October 22, 2014

McSweeney’s to become a nonprofit publisher


McSweeneysMcSweeney’s, the sixteen year-old publishing company in San Francisco, is filing for nonprofit status, according to an announcement on its webpage this week. At Melville House, we know as well as anybody that publishing risk-taking new writers in beautiful packages isn’t always a license to print money.

“Every year it gets just a little harder to be an independent publisher,” Dave Eggers, author and publisher, said in a telephone interview with John McMurtrie of SFGate. “An independent literary title that might have sold 10,000 copies ten years ago might sell 6,000 now, for example.”

McSweeney’s last fifteen years of publishing have been a “break-even operation” Eggers added in an interview with Alexandra Alter at the New York Times. Another thing that’s changed for McSweeney’s: the bankruptcy of PGW, which changed the lives of many independent publishers.

Eggers noted that he was inspired to make a change after a conversation with Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley, California. Heydey went through a similar transformation ten years ago.

Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing and intellectual property lawyer in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at New York University, said this move is “the coming thing in publishing. It’s going to be increasingly common for certain kinds of publishing houses where something is at stake beyond making money.”

Yeah, OK, it’s hard to survive as an independent publisher. But McSweeney’s has always been a bit of an outlier, running very successful nonprofits like 826 Valencia, ScholarMatch, and the oral history project Voice of Witness. This switch seems like a no-brainer for a company that has a explicit emphasis on social change.

The Believer is making a switch to bimonthly publication in January, with a focus on longer issues and more investigative journalism. In happy news, there will be no changes to the publisher’s editorial staff. Their upcoming books include an expanded poetry series, a fiction anthology written by South Sudanese women, and additions to the Collins Library.



Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.