Agents & Editors: Rob Spillman

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

Can you tell me more about your publisher, Win McCormack? He’s been in the news recently as the new owner of the New Republic. How involved is he with the day-to-day workings of Tin House?
He has been our publisher from the very beginning and has been incredibly loyal to the project from the start. He’s a very political guy. We’ve done a fair amount of political stuff in the magazine, but he’s on the DNC platform committee. He’s a voracious reader and is involved on a more macro level with what we do. He gets everything we circulate for the edit meetings, and will come sit in on meetings and talk with us about the material. He’s backed us from the beginning.

Is Tin House a nonprofit? 
No, it’s a for-profit. That doesn’t mean it is profitable, but the Tin House operations are all tied together financially. The magazine operates as kind of a loss leader for the workshop and books. The magazine attracts book projects as well as workshop faculty, and our applications come from that.

Do you think Tin House would be different if you were starting it today versus almost twenty years ago? Probably. We’re all different people and the atmosphere is different. I’m sure we would have some kind of integrated digital thing immediately. 

Would you still have that same reaction to the “castor oil” of literary magazines that you described?
That would be the same. I had this impulse back then that people want curation and they want a physical thing that they are happy to have. Not that they’re supposed to have, but that you want in your house, that you’d keep or leave on your coffee table. That’s why we used artists to do the covers. That impulse is still there to have an actual physical object.

If you could change something about our literary culture, what would it be?
How many hours do you have? Actually, I’m excited about the literary world right now. Small presses are thriving and the indie bookstores have seriously rebounded. They were down to nine hundred and now they’re like fourteen hundred. A lot of bookstores are expanding. Greenlight here in Brooklyn is about to open a new store. And I’m excited by how much good work I see.

I think the ills are reflective of society, particularly with class. If we don’t address that, we’re in danger. But I have a lot of faith in literature. It’s always been written by the underdogs, the losers, and I’m seeing them writing their stories.

I’m also excited about globalization. I see a lot of work from international places that it’s much easier to get access to. And I’m also excited about how things are digitally sorted out and digitally curated. I find out about things that I would never know about. If Kenny Coble in Tacoma posts about something, I pay attention—he’s just got amazing taste. There are booksellers like him and Steven Sparks at Green Apple [in San Francisco] who are reading amazing stuff and will pop up. I’m optimistic.

Has Tin House been affected by the big shifts in media and retail over the past several years?
When we started the magazine, we were in the right place at the right time. Story magazine had just folded, the New Yorker went from publishing two stories a week to one story, and some other magazines stopped publishing fiction. We’ve benefited from that. Things that might have gone to the New Yorker came to us instead.

Similarly, all the mergers of big publishers created space for indie presses to take on things that the major presses weren’t, especially literary fiction. We just published Joy Williams’s 99 Stories of God. Her Collected Stories last year from Knopf did incredibly well and was a finalist for a bunch of awards. But Knopf thought this was too weird of a project for them. It had come out digitally from a company that failed, so it was sort of in the world but not really. It had never been a physical book. It looked like a messy headache to Knopf, but not to us. Same with Charlie D’Ambrosio’s collected essays. He’s under contract at Knopf, but these essays had come out in a weird limited edition in Seattle, and they said no. We benefit from that.

During the dispute between Hachette and Amazon, I saw you quoted as saying that it takes big publishers forty-seven people on staff to generate $10 million in revenue, and it takes Amazon only one person. Where do those economics leave Tin House, which is doubling down on the hands-on, almost artisan craft of storytelling and bookmaking? 
That’s a good question. That’s always been our thing. That’s what is one of the attractors of small presses like us and Graywolf. We’re getting writers who come to us because they’ve had unsatisfying experiences with the conglomerates, where they literally have not been edited. We’re super hands-on. If we have to drive to your readings, we’ll drive you to your readings—get in the van. Because we do twelve to fifteen books a year, we have to be super hands-on, versus the model of publishing eighty titles a season and putting all your chips behind the two books that get any kind of traction. We've had writers come to us after basically being dropped mid-publication because they hadn't gotten huge hype.

It’s kind of baffling when a publisher pays a lot of money for the book up front, but then there’s zero marketing, no publicity—like they’d prefer to take the loss versus trying to recoup the advance. And then it’s held against the writer that they got $50,000 or $200,000 advance for a literary novel that should have gotten $10,000 to $20,000 because it sold five or ten thousand copies. I’ve never understood that. I'd much rather, even for myself as an author, take a smaller advance and feel like I’m partnered with my publisher. If they make money, I make money. 

Do you say that because lower stakes make for a more sustainable relationship, and you want to be able to publish your second, third, and sixth books with them? 
It just seems short-sighted. I’ve lost several writers on the book side to big advances. We’ve launched their career and done really well, we’ve punched way above our weight, and then for the second book the writer takes a big payday. I’ve had cases where people really needed the money to finish the book too, and I just couldn’t give them $150,000 to finish their second novel. I don’t begrudge them the decision. I worry for them out there though. 

What’s the downside of your position as an independent publisher?
On the book side, it’s always depressing when a book doesn’t find an audience. It happens. Our goal is to have everything stay in print, so we keep it in print and hope for a long life, that people will come back to it. On the magazine side, the hardest thing is rejecting good work and people that you like personally. I’ve been doing it for a long time now, so I reject my friends all the time, and that is a crappy part of the job.

One of the things that I love about indie publishing is that it is a very tight, small community, and we are all rooting for each other. When I’m on the road, the things that I talk about tend to be other indie presses’ books. I think I’ve hand-sold more copies of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets than any other book. I’ve physically put that in a couple hundred people’s hands now, and that’s from Wave Books. It’s like being in the coolest, nerdiest book group. You get to hang out with and hear what people like Ethan Nosowsky at Graywolf are excited about. I feel very lucky to exist in the same plane with them. 

Do you look to anybody as a role model?
Barney Rosset, for the way he mixed incredible literary work with revolutionary politics. He’s responsible for publishing Samuel Beckett but also the diaries of Che Guevara. The iconic image of Guevara was from the cover of that book. He was firebombed by the FBI and blacklisted. He’s definitely a hero. Fiona McCrae at Graywolf is a contemporary hero for the way she’s able to consistently bring in very high quality work and be a champion of her authors over the long haul.

Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about getting into independent publishing?
You have to really love it. If you aren’t incredibly passionate about it, walk away right now. If you’re doing it for money, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re really passionate about it and you don’t care about money, then go for it.

I would also emphasize that the whole business is predicated on relationships, and it’s a small world—for good and for bad. I’ve gotten so much work by just being punctual and clean and not being an asshole. The assholes get weeded out very quickly. Because you’re not doing it for money, you can choose who you want to work with. I’ve gotten work just from writing a thank-you note, just common courtesy. It just goes a long way. Be persistent, but recognize the fine line between being persistent and overbearing. Be able to go with the flow.

I think you have to have an open mind about patching together something that doesn’t look like your traditional forty-hour workweek. It’s an all-consuming, multihyphenate set of roles. You’re throwing yourself into an ecosystem, and to keep that ecosystem alive you need to contribute to it in different ways. Most people I know do many things in this field.

I do a lot of other things too, and they give Tin House energy. I teach a seminar at Columbia, I’m on the board at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I’m on the board at Narrative 4, which is an international story exchange organization. I edited the Penguin anthology of contemporary African writing. Things that kind of take me out of my comfort zone. I see a lot more of that, especially in indie publishing. Your day job moves into many other jobs.

How would you contrast the publishing cultures of New York and Portland?
Portland is more immune to New York publishing hype. Sometimes working in New York feels like working in a casino: kind of airless, lightless, all the noise is amplified, and it’s like win, win, win, six figure deal, six figure deal, and you can get swept up in that hype. In Portland you’ll tell someone about a fancy deal, and they’ll say, “Yeah? What’s the work like?”

What’s next for Tin House?
We’re going to expand our workshops and maybe go overseas with them. We’re slowly ramping up our book division to publish more titles. At the magazine, we’re just trying to stay surprised. That’s my only goal. If I’m not surprised, I’m going to quit.

Have you come close to quitting?
No, not yet. I still have fun. Every time I lose a little bit of faith, something comes along that makes me ask, “Who, what is this? Do I love it? Do I hate it?” I get excited.


Michael Szczerban is an executive editor at Little, Brown.