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Interview: Jeremie Ruby-Strauss

Many editors are coy when asked about the type of books they want. They pay lip service to the ideal of furthering great literature and artistic experimentation and then they publish a Nicole Ritchie novel. However, Jeremie Ruby-Strauss is straight-forward, direct, and to the point. When an interviewer once asked him what kind of books he was looking for, Ruby-Strauss replied, “books that sell.” Ruby-Strauss filters his search for books that sell through his personal taste for edgy projects that are just off the radar of mainstream, touching areas of humor, pop culture, music, and male interest.

Over the course of his career, these tastes and goals have made him the vanguard for a literary movement others have labeled “fratire.” Ruby-Strauss has been quoted in several high profile articles about the books in this movement. CNN spoke to him about the forthcoming The Alphabet of Manliness release. The Guardian and the New York Times turned to Ruby-Strauss when they wanted to examine the success of books such as I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell and Real Ultimate Power: The Official Ninja Book. Although he sees his writers’ work as the star of the show, Ruby-Strauss is clearly a central figure in the success of this genre.

He’s also a determined, successful editor with an impressive string of hits. Although his manner may come across as joking and laid-back, he’s fiercely dedicated to his authors and their readers.

As he wrapped up his tenure at Kensington and prepares to start a new gig with Simon Spotlight Entertainment, Ruby-Strauss was kind enough to talk to me about hair metal, the fratire label, and running game on editors.

Slushpile:  You’ve recently been interviewed in a number of high profile articles about the growth of a genre termed “fratire.” Most editors stay in the background but you’re being closely associated with this genre. How does it feel to be the voice of what many consider the Animal House/American Pie literary movement?

Ruby-Strauss:  As an editor, I’m not really the voice of anything. I’m more like a team mascot in a chicken suit. My job is to help my guys to win, and to pump up the crowd—because the teams on the field are there for the crowd, not vice versa.

Slushpile:  Fifty years from now, if critics look back on Tucker Max and Robert Hamburger as 2006’s equivalent of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, then that makes you a contemporary Maxwell Perkins. Happy with that designation?

Ruby-Strauss:  That’s like asking me if photocopying a mirror will make you go back in time. I can’t even understand the question. Such a society would be so awesomely messed up that just thinking about it makes me want to rip up the carpet.

Slushpile:  What was the first book you acquired at Kensington that falls into this “fratire” genre?

Ruby-Strauss:  I’ve been calling this thing of ours “the house that Hamburger built.”  Tucker Max and Maddox both acknowledge that Robert Hamburger is the Virgil of fratire, holding a candle behind his back to light the way for others. Plus Hamburger’s book is the most underrated of the three. It should be studied by university professors, no joke.

Slushpile:  Do you think that label accurately captures what you’re after? Do you think fratire is a complimentary or derogatory label?

Ruby-Strauss:  None of us was actually in a fraternity. We are fraternal, and we fraternize, but that’s all the justification I can offer. Plus I know nothing about fraternities, because I went to UC Santa Cruz.  The school was so PC that if there were fraternities, they had to meet in secret. I think fratire is really about welcoming the boner back after a period of cultural exile. Even the ladies missed the boner, hence third wave feminism. Man bashing and the war on boys just outwore its welcome, as do all doctrines of hate rather than love.

Slushpile:  In Robert Hamburger’s Real Ultimate Power: The Official Ninja Book, he debates the merits of various ninja weaponry. What’s your editorial weapon of choice?

Ruby-Strauss:  Wakizashi.

Slushpile:  Where did you grow up?

Ruby-Strauss:  I was born in Oakland, California, and not the nice part either. My single mom was on welfare, and I went to Head Start. She later married and we moved to the Monterey Peninsula. I went to high school in Pacific Grove, which was so picturesque, it was hilarious. We were all punk rock, and we’d be trying to be pissed off about stuff, but then we’d see an otter floating on its back, eating abalone in front of a sunset. Not an easy place to be punk.

Slushpile:  What was your favorite comic book/toy/game growing up?

Ruby-Strauss:  Oh, man. Pulsar and Electroman and the Star Trek action figures plus the bridge of the Enterprise with a “working” transporter and the die cast Shogun Warriors. I didn’t get many toys, but the ones I had were awesome and I took care of them like a five-year-old curator.

Slushpile:  What was your earliest literary love?

Ruby-Strauss:  Oscar Wilde is probably the writer most responsible for how my brain works, the reason why I love contrarian thinking. I’ve only ever liked books of ideas. I might have missed my calling in the lucrative field of philosophy.

Slushpile:  How did you get into the publishing business?

Ruby-Strauss:  I was a Laurie Girl. No joke, I worked for a temp agency called Laurie Temps, but it used to be called Laurie Girls. Laurie asked me what my dream job was, and I said “I will wash the floor we’re standing on if you pay me.” So she kind of laughed nervously and said “what about in a perfect world?” And I said, “Book publishing.” And she said, “You start Monday.”  I couldn’t believe it. In San Francisco, where I moved right after school, you had to be born into book publishing. There’s like twenty jobs and 10,000 newly minted literature majors every year, who then become bartenders and strippers. So I was a temp for HarperReference, and then they hired me as an editorial assistant.

Slushpile:  While at ReganBooks, you edited works involving Marilyn Manson, Motley Crue, Dave Navarro, and others. You’ve described yourself as a “fanboy.” Who is the one celebrity you would most want to do a book with?

Ruby-Strauss:  I can sit on it or I can sell it, by why should I give it away?

Slushpile:  When you edit books like these, how much do you interact with the co-author and how much with the celebrity? You’re probably not talking about misplaced modifiers with Marilyn Manson, are you?

Ruby-Strauss:  It depends, they’re all different. With Manson, everything was done through Neil Strauss. With Mick Foley, I must have spent 100 hours on the phone going over commas and crap.

Slushpile:  What is your favorite hair-metal band?

Ruby-Strauss:  Motley Crue. Home Sweet Home is the best pop song ever, better than Kelly Clarkson’s Since You’ve Been Gone. I could talk about that for a while, but I know you’re busy.

Slushpile:  Favorite rap band?

Ruby-Strauss:  Over the years, I’ve given more of my money to Ice Cube’s various projects than any other rapper, but in general, I like what’s new, what’s hot. I just listen to Hot 97 for the flavor of the week, and I’m usually pretty captivated by it.

Slushpile:  You’re in charge of a new Kensington imprint, Rebel Base Books. Did you actually conceive of this imprint? Many aspiring authors don’t really understand why publishers need so many imprints. What are the benefits to carving out this different niche from the main Kensington umbrella?

Ruby-Strauss:  Rebel Base isn’t so much an imprint as a website, http://www.rebelbasebooks.com/. I’m not really in charge of it; I’ve just tried to put a focused list together through the usual acquisitions channels. Most imprints in publishing are as meaningless a TV channels. Who says “I love ABC?” The idea was to be so narrowly focused that the brand would actually stand for something, and the consumer would try something unknown based on good past experiences and faith. Kensington is good at this in general, such as their Brava and Aphrodisia imprints.

Slushpile:  Many of your most recent books are based on websites. I believe at one point you said you had three Internet books out with seven more in the pipeline. Due to the success of these books, and your high profile interviews, are you finding yourself swamped with website-related submissions?

Ruby-Strauss:  No, everyone sends me his “fratire novel,” ignoring the fact that I am a nonfiction editor only. None of the books mentioned in any article about fratire is a novel. There’s nothing less novel than a novel.

Slushpile:  What is the craziest submission you’ve received?

Ruby-Strauss:  Oh, you know, the usual all-cap-single-spaced-double-sided rant from a convict.

Slushpile:  What is Kensington’s policy about submissions? Does your company accept unsolicited, unagented submissions?

Ruby-Strauss:  Some editors do, some don’t. I look at everything, but I’ve never actually bought an unsolicited, unagented submission, so I don’t know if that’s encouraging or not.

Slushpile:  What is the difference between working on a website-based book and a regular book project? Do you edit, or approach them, differently?

Ruby-Strauss:  No, the website is like a super long proposal. It might nail the concept or we might have to reconfigure it. If you look at Real Ultimate Power, Robert Hamburger’s book, you’ll see that it is much deeper than his site. That difference was the result of eighteen drafts. But you could just tell that the guy was a genius, and that it would pay off. Tucker Max, on the other hand, wouldn’t even let me fix his punctuation.

Slushpile:  How does a book need to be different from a website? I assume that making a successful book isn’t just a matter of printing out a website. What does the author need to do differently for each medium?

Ruby-Strauss:  There are two schools on this. The Darwin Awards is the most successful web book of all time, and I believe most or all of the content was on the website. The thinking was, “If so many web people like this content, maybe general readers will also like it.” This works well for content with broad appeal. The books I do primarily appeal to the same fans that visit the website, so if you just repeat the same content in book form, they’re not going to buy it.

Slushpile:  Do you actively trawl the internet with a conscious eye towards finding websites that might make a good book? Or do you just encounter potential book projects through your own casual, normal surfing?

Ruby-Strauss:  I go through life asking. “Book?  Book?” as I watch television, read magazines, and surf the web. I’m never not thinking, Book?

Slushpile:  Tucker Max’s book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, is full of drunken behavior, oral sex, scatological humor, ridicule, and general plundering. Here’s a law-student who comes close to reaching rock star proportions of debauchery. Aspiring authors frequently hear about an editor who loves a project but is denied by the publisher’s larger editorial board. How did the editorial board react when you suggested this project? Was it difficult to convince your colleagues to take on this book, particularly since Kensington used to be known primarily for publishing romances?

Ruby-Strauss:  Walter Zacharius, the founder and spiritual leader of Kensington, is from the old school: the Dodgers, stick ball, egg creams, and taking risks. He talks to doormen and teenagers alike, and he pays attention when they get excited about something.

Slushpile:  What’s your own best Tucker Max-style story relating to publishing? Ever fill up a CamelBak with Everclear, Gatorade, and Red Bull and then hit a publishing party?

Ruby-Strauss:  I once spent an entire evening trying to talk a woman out of going home with Tucker. I had her flat-out denying that she would. She was insulted I thought so little of her; she would never go home with Tucker. I got her phone number so I could confirm the next day that she kept her promise. The next morning when I called, Tucker answered her phone.

Slushpile:  You told The New York Times that the success of these fratire books might be a result of the fact that men are searching for something “more rebellious, less cautious and less concerned with external approval.” That’s certainly true but I also like to think that these writers are a reaction against John Cusack. As much as I loved Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I cringe at the fact that every male protagonist under 40 now seems to sit around whining, completely paralyzed with junior-high school angst, about their frustrations with women and inability to decide. I can’t read a contemporary male memoir without hearing a John Cusack voiceover. So I’ll raise a glass to your writers for smashing that mold.

Ruby-Strauss:  Everybody, and I mean everybody, is sick of whining and competitive victimhood. Why do you think Neil Strauss’s The Game hit such a nerve? Why is every rap video about how great the artist’s life is, instead of how oppressed? Why did my feminist grad student TA’s strip professionally for extra cash? Why can’t the Democrats win an election?

Slushpile:  Some critics accuse these books of catering to the lowest common denominator of toilet humor. While that observation can clearly be debated, do you have any plans to work on more “serious” projects in the future?

Ruby-Strauss:  The Tao is in the shit. All of my projects are sincere, if not “serious.”

Slushpile:  Your specialty was once described to me as “what’s just bubbling under pop culture.” What do you think is the next underground trend that will surface?

Ruby-Strauss:  The hetrosexual. He’s like the metrosexual, except the opposite in every way.

Slushpile:  You have mentioned the importance of audience and salability to a potential book deal. But how big do these audiences and sales have to be? We hear about James Frey selling a million copies after Oprah’s endorsement or John Grisham selling 84,000 copies in a week, but as aspiring authors without access to BookScan, we don’t know what a more realistic level of success is. How big does a book’s potential audience have to be for you to pull the trigger? What sales figures are you trying to reach?

Ruby-Strauss:  I think any publisher is happy netting 20,000 copies of anything, so long as they didn’t overpay or have unfulfilled expectations.

Slushpile:  You are responsible for introducing Neil Strauss (no relation) to The Game and to the secrets of master pickup artists. What’s your best sarging technique for writers trying to pickup a publisher?

Ruby-Strauss:  That’s pretty funny.  I’d say start GM style and quickly figure out whether or not he’s a “kino editor,” then downshift to a phase two “soft offer close.”

Slushpile:  You don’t usually edit fiction. But do you have any time to read fiction? Who are your favorite fiction writers?

Ruby-Strauss:  I’m not a big reader.

Slushpile:  Whatever happened to the can of Spam you used as a paperweight?

Ruby-Strauss:  Right, from the good old days when we did the Spam-ku book at HarperCollins. It’s in my pantry, but I don’t know why. It’s not like I’m going to eat it, but it might inspire some haiku, so I can’t throw it out.

Slushpile:  What books are you working on right now?

Ruby-Strauss:  Something called Coloring Book Land by Jim Wirt, which is a coloring book of 50’s clip art with captions that are very, very wrong, but very funny. I’m also working on Prank the Monkey by Sir John Hargrave, the “retarded Robin Hood” who runs the prank site http://www.zug.com/.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Ruby-Strauss:  Be famous.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to writers struggling to break into print?

Ruby-Strauss:  Dude, how is that a different question?  You need a nap.