‘McSweeney’s’ Editor Chris Monks Talks Patreon, Paying for Humor, and the Jerk Folder

chris-monksMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency has provided the web with “almost daily humor” for almost two decades. Over that time, how we use the web, and how we profit from it, has changed drastically, but McSweeney’s has remained more or less the same in both spirit and business model. It’s known as one of the most prestigious places to place satirical humor writing, but it’s also gotten flak for not paying writers. It’s known for its simple aesthetic, but also for eschewing technology, from video to online advertising (the site had one small ad for a few years, but returned to being ad-free this spring when their advertising partner went under).

Behind it all is editor Chris Monks, who is paid a part-time salary by McSweeney’s Publishing to run everything related to the Tendency, from submissions to social media. Now, finally, Monks is trying to monetize the site and pay writers while keeping the mission of the publication intact. He started by launching a Patreon account last month. Here’s how it’s going.

We’re talking today because of your big announcement that McSweeney’s has launched a Patreon account. What was your thought process leading up to that decision?

We’ve been thinking about it for well over a year. The website, which is basically me, has been trying to figure out ways to be self-sustaining, so we aren’t relying on the support of McSweeney’s Publishing like we have been for 20 years. While we are still under the McSweeney’s umbrella, we’d like to be a little bit independent and we’d like to make our own money and give it back to McSweeney’s Publishing.

That idea coincided with trying to figure out a way to monetize the site, which we’ve never really done and which we should have done years and years ago. We’ve always been very hesitant about advertising. Dave Eggers, our founder, was always very adamant about never having advertising on our site–it can be very obnoxious, it can totally ruin the reading experience, and it slows down the webpage itself. But there are good reasons to have advertising, too: to stay alive, to keep publishing, and to pay your writers, which is something that I feel forever guilty about.

We wanted to monetize it in a way where we could keep McSweeney’s Internet Tendency looking like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Patreon is the first plan, to see if we can become reader-supported. If this is successful, we can keep doing what we were doing. If it is a wild success, we could pay writers, maybe expand the staff, maybe even hire a couple staff writers. That’s the ideal scenario.

How is the campaign going so far?

It’s going okay. It’s not going crazy, crazy good. Our expectation was that it would be a slow, steady climb, and that’s what it’s been. It’s hard because we have all of these followers on Twitter and Facebook, but it’s just so hard to get the word out, especially when it’s just basically me doing all of the social media. I don’t want to push it too much, but it’s the sort of thing where you have to push it a little. I’m just trying to have as much fun with that as possible.

Is McSweeney’s in danger if this doesn’t work out?

This is the life of an independent publisher. You have to figure out ways to survive, and there’s a chance we could be no more. We’d love to get to at least our first goal, which is $6,000 a month. That would at least allow us to stay alive. If it doesn’t work, we can use some of the Patreon money to keep us alive and then we’ll have to revert to some form of advertising or sponsored content. There are other options on the table and I don’t want to make it sound too dramatic yet.

The irony is that our traffic is at an all-time high. We are up over 25% than where we were this time last year.

Is the high traffic Trump related?

Yeah, it’s pretty much Trump related. I’ve also catered the site to be more topical and timely. We’ve opened up a new inbox for timely submissions and we’re getting lots of those a day. In these times, everything feels very intensely relevant and everything is intensely topical, so now we are sharing a take on the latest breaking news a bit more. But those pieces also still have to make me laugh. I still need to feel confident that a piece will engage with the audience.

Since the election, part of our audience is all of these forlorn progressives who are seeking a satirical safe space. Not to say that we’re constantly beating Trump over the head. We’ve run several pieces where we make fun of disenchanted liberals. But I think people read a Trump piece and they think, That makes me feel just a little better about how awful the world is.”

I think it’s the same with a lot of the writers, too. Writers who had never before written political stuff for us have started. They are processing.

McSweeney’s has been around since 1998. So much has changed about the internet in that time period, but McSweeney’s has pretty much stayed the same.

Yep. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I’m asking you!

Although we did have a major [web design] revamp last year, we have always been very easy to read. Unencumbered with noise. It has the spirit that it’s always had. That’s a good thing. It has changed in that it’s more topical, but it also still appeals to a quirky sensibility. We — and that’s really just me — are more proactive about issues and more ready to tackle things that we find unjust with a satirical point of view.

I think we’re a little edgier too. Every once in awhile I’ll see a comment that the site is run by twee hipsters. But it’s not. It’s run by a guy in his 40s who lives in the suburbs of Boston. Maybe at one time, in his 20s, he hoped to be a hipster one day, but that chance has long gone by.

I think too that, particularly before 2003, a lot of the humor you had to work hard to get. If you got it, it was funny, and if you didn’t get it, it just felt like you were left out of the joke. It could sometimes be read as a little smug. I think the site today is sillier. It takes itself a little less seriously.

I’ve had discussions with humor writers in which we dissect whether or not you think the word “silly” is good or bad when you write rejection notes. Is silly good or bad?

Silly is definitely good. I love silly. Sometimes I’ll say, “This is my kind of ridiculous.” Ridiculous is good. “Pleasantly odd” is good. I’m actually a pretty silly guy.  

You’ve said yourself that the site is silly, and it was invented before we knew the web was even profitable. So, what’s the point of McSweeney’s? Why does it exist?

Oh no, existential question! I can only speak to what the point is when I was writing and submitting to it. It was a place that had high stature, but it was attainable for a writer with no credits who was just looking to get their work out there. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, there were tons and tons of indie humor sites. Really funny places, like Haypenny and Yankee Pot Roast. And McSweeney’s was at the top of the line. And I got rejected a dozen times before I got something on McSweeney’s.

Above McSweeney’s was The New Yorker. And at that time, The New Yorker was just impossible to get into. You’d have to mail in your story and wait for months on end. Then you’d get a grammatically correct form letter saying “Thanks, while your piece has merit, blah, blah.” For a young writer, especially during that time of the internet, it was exciting that you could put something on the web, and people would actually see it.

What I’ve tried to do is keep McSweeney’s the same way. I’m very god-fearing about reading submissions. I read them as they come in. I don’t really look at cover letters. In fact, I encourage people not to submit them. I just read the piece and if I think it’s funny and I think it’s going to connect with our audience, I’ll accept it.

I’ve never done the math, but I’d say we publish three, four, five things on our site each week by someone who has never been published on our site before. I sound like an old fogie now, but it’s fun to see all of these young writers, who for the past few years have been writing for us and now all of the sudden are regulars on Daily Shouts. It’s a good stepping-stone. Lots of our writers have gone on to write for major publications and TV shows. That’s still its point.

Given the political climate, I think it’s slowly becoming this other reason to exist. We are a place for people to process.

What humor websites do you read?

Well, I check out The Onion. I read Daily Shouts. I read Reductress. I read a relatively new site, Belladonna. I do check out Splitsider’s humor section. That’s really it, though, because I’m reading all the time. It comes to a point where reading published humor feels like work, and I need a break sometime.

How often do you see rejected McSweeney’s pieces pop up on other publications?

All the time.

How often do you regret your decision?

Sometimes. Sometimes I’ll remember rejecting something and when I see it up in print, on the monitor, I say, “Oh yeah, that was good.” But oftentimes, my rejections are tough and I have to make tough choices. We get so many good submissions that it makes sense that they get published elsewhere.

Do you think that not paying writers hurts your content? Your reputation?

Yes. I just think paying writers is the right thing to do. We haven’t made money off of our work. We’ve published a couple of anthologies, and we’ve paid writers in the anthologies. Morally, it’s the right thing to do, but we’ve never been in the position to do it. I work part-time, but it’s a full-time job. I’m on salary, but it’s not a lot.

My thinking is that if we could start paying people, maybe people would submit to us before The New Yorker. We’ll never be able to pay what The New Yorker pays, but I do think there are some people who like us more. I think it would help with our content. I think it would draw back some of the writers that we’ve lost, who have gone on to very well-established comedy careers, who would think about submitting again.

I get some blowback about it. Once or twice a month I’ll see a tweet: “Hey, McSweeney’s, you paying writers yet?” I don’t respond to it because it’s complicated. That’s what pains me the most. There’s a small segment of folks that don’t get what we are and think that we are taking advantage of writers. That’s the last thing I want to do. I’m so appreciative that we get so many submissions per week and I’ve worked really hard to find a way that we can start paying folks. Hopefully this Patreon will come together. We’ve never been in it for the money.

What does your ideal future for McSweeney’s look like?

Where we are supported where we are making enough money to pay our writers well, where our staff is expanded, and hopefully to have a small staff of writers who will help us with the topical stuff. It would be great to branch out into podcasts, to branch out into YouTube. One of the perks of paying writers is that we can hold onto a piece of their work to produce short films or books off of those to expand the Tendency brand. It would be nice if the Tendency could be as big as The Onion. But it’s hard to think of grand visions when I’m trying to survive the present.

You’re known pretty widely for your personalized, super-friendly and fast responses to submissions. Have you ever been super-mean in a response?

I’ve never been super-mean in a response. Not to say I don’t type up drafts and then just sit on them. It will stay in my draft folder and resurface three or four days later, and I delete it.

I’m very resistant to conflict in any way, shape or form. I used to have a blog, in the early 2000s, and someone would occasionally write something snarky and I was reply back and get into it. It would ruin in the rest of my day. It just makes sense to me not to get into it with folks.

I do have a jerk folder. I put their email into a jerk folder.

An actual jerk folder really exists?

Definitely. If a name comes in the inbox and I think I recognize the name, I think, “Oh, yes. The jerk folder.” There are some multiple offenders. They are just jerks. I won’t reply.

You can be forever banned?

You can be forever banned. I used to submit work all the time, so I totally understand what it’s like to be really frustrated — to really love what you wrote and to have high hopes for it, and then it’s just rejected. So, I let them vent. I vent too. I write my funny little drafts. It’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done in my life.

If the reply to a rejection is really bad, I’ll put them on Twitter. It always makes me feel good when people laugh and comment on them.

You can often be found dominating professional offices around Boston. What is the story behind this?

Yes. Waiting rooms. I’m going to be dominating one very shortly this afternoon. It started with this one tweet that I did.

I have two teenage sons and I’m a stay-at-home dad. I was going to the doctor for check-ups. I was going to the dentist. Then they both got braces and I was going to the orthodontist. It was a riff on being macho and manly while at the same time doing these very domestic things. Which I love doing.

I find Twitter really, really hard. It’s amazing to me how good some people are at it. I want everything I put on Twitter to be meaningful and fantastic. We talked about writing drafts for emails — I write tons of drafts for tweets. It’s pretty pathetic.

It seems like Twitter is the anti-McSweeney’s in a lot of ways. They are both great vessels for humor, but they are so different.

It’s true. I missed the cut. I reached a certain age where I couldn’t do it. I’m not as quick-witted as I used to be.

There was a time in my life when I wanted to be out front. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be the next David Letterman. All through my twenties I was trying to figure out how to do that. But once I started having kids, I became a homebody. I discovered I liked being behind the curtain, which has made this Patreon a little difficult. Now I have to put myself out there a little bit. It’s fine, but I don’t feel as naturally inclined to do it.

Are you obsessively checking the Patreon page?

All the time. And we have all these perks for the people who become patrons, so now I have this whole other responsibility of keeping the Patreon page up with at least semi-interesting content to validate people. Like I’m doing readings of jerk folder emails. It’s been fun, but the response has been limited.

 

Head over to the McSweeney’s Patreon page here.

Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer and standup who lives in Missoula, Montana. You can read her stuff at places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and The Hairpin. She’s also a contributing writer at Reductress. If you want her in your daily life, you can follow her on Twitter. 

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