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The New King of Trash Publishing: Meet the Man Who Revolutionized Lowbrow

Illustration by James Turrell

Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, an editor at Simon & Schuster, was dressed nattily on the punishingly hot summer day I met him, his compact frame clad in a crisp khaki suit, blue gingham pocket square, and a teal tie held in place with a clip. He was the very picture of civilized, a quality less abundant in the books he acquires. Ruby-Strauss had just come from the set of the “Today” show, where he’d shepherded three new authors, the young women behind the satirical website Betches Love This, through an appearance to promote their foray into publishing, Nice Is Just a Place in France. His editing portfolio also includes the literary efforts of the "Jersey Shore"'s Snooki and a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills. The title that made his career was Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

“It’s offensive, it’s gross, it’s mean, it’s scatological,” Ruby-Strauss said of that book, not unproudly. We were eating lunch at the Upper West Side apartment of Max’s agent, Byrd Leavell. Leavell, a thirtysomething University of Virginia grad of Winklevossian coloring and proportions, also represents such Internet-to-book sensations as Cat Marnell (this generation’s culturally savvy blonde drug addict) and the creators of a somewhat self-explanatory website called Total Frat Move. “Tucker Max is offensive because he broke though,” Leavell said, spooning out an impressive homemade pasta primavera while his baby slept in the other room. “It’s like the Snooki haters, too,” said Ruby-Strauss. “I got my MFA from wherever ...”

Ruby-Strauss and Leavell brought up a University of Maryland student infamous for a viral e-mail in which she informed her sorority sisters that she was inclined to—in New York Times-ese—enact a fourth-down kick on their most private regions. (It rhymes. Someday, or at least in Phyllis Schlafly’s worst nightmares, it will be a crossword clue.) Leavell was shopping the Maryland student’s novel, to be co-written by the women responsible for a site called White Girl Problems, which sounded like a formidable partnership. “It’s a shit-ton of fun,” said Leavell. “There’s a number of books that have pubbed that just say, you know, I had too many drinks, I banged him, I kicked him out of bed, and I went to work. Like, it’s out there, but I think there’s room for more.”

Ruby-Strauss was less convinced. “Every generation thinks it invented sex,” he said. He is known as a formidable negotiator, and I wondered if he was casually undermining the project in order to lay the groundwork for a lowball bid.

The higher-minded members of the publishing business keep their distance from the precincts Ruby-Strauss trawls. The president of Simon and Schuster's title imprint, Jonathan Karp,* maintains a studied ignorance of his colleague’s portfolio: “I haven’t read many of these books. It’s entirely possible I haven’t read any of them,” he says. Random House President Gina Centrello is supposed to have declared that, as long as she’s in charge, no imprint of hers will go near anything written by Max. “I don’t do those sorts of trendy Internet books,” said a vice president at another major publishing house. “We do writers, professional writers.”

And yet, as much as they bemoan the coarsening of their industry, those editors and executives benefit from having the likes of Ruby-Strauss around to help pay for their loftier projects. Shit My Dad Says, a Twitter-born book that Leavell represented, sold more than a million copies in its first year for HarperCollins. Gallery, the Simon & Schuster imprint where Ruby-Strauss works, has had celebrity memoirs like Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea become breakout hits. One measure of how important anti-literature is to prestige publishers’ bottom lines: The industry as a whole, though still continuing its recovery from the crash, looks likely to finish down from 2012’s banner haul partly because this year did not have its own version of Random House’s 50 Shades of Grey.

Publishing has always depended on having smart people willing to do its down-market work; what’s changed is how those people go about it. Historically, even editors of tasteless books still played a taste-making role, relying on their guts to decide what self-help manual or true-crime thriller would be a hit, not unlike the way their colleagues specializing in debut literary fiction placed their bets. Today, the public has already indicated what interests it, via the Internet, and the editor just has to be savvy enough and shameless enough to give the rabble what it wants. Ruby-Strauss is very good at this new approach to making bad books, and that affords him “a different kind of respect” than his tweedy peers, as he told me by phone one day. “You can’t hold it against people if they got into this business because of their love of literature,” he said, though he has other aims. “The people that bring in the most money have a huge amount of power.”

Ruby-Strauss learned his craft working for the notorious Judith Regan, in whose shadow all lowbrow publishing still operates. In college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he had been a comp-lit major who scoffed when friends talked up popular sci-fi books. “I was too pretentious,” he says. “I was reading Camus.” (A far way from that to Tucker Max, I noted. “Is it?” he replied.) Under Regan, he came to appreciate the simpler beauty of “books that sell.” He acquired a book by shock-rock star Marilyn Manson and then a series of pro-wrestling books, still his highest-selling titles ever. He once took Regan to a match, where he remembers her looking around the arena and declaring happily of the crowd, “You could sell them blank pages!”

Ruby-Strauss burned out working for Regan, got laid off from his next job, and ended up at Kensington, a smaller publisher with microscopic budgets. It was while at Kensington that Ruby-Strauss talked Max into signing a deal for just $7,500, even though Max had turned down a $15,000 advance elsewhere. (Max told Leavell that, if he wanted to be treated like a Haitian boat person, he’d move to Haiti.) I Hope They Sell Beer sold a million copies in its first year alone. Max is now godfather to Ruby-Strauss’s son, for whom the author has set up a $10,000 college beer fund.

Ruby-Strauss’s first hit was a cocktail book that he pitched not long after breaking into the industry as an editorial assistant at HarperReference. He had seen Swingers and had a hunch that Americans were about to be really into martinis again. So he dialed up Netscape, found a website that offered recipes and a bit of history, and signed up the author to write a paperback that Crate & Barrel wound up stocking alongside its stemware. But Ruby-Strauss no longer trusts himself to cool-hunt. “By the time you’re in a decision-making position, you’re way too old for your tastes to matter at all,” he says. “In the modern classic—and I can say this because I acquired it—Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt, their manager said that in rock and roll you don’t need ears to hear the next big thing. What you need is eyes.”

In the standard book-editing M.O., an editor deems a piece of writing worthy, then tries to facilitate its embrace by the world. Ruby-Strauss views that approach as “sort of a fool’s errand,” he says. “I go around life looking for tribes, groups of people who like something, whatever it may be, and then I try to figure out if a book product could make sense for that group.” He relies on a lot of data to find those preexisting audiences. “My colleagues are like, ‘Put away the charts and graphs, you big nerd!’ ”

As Leavell points out, it doesn’t particularly matter if the research identifies a group of philistines as a target market. “If you can get an audience where they read one book a year,” he told me, “that book’s gonna be so successful, because that’s all that person is going to talk about!”

Publishing is filled with rumors about what Amazon’s algorithm contains. One rumor for which there is strong evidence: The tech behemoth decides how many copies of a book it will purchase for its own warehouses based on presale orders. That in turn influences “discoverability,” i.e., how much the title is thrown in front of shoppers on the site. In the old days, an editor who’d spent a crazy amount of money on a book could thus impress the importance of the work upon his publicity department and then bookstore buyers. Ubiquity often translated to sales: “Stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” was the saying. But preorders depend on customers feeling a strong connection to the author or the book’s subject.

Having a built-in promotional platform makes racking up presales easier—which, in this neatly circular system, is why data-driven editors like Ruby-Strauss so often find their talent and their tribes online, already talking to each other. It’s what worked for the Betches and for one of last year’s biggest successes, a young adult novel about cancer by a man named John Green. His earlier efforts had drawn critical praise, but what made The Fault in Our Stars different was that Green now has a million subscribers to his YouTube video blog. Penguin could push hard for advance purchases. Not coincidentally, publicity departments have started to send out galley copies that feature the author’s Twitter follower count.

Ruby-Strauss doesn’t have illusions about how his books are perceived. “I think my wife’s waiting for me to have a success that she can brag about,” he says. “People are judge-y.” Still, he likes to argue that what he publishes has more in common with great works of literature than others might like to admit. He alternately compares Max’s books to Naked Lunch (nervy raunch) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (the asshole wins). As for the Betches’ book (subtitle: “How to Win at Basically Everything”), he says, that was merely an update of the 1928 Socratic self-help guide The Technique of a Love Affair: By a Gentlewoman. “An Internet brand isn’t enough. The book has to deliver actual value, the audience has to be motivated and devoted, and so on,” says one high-up editor at a competing house, citing high-traffic blog-to-book failures like Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle, which somehow did not translate well into print.

“It shouldn’t be about the book but the money you can make from the book,” said Ruby-Strauss’s boss, Jennifer Bergstrom. Still, she has her limits. Not long ago, Ruby-Strauss wanted to buy a self-published title with a strong fan base. His colleagues at Gallery balked: It featured abusive, nonconsensual sex. “The protagonist ends up marrying her rapist,” says Bergstrom. “We felt the book crossed a line.”

“Why are we permitted to have an opinion about her fantasy?” Ruby-Strauss asked. “The fans love it. They are giving it four stars, you know? Hundreds of them. Not five deviants.”

I pressed him: Would he publish, say, a book by an underground philosopher, who happened to be a neo-Nazi?

“I’d have to read it first,” Ruby-Strauss replied. “I wouldn’t publish his call to arms. But if it were a textured memoir that was honest and soul-searching?” He paused. “I don’t know. That’s starting to sound kind of good."

Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic.

Corrections: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misidentified Jonathan Karp. Additionally, this piece originally said Jeremie Ruby-Strauss graduated from the University of Santa Cruz. In fact, it was the University of California, Santa Cruz.