Over the past decade and a half Tin House magazine, which began publishing in spring 1999, and Tin House Books, which started as an imprint with Bloomsbury in 2002 before becoming an independent press in 2005, have carved out a niche in the small press world. The first Tin House book that caught the attention of Gerry Donahy, new book purchasing supervisor at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., was Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” (2006). “Their literary fiction is fabulous. They publish local authors, literature in translation, and books in pictures. They have an awesome pedigree,” he said. This month the press is trying to take that “awesomeness” to the next level with the publication of Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine, one of its few hardcover novels, and by sponsoring Alexis Smith’s Glaciers (2012) for World Book Night, the only small press title to be given out this year.
Although Tin House is putting money behind both books—Specktor’s has a first printing of 10,000 copies, and publishers pay for WBN selections—it continues to rely on carefully orchestrated low-cost initiatives to make its books stand out. Dolly Freed, author of the press’s all-time bestseller, Possum Living, about learning to live with less, might call them “possum promotions.” An e-mail blast for Specktor’s book with a letter from Jonathan Lethem got many booksellers to pick up American Dream Machine. “That’s how this book got on my radar,” said BookPeople publicist Julie Wernersbach. For Glaciers, which has sold 7,000 copies to date according to Nielsen BookScan, Tin House sent booksellers a glassine envelope filled with items inspired by the book—a button, a piece of fabric, and Earl Grey tea—along with an excerpt and discussion questions. The press also created a Bookclub in a Box with promotional materials and an offer to Skype with the author.
“I’m a big fan for lots of reasons,” said Elise Cannon, v-p, director of field sales at Publishers Group West, citing the press’s creativity and hard work. “We were and still are their only distributor.” Besides selling Tin House books and the magazine, Cannon is also a regular at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop at Reed College, where she shared a workshop with Justin Torres. The workshop, magazine, and books work together, but being published by the press doesn’t necessarily ensure that an author will have an excerpt in the magazine or a faculty position at the workshop. When it does happen, as it will for Specktor this year, it can create synergy for the book.
Tin House is a good fit for Specktor’s new novel, which is about the new Hollywood, a talent agency, and fathers and sons. His debut novel, That Summertime Sound, was published by Simon & Schuster’s MTV Books. “I want to be somewhere where someone wants the book and not to position it,” he said. “I was a studio executive in the 1990s, and I saw movies become corporate. I see a lot of parallels in publishing. Tin House is not subject to those pressures; publishing really belongs in the hands of independents.” Of course, whatever size the press, connections like Specktor’s help boost a book: he worked at Tribeca Productions and 20th Centwury Fox, and is senior editor and founding member of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is already in “some fairly advanced negotiations” with a particular actor and director for a film based on American Dream Machine. Specktor will write the screen treatment.
Tin House has also found synergy in Portland itself, where much of its book operation is based (it also has editorial offices in Brooklyn). Last month the press collaborated with another small, local house, Octopus Publishing, to jointly publish Brandon Shimoda’s fourth full-length poetry collection, Portuguese. The book is the first in a poetry series that the two presses also plan to collaborate on. “It’s a way for us to do poetry again,” said Tin House editor Tony Perez. “It’s great because we use our larger distribution channel [PGW],” while Octopus has its own reading series and distribution channels.
In the future, Perez would like to see Tin House up its list from a dozen books a year to 15. The press has never remaindered a title, and has a 60-book backlist. Ariana Paliobagis, owner of Montana’s largest independent bookstore, Country Bookshelf, in Bozeman, will probably be able to support a slightly longer list. “They do such interesting, thoughtful books,” she said, adding, “Indie publishers are like indie bookstores. They take risks and support good literature without the concern of commercial success.”