As the print media continue to be overtaken by the Internet, and pundits declare that all writers in the service of ink and paper should put down their quills and fire up their TypePad blogs, there remain some true believers who keep the flame of print-lit alive. Stoked by sheer pluck, determination and the magical properties of their wayward imaginations, many of these folks work for McSweeney’s.
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It’s safe to say that Dave Eggers’ mini-empire is the most important publisher of independent fiction in America today — at least among those who read their fiction in coffeehouses from Williamsburg to Eagle Rock. We’re told that this genus of reader is influential, a mover of the Zeitgeist needle, and it doesn’t take Margaret Mead to notice all of those open copies of Eggers’ What Is the What and Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper scattered like literary spore across the enclaves of the young and the scruffy. In its idiosyncratic way, McSweeney’s is helping to keep the novel alive by keeping it novel. And thanks to Eggers’ own books, McSweeney’s can continue to bankroll what it wants to publish. According to Nielsen BookScan, What Is the What has sold 259,000 copies.
Despite the imprint’s critics — as much positive feeling as Eggers and friends engender, they inspire an equal amount of annoyance — the books themselves are uniformly good. But McSweeney’s titles are also triumphs of handcrafted folk art, part of the overall whimsical aesthetic of everything that it produces, from its literary quarterly to its monthly magazine, The Believer.
Take the latest title, a collection of essays from Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon, called Maps and Legends. Its cover, which was designed by the McSweeney’s editorial staff in conjunction with illustrator Jordan Crane, is a Vikings-and-dragons tableau fashioned from a triple-leaf, die-cut cover that elegantly fits together like a children’s puzzle. The cover for John Brandon’s novel Arkansas does away with a dust jacket altogether. Instead, a gold-leaf car is sinking in a river that looks like it was crosshatched by Albrecht Durer himself. The McSweeney’s charm offensive is not a gimmick but part of a larger strategy to keep alive the art of book design as it used to be practiced by the major publishers.
“Book jackets are stupid,” says Eli Horowitz, the boyish publisher of McSweeney’s. “There’s too much attention paid to jackets. Take them off and it’s just bland. The whole book should be designed.” More than anything, McSweeney’s is drawing a line in the sand, insisting that books between hard covers still matter enough for the time and the energy to be devoted to making them look like takeaway works of art. After all, you can’t have an embossed tri-fold jacket on a Web site.
“We’re not designing these books as part of an ideological statement, but we do think about a book as an object, and there are challenges inherent in that,” says Horowitz. Ask him about the team of crack graphic designers that the company uses for its books, and he will insist that no such team exists. In fact, most of the books are designed by Horowitz and the three-person editorial staff.
Horowitz is proud of the fact that he came into the job with zero design experience, believing that frees him up to think about ideas which might otherwise seem untenable or impossible to execute. For Millard Kaufman’s 2007 novel Bowl of Cherries, a book that is mostly set in the Middle East, Horowitz couldn’t stop thinking about an old Tintin book called The Crab With the Golden Claws. On that cover, the intrepid French cartoon adventurer and his dog, Milou, are riding a camel in a barren desert. Using that kernel of inspiration, Horowitz called on Jason Holley, an illustrator in Sierra Madre and a teacher at the Pasadena Art Center. Along with Crane and a few others, Holley is a go-to facilitator for Horowitz’s and the McSweeney’s staff’s far-flung notions.
Riffing on Kaufman’s story, Holley drew giant statues of a man and a woman covered in excrement, walking through the desert, ancient monuments bound with twine to their feet like Japanese platform shoes. “People are always a good hook for a book cover,” says Horowitz. “Millard Kaufman wanted it to be sexier, with full-bodied women, but we didn’t go that way.” From there, Horowitz decided that he wanted the jacket to cover three-quarters of the book’s surface. The last quarter would be filled in with the illustrated tops of the statues’ heads.
Production of such a complex cover cannot be left to hacks, which is why McSweeney’s hires the firm Tien Wah Press, a Singapore-based production company recommended to them by Francis Mouly, co-founder of the seminal animated magazine Raw and covers editor for The New Yorker.
“Tien Wah Press is very good with anything that requires hand work, like pockets, or stickers,” says Horowitz, who has had plenty of experience with both. “And their production costs are low too.”
Because McSweeney’s is a small company, the same editor who vets a manuscript will also supervise the book design and see the book through to the printer and eventual publication. For writers, that’s a rare and precious perk that just doesn’t happen with big publishers.
Yannick Murphy, the Vermont writer whose novel Here They Come was published by McSweeney’s, was heartened by the way the publisher reached out for her feedback. “They involved me to a great extent. They sent me samples to look through and solicited any input I might have,” Murphy says. “With a major publisher, you are pretty much given the cover from the art department. I have to stand on my ear to make myself heard.”
The economics of all of this DIY handiwork pan out for the company. Most of McSweeney’s novels have print runs of between 5,000 and 8,000 copies, and according to Horowitz, all of them sell out over time. “We always make our money back,” he says. “Whether we make enough money to pay our bills is sometimes trickier.” In order to control up-front costs and provide a budget for the book’s design, the company doles out smaller-than-average advances but offers a higher percentage of profits to its authors.
“My next book was published by a major house, and I got a bigger advance,” says Murphy. “But I missed that relationship with McSweeney’s. They renew your faith in the literary world.”
Marc Weingarten is a Los Angeles critic.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline By JOE DONNELLY
The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE
The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books By NATHAN IHARA
In a Jam: How Suspense Keeps the Novel on Edge By THOMAS PERRY