Quitters Never Win

Last week, I received the dissolution papers for my old publishing company. I waited quite a while before filing to dissolve it. While some of you might suspect it was because I harbored a romantic desire to get back into publishing, it was actually because I was scared that I would file something wrong. Essentially, it was like that dream where you’re taking the SATs but you haven’t prepared, and you’re naked, and you’re talking to a snake who’s wearing a vest, and —

But I’ve said too much.

Anyway, the company is officially dissolved, which leaves me very relieved. There were a variety of reasons I failed (or, “was not capable of succeeding”) in the literary publishing business, some of which I beat myself up over, and others of which were utterly beyond my control.

Which brings me to Dave Eggers. Last I week, I found a neat article in Forbes about Eggers’ work as a publisher. Now I didn’t get far when I tried reading Eggers’ blockbuster book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and I made some pretty savage remarks about the book to various friends and acquaintances, but maybe I’ve just got an aesthetic blind spot.

Or maybe not. It’s not germane to this rant. Regardless of the book’s merits, it sold a bazillion copies and made a bunch of money for the author. Admirably, he put some of it into worthwhile causes, including learning centers for kids. He’s also continued his quirky literary mag, McSweeney’s, and built up an independent publishing company.

Since it’s in Forbes, the article discusses some of the business practices of Eggers as a publisher. In particular, it explores how his early failure with Might led to a different business model with McSweeney’s:

When he began, Eggers was no stranger to traditional publishing. He’d co-founded the influential but short-lived Gen-X magazine Might in the mid-1990s, which taught him that dependence on advertising is a road to frustration. With Might, he says, it “seemed crazy that an advertiser–or a 22-year-old media planner–could determine whether or not your magazine had merit, how many pages you could print or whether (in the end) you existed at all.”

Might folded in 1997, and Eggers embarked on a different path a year later. With McSweeney’s, Eggers chose to start a much smaller publication, with a modest distribution and a very high cover price (between $22 and $24 per issue). He managed to win a readership without having to play the advertising game.

“We were determined to rely only on the support of readers. We grew only in relation to what readers would support,” Eggers says.

We learn that McSweeney’s grew among independent bookstores before reaching major distribution:

McSweeney’s Quarterly–which now prints 20,000 copies an issue and remains the flagship money-maker for the company–is now distributed by San Francisco-based Publishers Group West, which puts McSweeney’s products on the shelves of online and chain retailers as well as independents.

And this is where I pulled up short. I scrolled back to the top of the article and checked the dateline: Dec. 1, 2006. Unfortunately, this article about the growth of McSweeney’s Publishing came out four weeks before its distributor, Publishers Group West, went bankrupt.

According to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney’s was left $600,000 in the hole by this turn of events, most of that cash intended for a Sudanese refugee charity (Eggers pledged the proceeds of his new book to that cause: like I said, he seems like a good guy).

There are bailout plans from at least two other distributors, promising between 70% and 85% of the money owed to the publishers who choose to participate. But the very fact that this occurred, and was so unforeseen, makes a major point about independent publishing.

See, the article was structured such that Eggers learns from the pitfalls of his first publishing venture, and decides to follow a different path. He gets away from the advertiser-supported world in favor of reader-supported projects. Eventually, this model is so successful that the company seeks larger distribution to reach more readers. Then there are years of success, followed by the cataclysm of PGW’s collapse.

The worst part about this is, McSweeney’s Publishing did nothing wrong. It was a success story, financially and artistically/aesthetically (so I’m told), but the very framework of the business meant that it had to trust a distributor to help promote books to buyers, physically get them to stores, collect payments, handle returns, and a million other things. There’s no way that a publisher can do all that on the scale that Eggers’ company had grown.

Now, please don’t read this as sour grapes on my part. I’m not happy about PGW’s collapse, nor about the hit that McSweeney’s took. I’m hoping that the company bounces back, finds a new, stable distributor, and continues fighting the good fight.

What you should read this as is a lament for how difficult it is to successfully publish books, especially for an independent company. On the tiny scale I operated on, it was silly to keep going (and thanks for never bothering to pay me, Small Press Distributors, you lousy sonsabitches), but it’s a shame when the publishers with a real presence can get struck down by circumstances so utterly out of their control.

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