McSweeney’s began in 1998 as a lit zine that only published works rejected by other magazines. After one issue, editor Dave Eggers expanded the vision to include the writing of both up-and-coming and established American writers. It is published on a roughly quarterly schedule, and each issue generally has a new design, look and subject matter. Issues of McSweeny's have looked like traditional zines, perfect bound books, and even boxed collections of chapbooks and other ephemera. Some of the more notable writers for McSweeney's have included Denis Johnson, William T. Vollmann, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Ben Marcus, Susan Straight, Roddy Doyle, T.C. Boyle, Steven Millhauser, Gabe Hudson, Robert Coover, and Ann Beattie.
McSweeney’s has grown into a popular and widely-circulated literary journal, and while no longer a zine, still features the writing of various zinesters. It also expanded into other areas, creating six non-profit writing centers in Los Angeles, Valencia, Seattle, New York City, Michigan and Chicago and McSweeney's also runs it's own small publishing house.
McSweeney's won "Best Zine" in the 2001 Firecracker Alternative Book Awards, sparking off a series of letters and lit forum arguments by the Underground Literary Alliance who objected to McSweeney's still being called a zine since it had by then grown in size, circulation and prominence.