Agents & Editors: Rob Spillman

Michael Szczerban
From the November/December 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Tell me about Random House at that time—now almost twenty years ago.
There were a lot of old-time Random House editors there, including Joe Fox. I would sneak into his office and play chess with him while he smoked and told me stories about Truman Capote. It was an education on old-school publishing. The first two books I was even vaguely associated with were Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, which both won the National Book Award that year, in fiction and nonfiction. They were the mensch-iest guys possible, and they appreciated anything that anybody did for them. I thought, “Publicity. I can do this! This is awesome!” And then the next book was Thin Thighs in 30 Days. Everybody around me in publicity was fired up about it, ready to go, and I began to think, “Maybe this is not my thing after all.”

I lasted about a year, during which I started writing book reviews for anybody who would let me. I started with Kirkus; sometimes I’d write five a week just to build my clips. I was cranking them out and working on deadline. To this day if you ask me for eight hundred words on something, my first draft will be eight hundred and one. I’ve dialed in working fast on deadlines. I wrote for anyone who would give me a chance, not caring about the money. No one ever asked me where I went to school. They just asked to see my clips.

At the end of the year Spy magazine started up. My wife and I both went there. She was a reporter, and I was fact-checking and doing whatever else I could. It was an amazing atmosphere—all these wise-ass people who all thought it was going to be their last job in traditional publishing. We spent a lot of time making fun of everybody else. Everybody assumed we’d never work in this town again. 

I’ve read about that time at Spy—a moment when a group of talented creative people had just enough of a devil-may-care attitude to do something really fresh.
It was really amazing. It started with Graydon Carter, this Canadian kid who never went to college and felt totally on the outside. He was like, “Screw you,” you know? And of course he has been the head of Vanity Fair for a long time.

Interesting, given that Vanity Fair now does an annual package anointing “the new establishment.”
I started paying the bills with both freelance writing and fact checking. I went to Vanity Fair and fact checked there, and the New Yorker. I would work a couple months on, a couple months off, and supplement it with magazine writing and book reviews.

I did a lot of work for Details at Condé Nast. When I started writing for them it was kind of the gay club-kid magazine for straight people. They had a high turnover with editors there, five editors in five years. By the time the fifth editor started, they were trying to compete with Maxim, and they started a book column. I wrote it for five years. It was a great gig: They let me write about whatever I wanted to write about; they just switched up the format. Sometimes it would be ten books a month, then just one book and an interview. 

How did you decide which books and authors to write about?
Whatever I was excited about. I did the first interview with Donald Antrim, in which he talked about why he shouldn’t be interviewed because his book wasn’t out yet and he didn’t really exist in the world. It was a disaster but kind of awesome.

I’ve had a couple of gigs that came from being in the right place at the right time. For about six months I was People magazine’s alternative record reviewer. This was in 1990-’91, when alternative music and Nirvana were really big. My editor was a country music fan and had no idea about alternative music. He would occasionally assign me to do something like interview Peter Gabriel because he thought Peter Gabriel was an alternative guy. But I could write about anything I wanted there.

You must have been inundated with pitches from publicists. Are there pitches that you paid attention to—that you remember being effective?
I think the weirdest one I got was for an incredibly beautiful, weird, more or less self-published book that came out of Boston. It was by this guy, Jon Baird, who worked in an ad agency. It was a novel about an ad agency boss who wants to get into publishing but doesn't know how to do it. It was this cool, Gen-X, meta novel, but they had no idea about distribution or anything. It was so innovative and weird. I was like, “Hell yeah, I want to write about this weird-ass thing.”

After I wrote about the book they got distributed. He came down to thank me in person. Actually, when Tin House started, I hired him as my art director, because we needed someone really fast. My publisher had an idea of what he wanted from the art direction, which I was not happy with at all. He said, “Okay, show me something else.” John basically came up with the Tin House design in twenty-four hours.

The question of how to get attention for one’s work is on a lot of writer’s minds, especially now that the inches given to books in magazines and newspapers have been greatly reduced. “How do I get the attention of that editor, that critic, who with one great review could turn my writing into a career?”
My wife just retired from the Vanity Fair Hot Type column, which she wrote for over twenty years. We got every single pitch, every single book published, whether we wanted it or not. Every self-help book, every crazy thing that would never, ever get into Vanity Fair, we got delivered to our house. There are pitches with lots of bells and whistles and stuff attached to them, but I still think this is a word-of-mouth industry. There has to be genuine excitement about a project for it to lift off.

I remember getting that lesson at the first sales conference I went to. When Tin House Books started, we were distributed by Publishers Group West. We presented alongside some heavy hitters, and went out to lunch with the sales reps. They weren’t talking only about the obvious things were definitely going to sell. They were excited about Ben Percy’s collection of stories, Refresh, Refresh, from Graywolf. They said, “We know this is not going to sell really well, but we’re going to push for it. We’re going to fight for it.” You can’t fake that enthusiasm. I saw this when I was at Random House for a year in publicity. You see the machine cranking, and it can generate a lot of hype, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to translate into sales. 

Let’s talk about Tin House. The first issue of the magazine was published in 1999. How did you become involved?
My wife and I were initially going to be coeditors, and we agreed to start working on it in 1998. Our publisher, Win McCormack, was based out of Portland but was bicoastal. He went around New York talking to people about starting a literary magazine. He’s on the board of the Nation and was friends with Barney Rosset [the late owner of Grove Press] and has an MFA from the University of Oregon. He had been an early backer of Mother Jones magazine and is very active politically, but he always wanted to start a literary magazine.

His initial idea was basically to start a Paris Review of the West Coast. At the time, Elissa was on maternity leave from the Paris Review, where she was the senior editor under George Plimpton. I had done a lot of work and events for the Paris Review because of Elissa. It’s awesome, but it is what it is. We made a countersuggestion to Win: “If we’re going to do this, let’s do something completely new and fun with the form. Let’s make it bicoastal.” I loved the energy and exciting stuff coming out of Portland, but New York is still the center of publishing, and you need that. “Let’s hire an art director to make it look good,” I said, because at the time literary magazines had this bland feel to them.

They looked like uncorrected proofs to me—not a lot of fun.
They had that galley feel, and really small type, and no layout. There was almost an attitude that they were like castor oil, that they were supposed to be good for you. But having worked at Spy, we thought, why not bring fun to the form and inject it with humor and employ some of the slick techniques of magazines that draw people in? When you get New York magazine, you go to the approval matrix first. It’s just what you do, even if you’re interested in the longer-form thing on the cover.

So we thought we’d have some recurring-column ideas, some short little fun things, and then the ten-thousand-word story by David Foster Wallace. From the start I wanted to do our Lost and Found section. I didn’t want to do straight book reviews; I wanted to have really good writers write about whatever they’re most passionate about.

We proposed all this to Win, and also said, “You have the means to make a splash if we’re going to do this. Let’s not sneak up on anybody. Let’s just start out with a bang, whether it fails spectacularly or catches on. Send us around to every book fair in the country and Frankfurt and London. Let’s go right to Len Riggio at Barnes & Noble,” which at the time was the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of publishing and controlled distribution of literary magazines. If you could get into Barnes & Noble, that was, like, it. We were proposing a crazy commitment to Win. I was expecting him to say, “Thank you, but see ya.” Instead, he said, “Sounds great. Let’s do it.”

We were like, “Oh no! Now we actually have to do it!” The next week, we found out that Elissa was pregnant with our second child and she got a two-book deal for her fiction, with Rob Weisbach Books at the old HarperCollins. Right after the book deal, HarperCollins was bought and they made it known that they were going to fold all the imprints, so she had to get in her finished draft immediately to not get orphaned.

What was originally a 50/50 arrangement immediately became 99/1. I became the editor, which probably saved our marriage. We still fight about it, but she’s now an ombudsman, an editor-at-large, and she settles disputes and comes in for aesthetic reasons.

What values did you bring to the magazine from the start?
I really wanted to find a new form for a literary magazine, and to feature voice-driven work, both in fiction and nonfiction, that favored emotion and engagement over irony and tiny epiphanies that were neatly tied up. I wanted to emphasize not just the best writers working today, or the most established writers, but emerging writers and voices that hadn’t made it on a national level. Marginalized voices—people of color, queer voices, women—were an emphasis from the start.

With the nonfiction, I wanted my favorite writers to write about whatever they’re most passionate about, whether it had a peg or a hook or not. In the first issue, Rick Moody wrote about Brian Eno. There was no reason for this. There was no Eno anniversary; there was nothing going on with Eno that was significant at the time. But Moody had always wanted to write about Eno and no one had let him. He wrote twenty paragraphs about Eno and then put them into a shuffle program. They came out totally randomly—and it worked.

Why not try that? We were looking for those kinds of pieces from the start.

Were you accepting submissions in addition to calling upon the writers you knew?
We put the word out for submissions but also contacted agents and begged, scraped, pleaded. I was amazed by how many people we didn’t know who were willing to give us a chance. If you write a genuine, enthusiastic letter to people you are genuinely excited about, they tend to respond. That was surprising. I didn’t know Dorothy Allison at all, and I wrote to her and David Foster Wallace and Ron Carlson and they all responded. The agents were a little more wary because there are a lot of magazines that start out and don’t continue, but we also paid well right from the beginning.

I also built in time between the first and second issues. The first issue is actually pretty easy; everybody’s willing to give you a chance. The second issue is where I’ve seen a lot of magazines get into trouble. They have an Oh shit! moment where they realize they have to do it all over again. We built in seven months before the first issue and another five months before the second issue. That wound up being a good strategic move.

We also found that literary magazines are a very low priority with the big printers, and if you don’t make your deadlines you get moved to the back of the queue. They’re like, “We’ve got the new Stephen King and we need all the presses. We’ll call you next month.”

We went right to Riggio and told him, “We’ve got serious backing and we’re going to stick around. This is what’s going to be in our first two issues.” He took us on. We were in eight hundred Barnes & Noble stores right from the start.

What was the size of the first printing?
Ten thousand copies, and we sent it far and wide. We really sent it everywhere, trying to get people’s attention, using it as a calling card. It did get into a lot of stores.

What about the second issue—another ten thousand?
Yes, and that was a pleasantly surprising thing to do. Another surprise was that the cover story of the first issue, by Jean Nathan, wound up leading to a bidding war for a book. It was a crazy story Jean wrote about the woman who wrote the Lonely Doll series in the late ’50s, early ’60s. They were huge children’s bestsellers that were really messed up. They featured this doll getting into trouble and then being spanked by a father figure—just creepy. The author did parallel photo shoots of herself dressed up when she was writing these books, and she lived with her mother until her mother died at ninety-seven. When we published the piece, all these women of a certain age remembered these kind of repressed memories of these books, including [literary agent] Binky Urban. She called me up out of the blue and said, “Oh my God. This has to be a book.” So Binky ended up representing it. That helped us.

The fiction we published obviously helped too, but we were known early on for doing these offbeat nonfiction pieces. We certainly started getting more of those in after that.

What issue number are you up to, and how many copies do you print?
We’re up to number sixty-seven, and the printing is about eighteen thousand. We do digital as well now. With the consolidation of Borders and Barnes & Nobles and indies, there was a while where bookstore sales were going down but subscriptions went up. The indies are now coming back. Digital sales have steadily gone up too.

You mentioned that you didn’t want to be the Paris Review of the West Coast when Tin House started. Do you feel in competition with them or anyone else today?
I think it’s friendly competition. We all collaborate with each other and I do a lot of events with like-minded organizations.One Story is down the street from us and I love what they do. If Hannah [Tinti, the editor in chief of One Story] beats me to a story I really want, I’m like, “Damn you, Hannah! I’ll get you next time!” But I should have been faster.

Of course there is the New Yorker. I’ve lost things to the New Yorker, when I’ve come up with an idea for someone and they have the right of first refusal and then the New Yorker runs it. But I’m always on the side of the writer. If they can get into the New Yorker, that’s awesome. What really pisses me off, though, is when a writer says something like, “I just had this story accepted at X small magazine, but if you are willing to run it I will turn them down.” That’s just such bad form. Screw you—no way.

I look to see what the start-ups are, to see who is doing innovative work, like Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. I’m excited about that kind of thing, like when McSweeney’s was at its peak, when they were doing really innovative issues where the form of the magazine itself would change. That was impressive. Dave Eggers was actually here in New York when he started McSweeney’s, living on Ninth Street and I was living on Fifth Street. We started at almost the same time. It was about going against that castor-oil feel of literary magazines. “Let’s have some fun, let’s shake things up.”

Has there been a change in the type of material you look to publish?
There are trends and vogues, but I still search out the same kind of thing. Increasingly I look internationally, but I’ve always done that—our eighth issue was an all-international issue. I’m very interested in pieces about class. That’s a pressing issue, especially in publishing, where it’s a systemic problem. We’ve tweaked a few things, but I am continually surprised by the work I see. That’s my first criteria: if I’m surprised and excited by something I didn’t know was possible. 

The work that comes in is what keeps your job fresh?
Yes. I will stop if I get cynical or feel like there’s nothing out there. And then there are things like Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. We published three of the six novellas in that book and they were all surprising to me—formally and subject-wise—and I was really thrilled to see it get major awards, to see other people recognize him.

Especially with creative nonfiction right now, with this blurring of what creative nonfiction is, there’s really exciting work out there. Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Claudia Rankine, Nick Flynn…. I’m basically just listing all of Graywolf’s lineup, but they’ve just been killing it. I like work that you can’t classify. What is this? Is it an essay, is it a memoir? Is it fiction? What’s going on here?

How big has Tin House grown as an organization?
We’re now doing twelve to fifteen books a year as well as the magazine. Tin House Books started as a joint imprint with Bloomsbury for two years a decade ago, which was long enough to figure out that we wanted to do it ourselves. We also run a summer workshop that’s grown to 250 participants and eighteen faculty, and takes up a whole week. I have a full-time person who does that and works on the magazine. There’s overlap. Another person works on the magazine and the books.

What’s your role at Tin House Books?
I’m basically a scout. I bring things in and also do a lot of events and proselytize, but I don’t edit that much.

You’re out talking to agents—the Binky Urbans and PJ Marks of the world.
Yes, and funneling things back.

Do you take unsolicited submissions for the book program?
Not anymore. We used to, but got overwhelmed. We didn’t want to be false about the fact that we couldn’t keep up, so they have to be solicited now.

But it’s a different story for the magazine.
We’ve created an infrastructure to handle submissions for the magazine. From the start I wanted to publish new voices, so that was a necessity. We actively look for new voices. We get about twenty thousand submissions a year at peak. We’re now narrowing the submission period a little bit, to reel that in. We have at any one time twenty-five readers, who are all volunteers. Some are in Portland and others are scattered all over the place. Each unsolicited piece is usually read by three of our readers, who write reader reports on them and pass them on to our dedicated slush-wrangler. He then decides if they’re going to go to the general meeting.

Every Wednesday we have an edit meeting. I Skype in to Portland and Madison, Wisconsin, where our editor Michelle Wildgen is. The slush wrangler, Thomas Ross, decides what of the slush to put forward every week. All the other editors have carte blanche to put anything else up that they’ve gotten. We have relationships with agents and contributing editors who are looking for stuff out there, and writers we’ve worked with in the past.

At any one time we’re working at least three issues ahead. Right now [in August] we’re finishing reading for our open winter issue, and then we alternate theme issues. Spring is a theme issue, Rehab; summer is open; and Fall is a theme issue, True Crime. We put up pieces with issues already in mind. We’re trying to balance new voices with more established voices, more experimental with traditional forms.

We also keep a close watch on our gender numbers, and keep them in mind to balance things out. I never select something because of gender, but I’m looking for where to put it to balance the issues.

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