In association with our feature story this week, we asked former SF Weekly cartoonist and current McSweeney's overlord Dave Eggers some questions about his still-thriving company and about San Francisco's literary landscape. Here's what he said.
Which people or institutions within the San Francisco literary community most inspire or encourage you and why?
For me, at the start, it was always City Lights and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I've always been awed by the way he's kept it all going -- the store, the publishing company, the operation's activist spirit. But there are so many other great organizations here. Wendy Lesser's Threepenny Review, and Malcolm Margolin's Heyday Books, and Counterpoint, run by Charlie Winton, and of course Publishers Group West, which Charlie started and has helped us stay organized and afloat for so many years.
I think we're lucky out here in San Francisco. We have a lot of scrappy things going on, including Litquake, which is one of the best literary festivals in the U.S., and which was started on a shoestring. I'm inspired every time some new thing happens out here, because by necessity, any publishing done in the Bay Area is done in a similarly scrappy way.
What advice might you give a young person, or an old person, or a person of any age, really, who wanted to start a publishing company in San Francisco in 2014?
A while back I saw an interview with Questlove, and he was asked a similar question. He said something like, "You know, I could say 'Follow your dreams, kid, see you later!' But that's dismissive." Then he gave some very practical advice for aspiring musicians, centered around the radical idea of being organized. So in the same spirit, I won't give rainbow advice here; I'll be as practical as I can. To get any sort of publishing concern off the ground you have to work 100 hours a week and you have to be incredibly organized. Otherwise you'll be out of business in a few months. Publishing is a very low-margin business that only works if your operation is lean, everyone works their asses off, and you make a series of small gambles.
The McSweeney's Quarterly started by printing 2,500 copies. That's always my first bit of advice. Print a small number (500 is enough) and make that first issue as great as you possibly can make it. If people buy it, you can print the next issue. In our case, we sold those 2,500 copies -- I personally brought every copy to indie bookstores on the NYC subway -- and that enabled us to send the next issue to press. But for a bunch of years it was a break-even operation and there was no paid staff. To get over that hump, and begin paying staff and contributors, you need the commitment of subscribers. Subscribers are the Medicis of any literary magazine's existence. The subscriber model is the best in existence. Everyone chips in a little, they get their money's worth, and the enterprise continues. Without the faith and investment of subscribers -- to our quarterly and every magazine that publishes new writing --we're dead, and much of contemporary literature's dead.
What can you tell us about some of the McSweeney's team's achievements in the past 15 years that mean the most to you?
I'm most surprised that we still exist. It's a tough business, so the fact that we've been around 15 years is sort of miraculous. But we've been lucky to have a lot of incredibly creative and hard-working people at McSweeney's over the years, and if not for them we would have folded 10 years ago. The people who work at McSweeney's, and the Believer, and Voice of Witness, keep it all alive. So I'm most proud that we've been able to attract this kind of talent, and, to be honest, that they have health insurance. I know that's prosaic, but given McSweeney's started in my kitchen and I never saw it having any staff at all, the fact that 12 people work there now, and some of the staff members have even had children while working there, that babies have been born with our health plan -- that makes me very happy and humbled.
What if any areas of literary or educational publishing or community service, in San Francisco and the world, do you most hope McSweeney's will explore in the next 15 years, and beyond?
We're in a nice spot right now. I really just want it to continue as it is right now. If our subscribers will stay with us, and bookstores will keep stocking our books, and readers still read them, that's all we can hope for. And because we just had a Voice of Witness event the other day, I should add that that series, under the guidance of Mimi Lok, has become such a powerful force, and what I hope for the series is more readers becoming aware of the remarkable voices contained in the VOW books. I know it seems small to just hope that all this continues, but that's how I've always seen it. When McSweeney's started, I didn't really hope for anything beyond four issues of the quarterly. Everything since then has been organic, continually surprising, and most of the best things have been driven by the passions of the other people working here. My favorite thing is just to watch what everyone comes up with and to cheer them on.