By Ben Goldstein
For 21 years, McSweeney’s has traded heavily on the element of surprise.
Some of its publications look like they arrived here by time machine. Others have been printed on balloons or disguised as junk mail. As a subscriber, you never really know what’s going to show up at your door, or what’s in store for you when you start turning the pages.
Founded by novelist and philanthropist Dave Eggers in 1998, McSweeney’s began its life as the publishing house behind Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal focusing on unheralded authors and non-traditional prose (“a land of misfit writings, I guess,” Eggers told NPR in 2013).
Since then, the San Francisco-based publisher has added a bi-monthly magazine, an arts and culture podcast, numerous novels and books of poetry, and the long-running McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website, which specializes in irony drenched short-form humor. (Recent headlines: “I’m a Barn, And I Don’t Want to Host Your Wedding,” “We Must Defend Thanos’s Constitutional Right to Snap His Fingers and Make Half of the Universe Disappear.”)
“We’ve always strived to find writers whose voices need to be heard and may not have a platform elsewhere,” McSweeney’s Publishing Associate Eric Cromie recently told Nutshell. “The Quarterly is well-known for putting out challenging and exciting fiction, and seeing how that’s getting harder and harder to find, I’m glad that we’re still going strong.”
Unfortunately, being a publisher of ornate literary anthologies can be a tough sell in the 21st century, and in 2014 McSweeney’s announced plans to begin transitioning into a non-profit, which would “help set up McSweeney’s to sustain itself” according to its founder. Although building their reader base is still very important, the financial health of McSweeney’s now depends on acquiring and nurturing donors.
It’s a shift that required a different way of communicating—one that McSweeney’s has been able to manage with the help of Nutshell.
“Spreadsheets upon spreadsheets upon spreadsheets”
Eric Cromie joined the McSweeney’s team in April 2018, doing “everything that falls in between editorial and art,” including publicity work for upcoming titles, back-office admin and accounting, and making sure McSweeney’s books show up where they’re supposed to.
“The projects that I get to work on are constant surprise to me,” Cromie said. “One day I could be doing copy edits on a piece from one of my favorite authors, and the next day they might ask me to set up a multi-city book tour.”
Before they began using Nutshell in October 2018, the McSweeney’s team relied on a very familiar method to manage their lists of donors and subscribers: “Spreadsheets upon spreadsheets upon spreadsheets,” Cromie said.
However, their shift to nonprofit status made it very obvious that they needed a better tool. “Since our mission is totally dependent on the support of our donors, we didn’t want to drop any balls as far as losing touch with them or forgetting to send a thank-you card,” Cromie explained.
Personal contact is imperative to what we need to do as a viable nonprofit, and we wanted to formalize and create best practices for anything that came up regarding donor communication.”
One additional problem the team faced was staying on top of subscriber turnover, which is baked into the McSweeney’s subscriber model. “We sell four-issue subscriptions, so we needed a better way to interact with the thousands of people whose subscriptions are about to expire after any given issue,” Cromie said.
The ultimate goal: tracking everything
While there are nonprofit-specific CRMs on the market, Cromie and his teammates soon recognized that Nutshell could provide exactly what they were looking for.
“We all had questions about the sales terminology in the product—we don’t really have ‘leads’ or anything—but it was clear that the core functionality of Nutshell was perfectly compatible with what we needed from a donor CRM,” he said. “Plus, our Customer Success Manager has been giving us some great guidance us over the last couple months, helping us navigate how we can make the tools fit for exactly what we need to do.”
In fact, Nutshell’s capabilities opened up possibilities for organizing their business that the McSweeney’s team hadn’t even considered.
“When we were getting set up for donor information, the Nutshell Support team kept offering other suggestions of, ‘Well, you know you can do this with it too’,” Cromie recalls.
Now, our end goal is to track our vendors, our authors, our subscribers, our email newsletter lists, and our donors, and having it all easily searchable in one place where we can quickly look back and see, ‘Oh, we last contacted this person in January.’ We eventually hope to track everything in this tool.”
Until then, one-on-one communication and donor nurturing are the name of the game, and Cromie says that Nutshell’s person pages are what he currently leans on the most to do his job: “You can pull up anyone and see everything at a glance, from their location to your last contact. When I have a million things on my plate, having everything laid out in front of me is great because it helps me wrap my head around the problem quickly.”
A new chapter for a publishing powerhouse
While Cromie and the team work on expanding their donor list to sustain McSweeney’s indefinitely, they’re also staying focused on the original mission: expanding the audience for groundbreaking writers.
“After we won the National Magazine Award this year, we saw a sizeable jump in subscribers, which was very exciting,” Cromie said. “One of our pieces won the Caine Prize too, and we saw a bump in subscribers after that. I think that continuing to put out stellar work and trying to keep our audience engaged is our best bet at continuing growth.”
To that end, the publisher is preparing to release a crop of its most exciting books yet. In honor of the brand’s 21st anniversary, McSweeney’s will drop Keep Scrolling Till You Feel Something, an anthology of some of the best humor pieces from the Internet Tendency website (“a three-pound doorstopper, the bookiest book we could design” Cromie says) as well as the 57th issue of the Quarterly Concern, which will be presented as a trifold book with five smaller booklets inside. Both of these books, as well as Indelible in the Hippocampus, a collection of writings on the #MeToo movement, come out this Fall.
As for their relationship with Nutshell, McSweeney’s plans to continue leveraging the tool to drive subscriber growth and donor acquisition. “It’s what we’re pinning our donor communication strategy on,” Cromie says. “Being able to organize and access information quickly is something that we’ve never really had before, and it’s opening up tons of doors to where we want to be eventually.”
“It’s exciting to map out what we want to achieve and how we can get there, and this tool’s helping out a lot,” he adds. “Nutshell is really helping us start a new chapter.”
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