THE WAY BOOKS are produced and distributed is changing, and pinning your future reading habits on the solutions devised by mainstream publishing houses might not be your best bet. The industry as a whole has been famously slow to respond to a little widget called "the internet," a problem only exacerbated by the recession's effect on book sales. E-book sales are up, however, which suggests two things: Publishers would do well to make their catalogs available on a digital platform, and the imminent separation of content from form may actually prove advantageous for publishers who remain invested in creating high-quality physical products.
All of which brings us effortlessly to local independent publisher Tin House, who are celebrating their 10-year anniversary this week with a lit-star-studded reading. As Tin House rings in a decade, their long-standing emphasis on quality production and design stands out in a marketplace that seems determined to sever the relationship between content and the way it's presented.
Tin House magazine is a quarterly literary journal that's been published out of Northwest Portland since 1999. It was originally conceived as a journal that would marry high-quality content with a design sensibility that was, at the time, more commonly found in commercial magazines.
"One of my goals in doing this," publisher Win McCormack tells me, "was to create a literary magazine that was designed. This may be an immodest claim, but I think I've transformed the business, because people are now designing their literary magazines—they're not just putting out pages that follow each other with no breakup of the type. That wasn't the case before. Go back 10 years and look at what literary journals looked like then, and look at what they look like now. Starting in the 20th century they started designing commercial magazines to be easy to read, with headlines, subheads, pull quotes, use of visuals, illustrations. It's all simple stuff, but [it hadn't been] applied to a literary journal. So that's what we did."
It's an approach that has shaped Tin House magazine from the beginning, and one that continues with their more recently created books division, launched in 2005. This is not to suggest that design takes precedent over content: Names like Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, and Stephen King have appeared in Tin House's pages over the years, alongside lesser-known authors.
While Tin House is afloat due largely to the largesse of publisher McCormack—the two stunning buildings that house the magazine and book divisions double as real estate investments, which helps to explain how an indie publisher has such lavish digs—they're not entirely immune to the pressures of the marketplace. Those pressures, of course, say, "Go digital." To that end, Tin House is poised to launch a new website with a blog and archived material from the magazine. They're also rolling out their first two digital titles, Jim Krusoe's Erased and Zak Smith's We Did Porn.
"We want to give our authors the widest distribution possible," Tony Perez tells me. Perez is an assistant editor at Tin House, roped into coordinating the company's digital forays largely "because I'm the youngest editor here," he says.
"I read somewhere that the only areas in publishing that are still growing are celebrity memoirs and e-books," he continues. "And I don't really see us doing the former."
It's notable, however, that even as they release We Did Porn as an e-book, they're also offering a deluxe, hardback edition featuring full-color illustrations. In other words, books and e-books don't have to be adversaries: High-quality books can go hand in hand with cheap digital distribution of content.
It's heartening that even as the dinosaurs of publishing are lurching toward extinction, nimble independent publishers like Tin House—and McSweeney's, and Akashic, and Future Tense—are producing high-quality, innovative content. And what does the future hold for Tin House, aside from birthday parties, blogs, and e-books?
"I might revive the idea of the literary cruise," McCormack muses. "I haven't been able to inspire my staff in this regard, but... I'll figure out a way to do it."