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Idea Generation

The McSweeney’s Mantra: Haven’t Tried It Yet? Do It Anyway.

We look at the art of on-the-job training via McSweeney's scrappy approach to making crazy-inventive books and publishing a 320-page newspaper.


On the early side of the ’00s, a post-college, pre-McSweeney’s Eli Horowitz sat down in the middle of rural Virginia and stared at a pile of nails, wood, and glass. Against all odds – in particular, those stating Eli’s heretofore untested ability to build things – the items had conspired to become a house, and it was finished save for one small detail. Eli was tired, and the window trim that made sense during the home’s excitable blueprint stages seemed less important here in the wilderness, where his only neighbors were bats and foxes.

So, like any good recently graduated Philosophy major, he thought about it. What was the purpose of window trim in the Blue Ridge Mountains? No one would see it, it had no utilitarian purpose, it didn’t have feelings – nope, there was no real reason to go ahead with it. On the other hand, it would look nice. And that wound up being reason enough for Eli. From this story, a typical McSweeney’s mantra emerges. It goes: Never having done something before is a bad reason not to do it.

Not surprisingly, the Dave Eggers-founded, SF-based publishing house which is behind the Believer magazine, Wolphin DVD series, the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and a growing number of acclaimed book titles thrives under an internal creative structure that reads something like a free-for-all. But there’s another mantra in there, a suggestion of a mindset that’s proved just as prevalent in the day-to-day functions of this constantly admired literary outfit. That mantra is: Put the fucking trim on it.

At McSweeney’s – where writers design books, construction workers edit them, and people seemingly pursue projects willy-nilly – the way a reader experiences a book on the outside is taken as seriously as the way they experience it on the inside. Which is odd, because with published works by the likes of Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Wells Tower, Marcel Dzama, and Nick Hornby, they could stop at focusing on the words (like many other publishers).

Never having done something before is a bad reason not to do it.

Instead, staff and collaborators dream up elaborate and whimsical packaging approaches that seduce before you even crack the cover. Issue 17 of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern looked like a pile of mail,  Issue 23 boasted an elegant “Z binding” that opened from both sides, and Issue 28 saw eight mini-books (containing one fable apiece) banded together with interlocking cover illustrations. Supported by McSweeney’s unique creative process, in which the same set of people typically see a book through from editing to design to publishing, the physical look of the books is always deeply connected to the text inside. And yet, the people responsible for them are “not really designers.” So what gives?

According to Horowitz, who has done time in nearly every position within the company, what is seen on the shiny surface of things like McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is largely a result of dreaming up things they’re not qualified to do,  and don’t have the manpower for. And then doing them anyway. Sure, the approach is chaotic at times, but, “It’s not like Willy Wonka or anything,” says Eli. What’s more, this no-holds-barred mentality, driven by a bootstrappy enthusiasm and bountiful, if not officially trained, creative talent, has earned them recognition by the National Book Critics Circle Awards, as well as design awards including the AIGA 50 Books Award, AIGA 365 Illustration Award, and the Print Design Regional Award.

While traditional publishers have more resources, McSweeney’s small size – just 10 full-time employees – and perpetual willingness to take risk, allows them to be more nimble and infinitely more innovative. Take, for instance, the latest issue of the Quarterly Concern, the San Francisco Panorama, which brazenly took the form of a Sunday paper. Conceived as a form of rebellion against the news industry’s rumored demise, the gorgeous, 320-page issue sold out in moments, and garnered press coverage all the way from the Bay to the New York Times.

What real reason did they have to produce a mammoth, one-off newspaper? None, really. But that didn’t make it a bad idea.

Do the things you don’t know how to do. Put the fucking trim on it.

Let’s drink to that.

Image courtesy of Steve Rhodes.

Carmel Hagen

Carmel Hagen is the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Co., a company developing mindfully delicious alternatives to refined sugar. For creative kitchen inspiration and mixologist tips, follow Sweet Revenge on Instagram at @enjoyrevenge or visit sweetrevengesugar.co

Comments (3)
  • Emily Goligoski

    I think we can so often get caught up with pre-planning and business plan writing that we lose time in getting to it. Horowitz’s inhibitions have definitely been good for readers (as Panorama demonstrates: http://emilygoligoski.com/inde….

  • Juliek

    Other mantra: Put the fucking trim on it.

  • Barnickel Design

    Amen

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