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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.

Five years ago, David Borgenicht C’90 and Joshua Piven C’93 came out with a little humor book titled The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Since then, things have gone from worst to, well, pretty incredible.

By Katie Haegele | Photo by Bill Cramer

Excerpt | How to Maneuver on Top of a Moving Train and Get Inside

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. Timesbestseller 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?”

The Young, the Hip, and the Worried

Luck, of course, is the farthest thing from what the books are about—the 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 scenario—working 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 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.

You Can’t Get Away From It

Gift books that work are a godsend to both publishers and to the holiday-weary consumer who has run out of ideas for the people on her Christmas list. Think of it as the Whitman’s Sampler of the book business—only it’s much easier to predict that people will like chocolate.

“Publishing doesn’t do a lot of what other media industries do,” Dave says. “They don’t do the focus groups or a huge amount of market research.  A lot of it is the instinct of the editors and the instinct of the buyers and the instinct of the publishers.  It’s an exciting industry in that way—you can take an idea, and it can become a huge thing just because you like it.”

With only about $10,000 to spend on promoting the first book, they had to rely on guerrilla marketing: postcard racks, movie-theater slide ads, as well as what Dave calls the book’s “grassroots appeal.”

Mitchell says the key to getting things like Worst-Case off the lesser-read book-review page and into magazines’ front sections is to sell them as products. But Chronicle’s Jay Schaefer doesn’t go along with the idea of books as products.  “Every book is different; it’s not a box of Tide,” he insists.  “Once you’ve got the books, that’s where the savvy of the marketing and sales people comes in. But it can’t be all marketing and glitz. You don’t touch a chord with that stuff.”

He does, however, point to Chronicle’s wide distribution channels, which help sell the books in both chain and independent bookstores, as well as Urban Outfitters, Restoration Hardware, and other hip non-bookstores.

On that score, Mitchell agrees: “That type of total distribution helps sales of books in that it gives you the sense that you can’t get away from it, and therefore you have to buy it.”

The creative process, at least, has been organic. Dave was friends with Jennifer Worick for years before she wrote The Dating and Sex book, a hilarious and writerly collection of scenarios that include sobering up quickly and how to determine if your date is an ax murderer. The one about Golfwas written by James Grace, Dave’s wife’s best friend’s husband, who worked on the first book-packaging project Quirk ever did. Parenting was co-written by Sarah Jordan, the person who first put Dave and Josh together. These days Chronicle is putting out a book a season with no plans to stop. The next incarnation, says Schaefer, will be a survival-trivia quiz book. He thinks being outside of the publishing machine that is New York helps to keep that sense of collaborative creativity alive.

“With the concentration of editors and writers having lunch all the time, everyone starts thinking the same. It’s easier for ideas to take root here at Chronicle, and for us to run with them.”

As for how to make ideas go as far as theirs have, Dave has a feeling there’s no simple answer.

“I had a very clear sense of what the book could be and who to partner with, how to write it, the look—all those things were very conscious choices. But whenever you have a bestseller of this nature it’s kinda like catching lightning in a bottle. You can’t really make that happen. It’s work, but you have to be at the right place at the right time.”

Katie Haegele C’98 ([email protected]) is a freelance writer who lives outside Philadelphia. She writes regularly for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


How to Maneuver on Top of a Moving Train and Get Inside

1. Do not try to stand up straight (you probably will not be able to anyway). Stay bent slightly forward, leaning into the wind. If the train is moving faster than thirty miles per hour, it will be difficult to maintain your balance and resist the wind, so crawling on all fours may be the best method until you can get down.

2. If the train is approaching a turn, lie flat; do not try to keep your footing. The car may have guide rails along the edge to direct water. If it does, grab them and hold on.

3. If the train is  approaching a tunnel entrance, lie flat, and quickly. There is actually quite a bit of clearance between the top of the train and the top of the tunnel—about three feet—but not nearly enough room to stand. Do not assume that you can walk or crawl to the end of the car to get down and inside before you reach the tunnel—you probably won’t.

4. Move your body with the rhythm of the train—from side to side and forward. Do not proceed in a straight line. Spread your feet apart about thirty-six inches and wobble from side to side as you move forward.

5. Find the ladder at the end of the car (between two cars) and climb down. It is very unlikely that there will be a ladder on the side of the car—they usually appear only in the movies, to make the stunts more exciting. 

—From The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook

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