‘There’s never been a better time, I don’t think, to be a writer or publisher.’
Writer, publisher, Urchinspiration, and Exemplary Human Being Dave Eggers began his publishing imprint McSweeney’s in the kitchen of his Brooklyn apartment in 1998 with Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that only published works rejected by magazines. Because Eggers, as he puts it, ‘like[s] new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something,’ it wasn’t long before the Quarterly Concern expanded to take on different experimental forms and include anything its publishers deemed to be great writing.
It also wasn’t long before Eggers moved the operation to San Francisco, where he had originally moved from Chicago in the early nineties. Back in New York, Eggers had spoken with many teacher friends about students’ struggles with the literacy gap in the under-resourced school system. So when the Quarterly moved into a new office space, Eggers saw an opportunity to expand its scope once again. He said in his 2008 TED Prize acceptance speech,
We were going to move it into an office, and we were going to actually share space with a tutoring center. So we thought, We’ll have all these writers and editors and everybody — sort of a writing community coming into the office every day anyway, why don’t we just open up the front of the building to come in there after school, get extra help on their written homework, so you have basically no border between these two communities. So the idea was that we would be working on whatever we’re working on — at 2:30 the students flow in and you put down what you’re doing or you trade or you work a little bit later or whatever it is you give those hours in the afternoons to the students in the neighborhood.
Thus began Eggers’ first nonprofit, 826, which now has eight chapters across the US and numerous spin-off organisations around the world. Eggers’ second nonprofit, Voice of Witness, uses oral histories to highlight and educate about contemporary human rights crises. His third nonprofit, ScholarMatch, connects donors with students and crowdfunds college scholarships.
Last month, McSweeney’s Publishing began its transition to join the ranks of those organisations as a nonprofit. After 15 years and nearly 200 books, the transition feels a bit like a homecoming for the imprint, both artistically and fiscally. ‘For 15 years now, it’s been a break-even operation,’ says Eggers. ‘I’ve always been attracted to books and projects that we love and are passionate about, and it doesn’t always intersect with books that will sell a million copies.’
The move to nonprofit will allow McSweeney’s to raise funds or apply for grants on a project-specific basis. Says Eggers, ‘It just seemed that increasingly so many of the things that we wanted to do were nonprofit projects and were not really things that you could reasonably expect to break even.’
And turning a profit, or even breaking even, was never the intention anyway. As Eggers wrote to an interviewer for The Harvard Advocate in 2000 who suggested that he was just trying to ‘sell a lot of magazines by being so pretty and ‘authentic’’,
You’re applying principles of mass-marketing to a money-hemorrhaging literary magazine produced out of my apartment. Please. No one here is trying to sell a lot of magazines. Why would we be making a literary magazine in the first place, if sales numbers were our goal? And why would we be printing this thing in Iceland, and printing only 12,000 copies?
Eggers and the McSweeney’s team have been making a literary magazine, and the many other creative iterations that fall under the imprint, because they have a belief in and a commitment to outstanding writing, publishing, and the printed word. As Eggers mentions, the Quarterly Concern and McSweeney’s books were originally printed in Iceland because Reykjavik-based Oddi Printing could execute difficult die-cuts and complicated details that larger presses in the US wouldn’t. A foundational and lasting virtue of McSweeney’s has been a commitment to excellence regardless of, and oftentimes at the expense of, profit.
Of their transition to a nonprofit organisation, Eggers told the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘Everyone feels this incredible relief, because I think to some extent we don’t have to pretend that we’re something that we’re not. And you know, the taste of the editors and the staff ran toward really worthy books and worthy undertakings and anthologies and series that … didn’t necessarily indicate profit.’
In anticipation of the transition, McSweeney’s has amassed a broad and ambitious array of upcoming projects. In addition to expanding the McSweeney’s Poetry Series, ‘redoubling’ their efforts around books in translations, supporting Jamaican novelist Marlon James’s anthology of Caribbean fiction, compiling the first-ever collection of writing by the women of South Sudan, and refocusing the Believer on long-form literary journalism, there are big things in the works for the Quarterly, where it all began. According to the McSweeney’s website,
In recent years, we’ve made our quarterly a home for ambitious experimental anthologizing—we’ve given over full issues to last spring’s all-Latin-American-crime lineup, British novelist Adam Thirlwell’s serial translation project, and a celebration of the editorial work of Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock. Farther down the road, other special issues await the support they need—a compilation of writing on American waterways with contributions from journalists, novelists, poets, and essayists, edited by a major American novelist; new art-centric anthologies, in collaboration with photographers and graphic novelists; and more.
This new chapter for McSweeney’s exemplifies the ethos and ethics of Dave Eggers, as well as those who, like the Urchin Movement, have been inspired by him. Thank you, Dave, for your longterm commitment to integrity and for always leading by example into new, exciting territory. We can’t wait to see where you go next.
To celebrate, I’ll let Eggers himself close out this article with a toast in the form of an excerpt from his 2000 response to that interviewer from The Harvard Advocate who raised questions of selling out, which Eggers later delivered as a speech to students at Yale.
And now, as far as McSweeney’s is concerned, The Advocate interviewer wants to know if we’re losing also our edge, if the magazine is selling out, hitting the mainstream, if we’re still committed to publishing unknowns, and pieces killed by other magazines.
And the fact is, I don’t give a fuck. When we did the last issue, this was my thought process: I saw a box. So I decided we’d do a box. We were given stories by some of our favorite writers – George Saunders, Rick Moody (who is uncool, uncool!), Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, others – and so we published them. Did I wonder if people would think we were selling out, that we were not fulfilling the mission they had assumed we had committed ourselves to?
No. I did not. Nor will I ever. We just don’t care. We care about doing what we want to do creatively. We want to be interested in it. We want it to challenge us. We want it to be difficult. We want to reinvent the stupid thing every time. Would I ever think, before I did something, of how those with sellout monitors would respond to this or that move? I would not. The second I sense a thought like that trickling into my brain, I will put my head under the tires of a bus.
You want to know how big a sellout I am?
A few months ago I wrote an article for Time magazine and was paid $12,000 for it. I am about to write something, 1,000 words, 3 pages or so, for something called Forbes ASAP, and for that I will be paid $6,000. For two years, until five months ago, I was on the payroll of ESPN magazine, as a consultant and sometime contributor. I was paid handsomely for doing very little. Same with my stint at Esquire. One year I spent there, with little to no duties. I wore khakis every day. Another Might editor and I, for almost a year, contributed to Details magazine, under pseudonyms, and were paid $2000 each for what never amounted to more than 10 minutes work – honestly never more than that. People from Hollywood want to make my book into a movie, and I am probably going to let them do so, and they will likely pay me a great deal of money for the privilege.
Do I care about this money? I do. Will I keep this money? Very little of it. Within the year I will have given away almost a million dollars to about 100 charities and individuals, benefiting everything from hospice care to an artist who makes sculptures from Burger King bags. And the rest will be going into publishing books through McSweeney’s. Would I have been able to publish McSweeney’s if I had not worked at Esquire? Probably not. Where is the $6000 from Forbes going? To a guy named Joe Polevy, who wants to write a book about the effects of radiator noise on children in New England.
There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit who has kept shit ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.