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How Insults From ‘The Onion’ Could Help One Publisher Raise $150,000

CREDIT: MCSWEENEY’S
CREDIT: MCSWEENEY’S

McSweeney’s, the publishing imprint founded by novelist Dave Eggers, launched a Kickstarter two days ago. The move is a first for the 16-year-old independent press, which is aiming to raise $150,000 by June 5. See, McSweeney’s is in this awkward adolescence between its former for-profit status and its future non-profit one, and in the meantime, it is “fiscally-sponsored,” which means they would like to be sponsored, in part, by readers and friends.

The team at McSweeney’s sees the Kickstarter “as an opportunity to engage with our community of readers and fans in a way we’ve never done before,” said Jordan Bass, McSweeney’s executive editor, by phone. “The Kickstarter is a big part of that.”

The Kickstarter, and the non-profit status more broadly, “will give us a little bit more breathing room, as we’re able to reach out to foundations and other groups and institutions, people who appreciate our work and have wanted to support it but haven’t necessarily been able to do that for a for-profit operation as they can for a non-profit.”

In exchange for funding, and in a very on-brand move, McSweeney’s is offering up a host of playful, unconventional prizes: a silkscreened poster from Miranda July ($30 a pop), handwritten insults from The Onion staff ($100), a chat with Stephen Elliott (over coffee or Skype, your choice, $125), a week of emails with Nick Hornby (one a day for seven days straight, $750), a personalized story by Sheila Heti ($1,000). Spike Jonze will write a handwritten note to someone you love on the cover page of a script from Her, if you are a particular type of romantic, and also if you have $9,000.

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The folks at McSweeney’s called up Jess Walter — National Book Award finalist, author, past and future contributor to The Believer, McSweeney’s magazine — and asked if he had anything to put up for auction. Walter doesn’t do so well with writing stories on command (“as soon as I’m told to write something, I’d write the opposite”) and kind of freezes up at the notion of naming a character after the winning bidder. His solution to this conundrum: “I’m getting my 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible painted and I thought, why don’t I take someone for a ride?”

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The prize, officially deemed “Tour of ‘Fictional Spokane’ With Jess Walter,” will set you back $750. (“I think it’s wildly overpriced,” Walter admitted, but the people at McSweeney’s didn’t ask him how much he thought he was worth.) Walter was born in Spokane, where he still lives. “I am a dogged resident, stubborn in my resistance to move to a flat in Paris and write ex-pat stories.”

“I was thinking along the lines that literature happens everywhere,” he said. “There’s a lot of great writers from here. Jack Kerouac lived here, Sherman Alexie, Dashiell Hammett. I thought about going for a drink in the hotel where Dashiell used to sit and have a whiskey. And I even thought of smaller places: Sherman Alexie and I used to meet at this McDonalds and talk about writing when we were 20.”

The car, by the way, used to be orange, but Walter has restored it to its original color, black. “It’s the kind of car Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated, and it’s been passed down in my family forever,” he said. And some silver lining for the cloud of our impending apocalypse: “With climate change, our weather in Washington is like Santa Barbara, California, so it’ll be nice out.”

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Another enticement for this particular auction item: Walter feels so guilty about the high ticket price, he has above-and-beyond plans for how he’ll treat the winner. “I’ll take them for a meal, give them a back rub, do their taxes.” And if all else fails, “I may have to have one of my kids buy it, so it doesn’t look so pathetic.”

Jason Polan’s cheeseburger drawing. CREDIT: Jason Polan/McSweeney’s
Jason Polan’s cheeseburger drawing. CREDIT: Jason Polan/McSweeney’s

Artist Jason Polan donated an 18″ x 22″ drawing of a cheeseburger, which can be yours for $400 as part of “The Jason Polan Bundle.” He said he gets why readers are so game to contribute to McSweeney’s through the Kickstarter, even though it means essentially funding McSweeney’s on spec: paying in advance for work they haven’t seen. “It works in two directions,” Polan said. “People know what to expect; they know that McSweeney’s makes really good things. But also it works in the other direction: they kind of don’t know what to expect. There’s always fun surprises. Which I think is always a nice thing to be a part of. There’s a consistency in quality and they’re always eager to do new, fun, amazing things.”

McSweeney’s publishes about 25 books a year, a quarterly literary journal, a now bi-monthly magazine (The Believer was a monthly until January), and a website, “McSweeney’s Internet Tendency,” best known for gems like “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole” and “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.

“McSweeney’s has always been a mission-driven organization,” said Shannon David, McSweeney’s development director, by phone. “It’s always been about finding the best work that we could and supporting projects that we believe in and feel are important, and that’s not necessarily going to match up with the market.” (As a New York Times story announcing the move to non-profit put it, “Huge profits — or, really, any profits — were never really part of the business plan.” Eggers said McSweeney’s had been “a break-even operation” for the past 15 years.)

Since McSweeney’s was founded, “it’s working such a small operation without a huge geyser of cash flow behind it. A lot of the times, we’ll be put in a position of choosing between projects, or having to phase things out or slow them down and not be able to just work at the speed where we think we could if we had a little more resources behind the whole thing.”

All the ideas for rewards, as far as Bass and David could recall, came from the writers and artists. As for how they landed on $150,000 as the magic Kickstarter fundraising goal, Bass said, “It was really a gut-level decision.”

“It’s a big ask,” he added. “But hopefully, it’s one that we can back up.”