Of Books and Tin Houses

July 6, 2010 § 10 Comments


There has been scads of talk this past week about Tin House magazine’s new submission policy, asking writers to buy a book from a bookstore, and prove that they’ve done so, before submitting.  At first there was misinformation — people thought Tin House was demanding that writers purchase Tin House books, which was not the case — and now there is simply confusion.  We love bookstores, we love books, we love literary magazines, so why does this feel somehow wrong?

Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, has elevated the discussion nicely. Here’s a bit:

The relationship between the literary magazine and its audience has grown increasingly combative over the years … and, more than dollars and cents, this poor and deteriorating communication seems to be at the heart of this controversy. Literary magazines are feeling increased pressure to remain fiscally sound, if not profitable, as seen by the recent pressures on TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, New England Review, just to name a few, and are looking for ways to monetize just about any aspect of their organization, not out of greed, but out of the increasingly desperate need to remain alive.  Readers and submitters sense not only are the major venues and financial support vanishing as the slicks stop printing fiction, but that that magazines that do publish fiction are increasingly chosen because of agents and a writer’s “platform” in cooperation with the literati’s self-fulfilling prophecy of annointing the 20-Under-40 (and so forth).  Further, readers and submitters believe that the literary magazines are closed to them: the quality of the work is poor and the editors are only publishing their friends based on who they went to graduate school with or who can do them a favor (“Publish my poem and I’ll publish yours!”).

So, literary magazines believe readers and submitters aren’t financially supporting their journals; readers and submitters believe literary magazines are a clandestine society off-shoring their money woes onto the backs of others.

Frankly, I think both parties have valid complaints.

And the full blog post can be found here.

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§ 10 Responses to Of Books and Tin Houses

  • Laura says:

    I may be a somewhat typical writer. I grew up reading, and buying books, and reading. I teach at a university where a large part of my job is reading. My husband is a writer and a retired professor. We have wall to wall bookshelves in our study, more books in his home office, more in mine, more in my other study area, some at my work office. And I have some ebooks on my iphone. I don’t read as much for pleasure as I used to. Every year I go to AWP and buy books at the book fair, and occasionally I buy books at my local bookseller or more often on Amazon (I live in a small town without a good source for books). Although, I administer a reading series and bring writers to campus and offer them an opportunity to sell books, and we usually buy their books. I buy books from the campus honor society book sale sometimes, too.

    Many many of the books in my house, unfortunately, remain unread. I instituted a policy a few years ago of putting the unread books on separate shelves so I could see how many books I had hanging about before I bought more. Each summer I try to “catch up” on pleasure reading and on important books I somehow missed. This summer I read Moby Dick for the first time and a nonfiction book about tulips. The next book on my list is Darcy Cummings “The Artist as Alice,” although “Light in August” also is calling my name. Then again, “Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice” is sitting here because I’m teaching the class for the first time as a favor this fall.

    And I haven’t submitted to a literary magazine really in years, although I write frequently and seriously.

    I subscribe to one literary magazine. My husband subscribes to one. We also subscribe to two magazines about writing.

    And frankly, I just feel pissed off about the Tin House policy. It looks like a play for attention. It looks like they think writers don’t read, don’t contribute, just want to get published. It seems very out of touch with the reality of most writers who love books and love reading.

    And it reminds me of a form letter I got once from Copper Canyon Press. I had queried them about reading a poetry manuscript. I got back a lengthy lecture about how writers like myself just wanted to get published, but didn’t read, and about how they didn’t have time to read unsolicited manuscripts, and about how I would be doing the world and the publisher a favor if I supported the press by buying and reading their books instead of trying to get someone to read my work. All this, in a form letter from a press that had not read word one of my work.

    So I wrote them back. I mentioned how many Copper Canyon books I had taught in my classes, how many of their writers I had had visit my campus for readings, and because it was early in my career, I just mentioned that if I could not get presses to even consider my work, then I was unlikely to continue in the academic career that allowed me to invite their writers and require students to buy their books. They didn’t respond to my letter.

    I have more to say about how poets in particular are asked to subsidize presses and literary magazines, about how rare it is to get paid for poems, but enough and enough. And screw the magazine who implies writers are the reason books don’t sell.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks for the trackback! I really appreciate the post and Laura’s thoughts about the new submission policy. If nothing else, we all need to consider what this means, whether or not we agree with Tin House or not.

  • Michael & others:

    It seems to me that a decent sized magazine taking 4 months off from reading submissions—and then allowing a free pass for people to still submit during this period—isn’t that bad of idea. Better maybe even than magazine who just close submissions for certain periods, or when they are overwhelmed. Tin House accepts submissions year round, at least they did when I was there.

    And, what’s more, it seems rather generous to offer a free pass yet again for unsolicited writers to submit book manuscripts to Tin House Books, which does not usually accept unsolicited manuscripts. Seems like a win win.

    But things will be back to usual in January of 2011. I think any writer worth their salt can wait that long to send their story, if Tin House just has to be the place it is published at. But, after January 2011, they are going to have to submit their book manuscript somewhere else, or get a good agent.

  • Maggie says:

    My interpretation of this is not, as Laura suggests, that Tin House is in any way insinuating that writers don’t read or are the reason books don’t sell. My interpretation is that Tin House is insinuating that, as Laura confirms, many writers (along with the rest of the reading population) are buying books from Amazon, which is a major part of the reason independent bookstores are dying off everywhere. (I’ve worked at several major indie bookstores, one of which is now out of business.) Tin House also includes a way around the buy-a-book requirement for folks like Laura who don’t live near a brock-and-mortar bookstore (and those who can’t afford to buy a book)–all they’re asking is that you explain (in haiku, but how hard can it be) why you can’t go to an actual bookstore. The form letter from Copper Canyon, however long ago that was, sounds yucky, but let’s not project that onto everyone else who’s trying to do something good for booksellers. We should all be in this together, because we surely all need each other (writers, publishers, magazines and booksellers alike) to survive.

  • […] Jul Last week, we blogged (as did many others) about Tin House‘s temporary policy of Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore, […]

  • Liz Prato says:

    I teach creative writing workshops to adults, and my students inevitably ask, “Which journals should I send my work to?” I ask, “Which ones do you enjoy reading?” Blank look. When I ask my short story students what they’re reading, they mention novels. Most of my Creative Nonfiction students have never read Brevity or the Sun or any of the Creative Nonfiction anthologies out there. So, yeah — I agree that more people want to get published than actually buy books or literary journals. And most beginning writers (and I include myself, back in the day, in this crowd) aren’t capable of evaluating that their work isn’t ready for Tin House or Paris Review or the New Yorker, so these places get inundated with work. Is the new Tin House policy the perfect solution? Of course not. But I’m happy it’s started this conversation. Let’s see where we can take it.

  • Laura says:

    Maggie and others convince me to think of this in a different way, and if I didn’t live in a small town with no indies around, I might have perceived it differently anyway. By the way, a lot of my “Amazon” shopping goes to small used booksellers who sell out of print poetry.

  • justine says:

    Hey, I think it’s great. And I understand why. I just wonder how many more roadblocks there can be. I wonder how much ramen I can eat before I develop health problems. Or worse–love-handles. But then again, I wish I could afford ramen at all today.

    And to whoever has no clue what point I’m trying to make: fine, for I’ll go write the effing haiku. But you asked for it.

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