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Q&A with Eli Horowitz of McSweeney's

April 27, 2008 |  5:15 pm

Eli

Eli Horowitz, managing editor and publisher of the Dave Eggers'-founded publishing concern McSweeney's, came down from San Francisco to participate in Saturday's panel "West Coast Publishing: Rethinking The Model."

Known for the Rectangulars Series of books, along with their eponymous, richly packaged literary magazine and monthly culture mag The Believer, McSweeney's has helped put L.A.'s northern cousin at the forefront of independent book publishing and also lavished much attention on the Garamond 3 font.

We caught up with Horowitz, the enthusiastic, inconceivably young man who's edited Salvador Plascencia's  "The People of Paper," Yannick Murphy's "Here They Come" and 90-year-old first-time novelist Millard Kaufman's "Bowl Of Cherries"—to name a few.

Jacket Copy: So we missed yesterday's panel. Fill us in. Is West Coast publishing a specific force unto itself or is it simply one aspect of the larger world of indie publishing? Is it just New York publishing versus non-New York publishing? Or is there some specific West Coast sensibility?

Eli Horowitz: (Laughs) There was no real conclusion or answer to the question.

JC: But doesn't existing on the West coast imply the act of cutting yourself off from the heart of media that exists in New York?

EH: Right. I think that part is definitely true. But, what if your company is set up in Pittsburgh? You're still not going to the cocktail parties, even if you are physically closer to them.

JC: But once you publish a book, it becomes a hard and fast fact. It's out there to be bought and read. But I guess that's where the publishing "push" comes in.

EH: Yeah, but there is certainly a cocktail party thing that happens. When a book gets on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, especially when it's a debut novel … how does that process happen? I mean, I have no idea how that happens (laughs), but I know it's not going to happen to us.  Editors don't just happen to read a book. They hear a book from one person and then they hear about it from two more and the book starts to take on it's own life. It's not a random. I don't mean to make it sound like a big conspiracy.

Read on....

JC: You just published John Brandon's first novel "Arkansas." With a small-town setting and a cast of border state ne'er do-wells, it's the kind of book that might be overlooked by a larger, daresay New York-based publisher. Would you say the process of putting this book out was like swimming upstream?

EH: It's been a real lesson in getting people to care about the book. John Brandon actually got an MFA, but it was five or six years ago, and he'd been going around since doing odd jobs, so he's not at all in the web of things. It was hard to get blurbs, for example. People want to know who his professors were, who his friends are. It's been hard to get attention, but he and I went on a tour through the Southeast and he'll be coming out to Los Angeles in July.

JC: McSweeney's has managed to keep itself in business for nearly a decade, regardless of the lack of front-pagers in the NYT. How does that work on a financial level?

EH: Well, you just try and stay afloat. I think what keeps us afloat is that our main goal is to do just that. Not to try and do more than that. When we fail, we don't fail big. That was another topic at the panel. Passion vs. business sense. In a way there's a balance that has to be kept. And in a way, I don't know how we could sell out even if we wanted to. It's not like there's all these books we could take, knowing that they would sell 50,000 copies. I have no idea how a book sells 50,000 copies.

JC: The book distribution company Publisher's Group West went bankrupt in 2006. That had a pretty major impact on McSweeney's as well as a number of other small West Coast publishers.

EH: Yeah. That was bad. Their parent company went bankrupt and they owed us $600,000. They filed for bankruptcy at the very end of 2006, like on December 29. So it's the end of the month, and the four months that they owed were September through December — the Christmas months. We had just shipped a ton of copies of [Dave Eggers'] "What Is The What," so there went all our money. All the assets and debts of PGW were frozen.

JC: Which led to your Internet fire sale.

EH: We just said, "OK, everyone, if there's a book of ours you've been meaning to buy — now would be a good time!"

JC: You also held an auction. What were some of the auction items?

EH: John Hodgman gave a tour of the "Daily Show" offices. Miranda July would apologize on behalf of you to someone else, and you could pick who but you couldn't pick what you were apologizing for. There were signed Art Spiegelman pieces, some signed Chris Ware things. But the biggest money came from just a lot of people spending $20 dollars each. It was really inspiring in that it gave us a real sense of mission, of responsibility. We felt there was this collective responsibility now, in that all these people cared about whether we survived or not, and so we had to do right by them.

-- George Ducker

(Photo of Eli Horowitz by George Ducker)

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