McSweeney’s occupies rarified niche in publishing world

Decades ago, literary journals were the academic-oriented “hallowed grounds” of intellectuals, dreamy freshmen English majors and publish-or-perish university professors.

Since then, most journals have stepped into the present, broadening their contents, running more photos, revamping layouts, adding a chuckle of dry humor, setting up websites.

As smart as they are, no literary journal has come close to becoming the wide-ranging commercial force that is McSweeney’s.

The San Francisco-based company evolved from a brash literary journal ? the bad boy in town ? into a multifaceted print and online independent publishing house, founded by journalist-novelist-publisher Dave Eggers.

From its start in 1998, the award-winning Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern was a maverick within a conservative publishing segment whose heritage was more insular than democratic, more New York Times than New York Post.

At first, Eggers and his staff took ironic pride in publishing “only works rejected by other magazines.” That conceit soon changed, and the journal expanded to include A-list authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, Ann Beattie, Steven King and National Book Award-winner William T. Vollmann of Sacramento.

Yet a statement on the website reminds writers and their readers that McSweeney’s remains quite approachable: “We’re committed to publishing exciting fiction regardless of pedigree.”

“McSweeney’s flaunts every rule you can think of, and you want them to get away with it,” said writer-publisher Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday Books in Berkeley. One of Heyday’s titles is the anthology “New California Writing,” which draws heavily on the previously published contents of literary magazines ? including McSweeney’s.

“McSweeney’s is like watching trapeze artists doing spectacular tricks,” Margolin added. “You’re just hoping they have a net.”

It’s doubtful the staff at McSweeney’s worries about safety nets. Scanning the contents of its books, magazines, online humor site and smartphone application, it appears the editors appreciate contributors who not only go to the edge of the literary cliff but parachute off it.

McSweeney’s has built its reputation partly on trusting its collective tastes and by taking risks.

“We try to make books and magazines that we ourselves would want to buy and read. It’s a very collaborative process,” said McSweeney’s associate publisher, Adam Krefman, in an email. “There are myriad different interests among our staff, and I think that’s reflected in what we publish.

“We’re republishing a cookbook originally written by (‘Eat, Pray, Love’ author) Elizabeth Gilbert’s great-grandma in 1947,” he said. “It’s hilarious.”

In addition to publishing books and its cornerstone Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern literary magazine, the company puts out three other quarterlies and an arts-and-culture magazine that appears nine times a year. Together, the five magazines cover an eclectic range of topics, from the arts to sports. Lucky Peach, for instance, is food-centric, while Wholphin focuses on short films. Also at www. mcsweeneys.net is the humor site Internet Tendency.

A sampling from that product line forms the main content of the McSweeney’s app, but users can also expect fresh news items and announcements.

The Store, part of the website, sells all of the above, plus posters, journals, planners and 25 different T-shirts emblazoned with art from McSweeney’s magazine covers.

Also on the site are links to Eggers’ four foundations that foster education, raise funds for disaster relief and document global social injustices.

The driving force behind McSweeney’s is the highly energized Eggers, who will turn 42 on March 12. Plug him in and light up a city.

On the fiction front, his best-known books are “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” “What Is the What” (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award) and “The Wild Things.”

His nonfiction includes the Pulitzer Prize finalist “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” a memoir of how he raised his younger brother after they were orphaned; and “Zeitoun,” recounting the injustices faced by a Muslim American businessman who chose to remain in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That last title was the Sacramento Public Library’s choice for its 2010 One Book Sacramento/Sacramento Bee Book Club program. Eggers delivered a compelling presentation to an audience of 900-plus at the Crest Theatre.

But who is Timothy McSweeney?

The name was widely thought to be a self-indulgent affectation for a magazine title, an inside joke.

But McSweeney was somebody ? a real somebody.

Eggers named his journal after McSweeney before he knew anything about the man, and didn’t discover his identity until after McSweeney died in January 2010 at age 67.

McSweeney was an artist who once had taught at Rutgers University but was struck with mental illness and confined to an institution. From there, he mailed odd letters to strangers who shared his last name, believing they were relatives. Among the recipients was Eggers’ mother ? whose maiden name was McSweeney ? beginning when Eggers was a boy.

“We didn’t know if he was real, but the name ‘Timothy McSweeney’ came to hold an aura of mystery,” Eggers explains at www.mcsweeneys. net.

As the letters continued to arrive, Eggers saved them in a dresser drawer. Years later, he named his journal after the unknown mystery man.

“(The title of the journal) made sense on many levels,” he explains on the site. “I was able to honor my Irish side of the family and also allude to this mysterious man and the sense of possibility and even wonder he’d brought to our suburban home.”

Which seems apt. The notion of a start-up magazine offering its readers “the sense of possibility and even wonder” is an inspired premise, a big promise and a smart marketing tool.

McSweeney’s headquarters in on Valencia Street, in a converted laundromat in San Francisco’s Mission District, in offices staffed by 15 full-time employees.

Slammed by deadlines and work-related travel, Eggers could not be reached for this story.

Associate publisher Krefman explained McSweeney’s vision in an email.

“I’m not sure there’s one over-arching philosophy beyond simply: quality,” he wrote. “As we grow, there are inevitably wider scopes of interest.”

McSweeney’s is literate and hip, considered a trendsetter among independent publishers.

“I don’t think the word ‘trendsetter’ has ever been mentioned in this office,” Krefman said via email. “It’s hard to have that perception of ourselves while sitting in our very dusty, messy office, hacking away at our in-boxes and manuscripts and designs. We’re lucky in that we’ve been able to collaborate with some amazing authors and artists over the years.”

What’s new and upcoming?

“McSweeney’s Issue 40 is on the horizon, with (content that will include) a selection of blogs and websites (created) in Egypt during its revolution. (Also) a related 200-page hardcover book by (environmental writer and activist) Rick Bass, about his travels in Rwanda.”

Krefman took a cyber-breath and added, “And we’ve got a whole host of nonfiction, fiction and children’s books I could talk about for days.”

One last question: Why is an ornate chair the company logo?

“A lot of early McSweeney’s Quarterly images and illustrations were scanned from very old books, and that’s most likely the case for the chair, too,” Krefman said. “But exact details are a bit hazy.”

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Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

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