A few weeks ago wildly successful writer and educational emporer, Dave Eggers, spoke at an Author’s Guild dinner about how things in print aren’t as bad as one would think and that everyone should just chill the fuck out. In the speech he gave out his email address with the instruction, “If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.”
And me being a publisher myself, someone with a vested interest in the future of print (and, really, just a person wanting to get some of his concerns off his chest) I emailed him. And I heard back from him yesterday. Click through to read our correspondence.
May 21, 2009 2:22:53 PM EDT
I run a magazine. We’re pretty young. Only two years old and we do two
issues a year. I thought it would be a cinch to get rid of all the
copies that I had printed. Well I have a mountain of boxes in a spare
room filled with back issues that, it seems, no one will ever buy.
I’m pretty sure print is going to be okay, it’s the other stuff that
I’m worried about. The old publishing model. The old distribution
model. Those are the rapidly decaying models that are making the print
world suffer. Not print itself. And while it’s still kind of a cool
time (people are trying lots of experimental type stuff to find the new
model) I’m worried my magazine is going to be one of those failed
experiments and this thing that I love so much will die an untimely
Please restore my faith not only in print, but in peoples interest in print.
Editor/Publisher, Annalemma Magazine
June 2, 2009 8:11:59 PM EDT
Dear Person Needing Bucking Up,
Hello and thank you so much for writing. I feel honored that you would take
the time to reach out and in many cases tell me your very real struggles
with writing and work and the future of the printed word.
I have a few thoughts to share, though unfortunately in this space I can’t
detail all the reasons I think we have a fighting chance at keeping
newspapers and books alive in physical form. But before I do blather for a
few paragraphs, I should apologize for sending you a mass email.
As you probably know, a week ago I gave a speech to about 100 people in New
York, and I didn’t foresee it getting out there on the web. (Shows how much
I know.) And I really didn’t expect this email address to be given out.
Again, though, that was my lack of foresight. And I’m an infrequent emailer,
so I’m unable to respond to most of the (plaintive, beautiful,
heart-ripping) emails that have been sent to me these past few days. So I
apologize for not being able to answer your email personally. Or at least
not in any timely manner.
Anyway. I would like to say to you good print-loving people that for every
dire bit of news there is out there, there is also some good news, too. The
main gist of my (rambling) speech at the Author’s Guild was that because I
work with kids in San Francisco, I see every day that their enthusiasm for
the printed word is no different from that of kids from any other era.
Reports that no one reads anymore, especially young people, are greatly
overstated and almost always factually lacking. I’ve written about youth
readership elsewhere, but to reiterate: sales of young adult books are
actually up. Total volume of all book sales is actually up. Kids get the
same things out of books that they have before. Reading in elementary
schools and middle schools is no different than any other time. We have work
to do with keeping high schoolers reading, but then again, I meet every week
with 15 high schoolers in San Francisco, and all we do is read (literary
magazines, books, journals, websites, everything) in the process of putting
together the Best American Nonrequired Reading. And I have to say these
students, 14 to 18 years old, are far better read and more astute than I was
at their age, and there are a million other kids around the country just
These kids meet every week at McSweeney’s, and things at our small
publishing company are stable. We’re a hand-to-mouth operation to be sure,
but we haven’t had to lay anyone off. To some extent, that’s because we’re
small and independent and have always insisted on staying small and
independent. We take on very little risk, and we grow very cautiously. It’s
our humble opinion that the world will support many more publishers of our
size and focus. If you can stay small, stay independent, readers will be
loyal, and you’ll be able to get by publishing work of merit. Publishing
has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit
margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what
they loved. It’s only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many
publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins
squeezed some of the joy out of the business.
Pretty soon, on the McSweeney’s website www.mcsweeneys.net we’ll be
showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper
form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper
model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We’re convinced
that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable
model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And
that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical
paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn’t retreat, but
instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the
hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you
give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists
space, if you really truly give readers an experience that can’t be
duplicated on the web, then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per
copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the
As long as newspapers offer less each day, less news, less great writing,
less graphic innovation, fewer photos, then they’re giving readers few
reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the
physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at
$1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news,
but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages,
too. It’s our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in
fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the
newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web.
Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different
experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a
time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page.
Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give
something to pay for, and they’ll pay for it.
We’ll keep you posted throughout the summer about our progress with this
newspaper prototype, and any other good news we come across.
Thanks for listening for now,