do very few titles and publish stuff that’s sort of special and unique. Ideally, they’d be sort of unprecedented in some way. That’s the goal. I don’t know if we always achieve that, but we always try to do that.”
Luckily for Quirk Books, Rekulak most often does succeed. Every generation needs it Mad, and Quirk Books may well be on its way to becoming ours.