Reporter's Jokebook

Author Neal Pollack returns to the Scottsdale of his existence and teams with Dave Eggers to take on Big Publishing

He had quite the temper, but God, he was a hero.

So far, some of the more egregious national magazine offenders seem to appreciate Pollack's critical spanking. Men's Journal just published an excerpt, and the Anthology has received rave blurbs from Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. There has also been some delightful media confusion. Last week, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a column claiming Pollack was actually Eggers writing under a pseudonym as part of an elaborate prank. The reporter quickly recanted after receiving an irate letter from Pollack's mother testifying that her son does, in fact, exist.

Pollack says the character came out of disillusion and frustration with journalism, but he was not always so cynical about the profession.

Even Fidel has to wait for Pollack.
Even Fidel has to wait for Pollack.
Neal Pollack, fighting the power in a bookstore.
Neal Pollack, fighting the power in a bookstore.

As a student at Saguaro High School in the mid-'80s, Pollack was a self-described "pure journalism dork." He was a teen correspondent for the now-defunct daily Phoenix Gazette and editor of his school paper, writing editorials criticizing the football team and the Jostens class ring company. He once wrote that Pavilions Mall was "the cholera-infected blanket of our generation."

Pollack graduated from Saguaro in 1988, and enrolled in Northwestern University's journalism school. "I was certain I would be working for the New York Times by the time I was 24," he says.

Instead, after graduation Pollack was working at The Quill, a periodical published by the Society for Professional Journalism. It was a prestigious gig, but hardly a good fit for Pollack's sensibility.

"We went to an SPJ convention in Baltimore," Pollack says. "And my editor introduced me to somebody and said, 'This is Neal, my assistant editor, he's too goddamned literary to be a real journalist.'

"And I was like, 'Ohh, I'm going to prove you wrong.'"

Pollack started freelancing for the Reader, and was eventually hired as a staff writer. The first story written by his evil alter ego was called "The Albania of My Existence," in which Pollack's athletic prowess and celebrity glow bring joy to a village of starving, war-torn Albanians. "People here are beset by unwanted refugees, obscure diseases, and limited opportunities to express themselves through fashion," he wrote.

Pollack read the story at an open-mike poetry night in Chicago, "just playing around and having fun." Then he heard that Dave Eggers was looking for freelance material for a new project called McSweeney's.

Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency ( is a place where writers can get published, without pay, that semi-brilliant think piece that Condé Nast would never touch. A home for orphaned fragments and unattractive angles. Archived stories include "Ideas for Yet More Film Adaptations of Classic Novels, Updated and Set in a High School," "How I Voted in the Weather Channel's Top 10 Storms of the Century Poll" and, most famously, "The Chronicles of Man: The Magazine for Men," a brutal magazine parody by Eggers inspired by his brief stint as Esquire's editor at large.

Now the creation of McSweeney's Books ups the stakes a bit. It is one thing to throw satirical barbs at the publishing industry. It is another to pioneer your own publishing system.

Here's the process: McSweeney's accepts a book, edits and publishes within three months (compare that to the year-or-longer wait most authors face at a traditional publishing house). McSweeney's pays for the book's printing costs. The author keeps all the net proceeds (while a standard publishing agreement earns an author about 15 percent), but pays for his own advertising and book tours.

"We've sold about 1,000 online, and about 2,000 through stores," says Eggers. "This is before, mind you, it's appeared in the chain stores, or any reviews have come out."

Like most new Internet-based publishing models, the system attempts to rectify authors' most common complaints about Big Publishing. Paul Knight, CEO of, lists them off: low royalties, little promotion and a general sense of disconnect between the author and publisher and the average reader.

"We're going to see a lot of [Internet-based] experiments over the next few years, and I think maybe in the next five years it will all settle down and we'll see new models that are the new standards," says Knight. "The power is definitely shifting away from large publishing houses."

(Representatives from Simon & Schuster, Random House, Warner Books and Barnes & Noble all declined to comment about McSweeney's.)

The most highly publicized model so far has been Stephen King's honor system, where readers are trusted to pay the author for each installment of a serialized story. On his site, King called the system "Big Publishing's worst nightmare." But the story was actually released by King's publisher, Simon & Schuster. Hardly a true rebellion.

"I think the two methods will work well together," Pollack says. "King can do what he does because he is a big name, the biggest name. No one is going to pay to download my stuff, or at least not enough people so I can make a living. For midlist-or-below authors, the only solution is to sell books in an unconventional way. For the top authors, King's way is better. The real challenge is finding ways to keep Big Publishing from buying into these methods."

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