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McSweeney’s Ethan Nosowsky on how a design-focused publisher goes digital

Interview 2.0

McSweeney’s, launched in 1998 by the author Dave Eggers, has built its reputation on publishing high-quality, well-designed magazines and books. Their magazines, including McSweeney’s Quarterly and the Believer, feature imaginative drawings and creative layouts. The covers of McSweeney’s books are art in and of themselves. Given this emphasis on printed design, how is McSweeney’s thinking about its transition to digital? I spoke with editorial director Ethan Nosowsky to find out. (Note: this interview has been edited for length).

What is the McSweeney’s philosophy when it comes to creating content across platforms?

The important thing to say is that McSweeney’s puts a lot of thought and effort into the design of our books. It’s tremendously important to us. I like to think that McSweeney’s is making the best argument for the continued relevance of the printed book.

That said, people’s reading habits are changing. People want to read our books on other platforms besides print. I don’t want to get in the way. If they want to read our books in e-book form, then so be it.

But for a design-focused place like McSweeney’s, the frustration is that some of the digital devices are just ugly. The layout doesn’t look good. It doesn’t take advantage of centuries of the professional craft of book design, so the trick for us is how to do that. How to create a beautifully designed e-book.

We publish a novel, and we’ll release it in print, for the Kindle, for the iPad. Anyway people want to buy a book, we’ll give it to them. We’re trying to find ways for our design sensibility to still be relevant digitally. And that’s not always possible on the Kindle or the Nook, but I do think it’s going to get better over the next few years. We’re still in the very early years of all of these formats.

I noticed that there is a section on your website called “What about real books?” laying out your plans to publish print books and magazines? Why take this position so strongly?

We think the book is still a really great technology. It’s something that’s immersive in a way that digital space isn’t. Digitally, you might only get so far into an imaginative world before you’re distracted. When you sit back with a book, you make a choice to exist in that imaginative world. It’s not that a book can’t be enjoyed via an e-book, but it’s a different experience.

Because of that, we’re going to put a lot of work into making the case that reading a physical book is still a valuable experience. And an e-book cannot always provide that same experience. I don’t think anybody would disagree that browsing and skimming are very difficult in any of the e-book platforms. Speaking for myself, I know almost physically where something was on a page after I’ve read a book. 

Take, for instance, a novel with a character named George. You dont realize he’s an important character at first and you skip over his first mention. You get to him the second time and want to re-read his introduction. On an e-book, you simply search for George and you can see all of the mentions of him. You can retrace your steps. However, a lot of times, you’re not looking for something so specific. You’re looking for something much vaguer. You want to relive that scene that you know was about halfway through the book, on the upper lefthand part of the page. The way we remember – the way we physically remember our place – that experience is not translatable to the e-book.

What do you think the future of publishing is?

I don’t see us ever not printing books. It’s just the portion of the market that print occupies might be reduced. It’s too much a part of our identity. With our focus on design, print is a great way to read what McSweeney’s has to offer. That said, we don’t want to alienate our readers. We just want to convince them that there’s a better way to do things.

We expect that the e-book technology will catch up at some point and will start to look better. But I don’t see us abandoning how we essentially conceive of literature and the publication.

I’ve personally become agnostic. I prefer printed books. There is a distinct experience there. But if people want to read longform writing in a different format, then we need to be able to respond to that. If it comes down to people not wanting or reading longform writing, then frankly, our world’s problems are much bigger than e-reading.

Image: “Hot Pink” by Adam Levin