Tin House Books

by Michael Shirzadian

Frustrated with what he (of course) labeled the stale substance of contemporary fiction and poetry, Portland-area editor Win McCormack conceived of Tin House in the summer of 1998. McCormack recruited Holly MacArthur as managing editor and NYC editors Rob Spillman and Elissa Schappell. At this point, Tin House existed only as a quarterly magazine (TH remains a quarterly magazine).

Publisher Win McCormack said of the effort: “I wanted to create a literary magazine for the many passionate readers who are not necessarily literary academics or publishing professionals.” Tin House Magazine (and I argue Tin House Books) continues to abide by this ethic of accessibility.

The quarterly journal is a big deal. It has published, among other talented, well-known (canonized) writers: DFW, Seamus Heaney, Rick Moody, Charles Baxter, Ammie Bender, Steve Almond, Sherman Alexie and Steven King, to name only a few. Check out how thick a magazine you get for your cheap, cheap subscription (full disclosure, I subscribe to Tin House Magazine):

In 2002, Tin House boldly entered the world of book publishing as an imprint with Bloomsbury. In 2005, the independent press Tin House Books launched, spearheaded by editorial director Lee Montgomery.

Tin House Books publishes a dozen titles a year, and its authors have garnered attention from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and O, the Oprah magazine, many more. The book division is housed in Portland.

Since its 2005 advent, Tin House Books has published over 45 books and 5 anthologies (many of these anthologies draw from substance in Tin House’s quarterly journal, although certain anthologies draw from excerpts of published books). Tin House Books boasts over 40 different authors comprising their back catalogue.

Tin House doesn’t really have one single base of operations, although most ‘literary’ decisions are made in Oregon or New York. From their website: “Subscriptions are processed through our fulfillment house, PCS, in Escondido, CA. We are printed by RR Donnelley & Sons in Crawfordsville, IN. Our website was created by Swift Collective in Portland, OR, and we’re hosted by Opus Interactive.”

Regarding submission guidelines: “We no longer read unsolicited submissions by authors with no representation. We will continue to accept submissions from agents.”

Tin House Books’ staff, relative to the journal or other small presses, is very small, strangely. Only four staffers staff Tin House Books, although they used to recruit help, obviously, from myriad screeners before they decided only to consider solicited manuscripts or those coming from agents. These staffers are:

– Lee Montgomery: Editorial Director
– Meg Storey: Associate Editor
– Tony Perez: Associate Editor, and
– Deborah Jayne: Director of Publicity

Funding: book sales, obviously (other obvious sources of funding would include donations, grants, magazine subscriptions, etc). Also ad. space in the journal. Compared to journals with comparable specs, Tin House journal ads. are relatively cheap. One can run a 1/4th page ad. in the magazine for only $175, whereas the average for a 4-color glossy magazine with a highly targeted demographic and 12,000+ circ is closer to $700 (upwards of $1400).

Because Tin House is one of the bigger small presses, their aesthetic understandably—and here I’m extrapolating personally—departs from what we might call “experimental” in favor of a more accessible aesthetic. Tin House’s books appear to be much more plot-driven than, say, Subito. They refrain usually from printing collections of stories in favor of longer, linear novels. Most of their published books are fiction because, on balance, fiction sells more than poetry (I editorialize).

Tin House has had as many of six forthcoming books at a time (books selected for publication but not yet released). Currently, Tin House has four forthcoming books, all of them fictional novels. From the blurbs, these novels fall into a category which I label ‘pop,’ but who knows. Aesthetics are as diverse as people (arts, also, are links).

The prices of TH books, like their page numbers, vary drastically. Their forthcoming book Glaciers, for example, costs $10.95, but their recently published Moby Dick in Pictures totals $50 (this book also evinces their dedication to multimedia in print, complete with glossy photos and digital interaction – see picture below). The average price of a book is 15$, although a few books in their back catalogue are as low as $8.

Print run averages 4000 to start, which I thought was really low. TH very frequently prints more copies after a book wends its way to national spotlight (Opera, for example). TH subcontracts to Publishers Group West (PGW) to take advantage of its ‘core competency’ in printing, sales and distribution. PGW is the leading book sales and distribution company in the United States, representing over 100 independent client publishers (including Featherproof)

From the last three months of monitoring their website, Tin House averages approximately five readings a month, almost always from books with a forthcoming publication date. These readings are usually located in Oregon or NY, although sometimes at a college or university. Tin House has an active blog and staffers typically update the twitter multiple times a day. Tin House employs an active Facebook page too, boasting almost 5,000 “likes,” whatever that dumb statistic amounts to.

One helpful exposure/marketing trick which Subito might steal from Tin House is the press’s dedication to maintaining an active blog, Facebook page, and Twitter. This is helpful I argue because as exposure increases book sales increase. Tin House compliments this increase of exposure my advertising seasonal packages which the website’s customers are more likely to purchase. For example, from the Facebook page regarding Moby Dick in Pictures: “Moby-Dick in Pictures has some great real estate at JFK. It makes a perfect last minute, pre-flight gift [for Christmas]”

Or, as advertised for the “young writer in your life,” The Writer’s Series, which includes the following books intended to hone the craft of writing fiction: Plotto; The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House; The Story About the Story; The World Within. People don’t just buy books for the purpose of buying books anymore. Maybe some writers do, but that’s a small demographic. And most writers who are dedicated to reading new books either (1)don’t have a lot of money or (2) actively reject the cruelty of capital.

Finally, TH is able to increase its exposure to the literary community by manifesting a confluence of literary endeavors (oh to imagine how Orwell might berate the writer of the aforesaid). For example, TH hosts a Summer Writer’s Workshop for talented writers who wish to spend their money learning how to write for a few weeks in the summer ($40/application, $1100/registration). From their website:

“The Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop is a weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings led by the editors of Tin House magazine and Tin House Books. And their guests – prominent contemporary American writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The program combines morning workshops with afternoon craft seminars and career panels. Evenings are reserved for author readings and revelry”

Most workshop participants appear to be MFAs, which evinces perhaps TH’s dedication not only to mainstream fiction and poetry, but literary or academic fiction and poetry too. The stuff produced in the ivory tower. Overall, Tin House Books’ goal appears to be one of total immersion in literary endeavors, a sort of trial-and-error approach in which capital functions primarily to signify, indicate, measure success. Which isn’t horrible. Amid an era in which small presses and newspapers struggle to stay afloat, Tin House abides, perhaps thrives, which we writers regardless of our political sensibilities should celebrate as a one touchstone for our own cultural relevance.


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