As they engaged in the inevitable wrenching conversations this spring about the precarious future of print, the editors of Tin House – an independent magazine and book publisher in Portland, Oregon – kept on dwelling on an unpleasant bit of arithmetic. Tin House’s quarterly literary magazine had a print run of 12,000 copies, but during the nine-month window for submissions they received up to 1,500 new manuscripts a month. In other words: even the people who wanted to be published in Tin House were not buying the magazine.
“I think that’s the case for most literary magazines. I’m sure they sell fewer copies than submissions they receive,” says managing editor Cheston Knapp, with the appropriate mix of bemusement and incredulity. “If they’re not reading us, we’re hoping they read someone else.”
Tin House launched in 1999 with a debut issue that included pieces by David Foster Wallace, Ariel Dorfman and Rick Moody. Last week, the magazine and its sister book imprint announced a new initiative they call “Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore”. For a period this autumn, magazine editors will read submissions only if the author includes a receipt showing evidence of having purchased a hardcover or paperback book at a brick-and-mortar store. Tin House’s book editors, who do not typically welcome unsolicited manuscripts, are preparing to sink deep into the slush pile this autumn: a bookstore receipt guarantees that unagented manuscripts will get a read, by an intern at least.
Tin House’s editors don’t expect to save bookstores with this modest act of extortion alone. The goal, says Knapp, is to “transfer ownership of the problem onto the consumer”. While Knapp says that he and his colleagues are fond of independent bookstores, the new policy does not distinguish between them and large chain retailers. Barnes & Noble and Borders are fine; the goal is to lure Tin House’s constituency into what it calls, coining a charming retronym, “real-life bookstores”.
“I don’t think the majority of people submitting to Tin House, or reading Tin House, don’t support a bookstore. It’s about the bits of the audience that isn’t,” says Knapp. “We didn’t want it to be prohibitive or to be punitive. It’s more in the spirit of camaraderie than ‘You’d better read’ or something Draconian like that.”
Tin House’s editors are sensitive to the idea that shopping in bookstores may be out of reach, financially or geographically, to some would-be contributors. As part of the months-long internal negotiations over the new policy, the editors settled on a variance: those “who cannot afford to buy a book or cannot get to an actual bookstore” can offer an explanation in the form of a haiku or a single sentence up to 100 words. Purchasers of digital books can use the space to explain why they prefer reading a screen to the page. Knapp says that he does not expect to spend much time vetting those explanations.
“I would just hope people caught the spirit of it. If they give false excuses, what are we going to do?” he asks. “If they make a gesture towards an excuse, that’s good enough for me.”
Sasha Issenberg is a contributing editor to Monocle