Saving McSweeney's

A heartbreaking tale with staggering implications for indie publisher

Let's hope this column is not an obituary for McSweeney's. The well-intentioned local publishing entity announced last week that it is around $130,000 in the hole following the collapse of one of its distributors. McSweeney's is responsible for such postmodern, over-educated fun as McSweeney's Quarterly, the Believermagazine, experimental books by company founder Dave Eggers and others, and the pirate store on Valencia Street. It's hosting a fire sale of its back catalogue and an eBay auction of art by contributors like Chris Ware and Tony Millionaire, in hopes that supporters will rescue McSweeney's from potential financial ruin. At this point almost every lit geek in the Bay Area has been touched, annoyed, or supplied with a peg leg by some arm of the company, and publisher Eli Horowitz swears supporters' goodwill will pull the organization through the crisis.

According to Horowitz, the problems stem from one distributor. He says that last fall McSweeney's handed over 60,000 copies of Eggers' new hardcover novel What Is the What to Publisher's Group West for distribution. The books went out to bookstores, but the company that owns PGW (the sinisterly named Advanced Marketing Services) filed for bankruptcy in January, taking two-thirds of the novel's projected profits down with it.

McSweeney's already-shoestring operation (eight full-time employees and an army of interns) stumbled along on credit for several months, and finally reached the breaking point — i.e. no money for payroll — last week. "We lost $130,000," Horowitz says. "It won't be all recouped. We were already totally in debt ... though not urgently in debt," before the What Is the What transaction went sour. "Financial stability is the third or fourth priority on our list," Horowitz continues. "If you want to make money, you don't get into independent publishing."

This original Tony Millionaire drawing is being sold to keep McSweeney's in business.
This original Tony Millionaire drawing is being sold to keep McSweeney's in business.

The company's appeal for cash mimics one put out several years ago by the small but noble comics imprint Fantagraphics. After a distributor folded, leaving Fantagraphics $80,000 in the lurch in 2003, the Seattle-based publisher found itself unable to continue operations. "You try to believe that you're going to get past it," the company's publicist Eric Reynolds says in a phone interview. "Then it comes down to payroll time rather quickly and you realize, 'Holy shit, this is coming to a head.' So we dropped a letter telling people what was going on. It caught like wildfire on the Internet and we raised $100,000 in a week or a week and a half." Fantagraphics had to cut some staff and take fewer risks with new projects, but Reynolds is bright about McSweeney's chances. "They're more loveable than we are. If we can pull it off, I think they can," he says.

Horowitz is similarly upbeat. He wouldn't disclose figures but claims the company will survive on the strength of the fire sale, without resorting to staff cuts or accepting advertising in the ad-free McSweeney's print and online editions (the formerly ad-free Believer recently began running one tastefully designed ad per issue).

Considering that McSweeney's is staffed by people who run a pirate-supply store, and that it printed an embossed book of wildly inaccurate info about squid, it's hard not to take Horowitz's predictions with an eyepatch full of salt, and a few stabs of guilt.

McSweeney's has always felt like a sort of atonement for the success of its founder, Dave Eggers. He made his name as a writer in the '90s with his self-obsessed, smartassed memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — then, seemingly in a crisis of conscience, he did a 180 into energetic do-gooderism. Eggers started 826 Valencia, a nationwide non-profit promoting children's literacy. He also began printing unusual novels by otherwise unpublishable authors, and launched the Believer magazine, best known for founding editor Heidi Julavits' essay rejecting the same snarky attitude that made Eggers' first book so much fun. Granted, the manifesto was just one among the Believer's hundreds of articles, but it's hard not to take the entire McSweeney's endeavor as a big, slightly sanctimonious tsk-tsk to those of us still valuing self-obsessed smartassery as an entertaining defense against an absurd world, even if we are smart enough to know better.

At its best, though, McSweeney's feels like a challenge instead of a scold. When its output nails it — Amy Fusselman's incredibly affecting and funny first book; the McSweeney's piece where a fictitious Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn do a commentary track on the Fellowship of the Rings DVD; the Believeressay on Bush's 2004 campaign speeches — it makes you grateful to have learned to read, and that joy is the practical cure for cynicism.

Last year, McSweeney's published a little nonfiction book by the bleak French novelist Michel Houellebecq, one of my favorite authors. It's an extended essay on antique horror weirdo H.P. Lovecraft, and it's the only work of Houellebecq's in translation that I haven't read. I always pick it up in the pirate store, and it reminds me of PBS or the spotted owl — its existence is vaguely heartwarming and noble, but nothing I needed to drop $18 for.

But with McSweeney's in jeopardy, it's time to confront the possibility of a world where no one prints impeccably designed tomes on one obscure genius' thoughts on another, and where no one sells pirate ephemera on Valencia Street, or publishes Nick Hornby's insufferable books criticism in the Believerevery month. I don't want to live in that kind of world, so I logged on to McSweeneys' Web site (er, their "Internet Tendency") and bought H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. And here's what I read: "Those who love life do not read ... No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world." It's not snark, it's the truth. Stop by the Pirate Store this week, or log on to http://Mcsweeneys.net, and help keep McSweeney's distinctive line of access between the fed-up reader and the artistic universe open.

 
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