Go to the back of St. Mark’s Bookshop on East 9th Street, where you will see an information desk. The front of that desk has six shelves filled with literary magazines, at knee level. Find the one whose cover is the color of cedar and has the words “Tin House” inscribed on it. Hold it carefully and take a deep breath: this little book may very well represent the future of literary magazines.
Says who? Well, the discriminating customers at St. Mark’s, for one. In three weeks, the store has sold 58 copies of the premiere issue of Tin House, an average of two or three a day. According to St. Mark’s magazine buyer Susan Willmarth, that’s “as good as a best-selling book.” And why are they buying a magazine they’ve never read?
First, there’s the design, which uses beige and black subheads and pull-quotes to dress up a simple layout. “It’s handsome and exciting and stands out in a marketplace in which most of those journals look the same,” says Ira Silverberg, a literary agent at Donadio & Olson. Harper’s senior editor Ben Metcalf compares Tin House to The Baffler and McSweeney’s, two other lit mags recently arrived on the scene. At a time when desktop publishing has come of age, he says, “They have all been really playful with the design, without going crazy.”
The premiere issue of Tin House is also selling well because of the tasteful mix, which includes pieces by the likes of Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, and a band of unknowns, as well as a “Lost and Found” section where writers can hold forth on their favorite out-of-print books. Judging by the contents, Willmarth says, “You can tell they’ve done their homework.”
Silverberg elaborates, “Whereas most literary magazines in America are trapped in a mainstream aesthetic, these guys are willing to take risks. The juxtaposition of experienced and less experienced writers, new forms and old forms is going to be exciting to readers.”
The force behind the Tin buzz is editors Rob Spillman and Elissa Schappell, a married couple who have contributed their skills to many, many magazines, including The Paris Review. “They have deep roots in the Paris Review tradition,” says Metcalf, “and now they’re doing it on their own.” Says Silverberg, “They’re both fantastic writers and editors. I have more faith in them than I have in most people who start literary magazines.”
They couldn’t have done it without publisher and editor in chief Win McCormack, a Portland, Oregonbased investor who has long dreamed of starting his own for-profit lit mag. The two concepts McCormack insisted on were commercial-design techniques and accessibility. According to Spillman, “Our target audience is not just people we like, but the smart, well-read person on the street.”
So far, so good for Tin House, which has just signed a deal with Ingraham Periodicals to place 5000 copies in major bookstores. But the funky start-up is just the tip of what is being hailed as a renaissance for literary magazines in New York. According to Robert Polito, director of the M.F.A. program at the New School, “There was a period in the 1970s and ’80s when literary magazines fell off the map, and for a while the energy and excitement in the literary community was in the performance and reading series. Now that energy has expanded into magazines.”
Along with Tin House, some of the new lit mags in town include Fence, Open City, and Lit, which the New School launched at a party last week. The first issue of Lit shows what Polito calls an “experimental bias”; its clean white pages are adorned with old and new voices, prose poems and a twitchy story by Stacey Richter about prom night on drugs.
Never one to miss a trend, Starbucks has just launched Joe, its own literary magazine, in partnership with Time Inc. Custom Publishing. Packed with brand-name writers (think Douglas Coupland), corporate ads, and full-color art, Joe lacks the alternative appeal of Tin House or Lit, but it stems from the same market analysis. “You hear all this stuff about people not reading,” says Joe managing editor Scott Mowbray, “but I don’t see any drop-off in interest in books or in writing. We wanted this to be a writers’ and readers’ magazine and we wanted to stake out our territory.”
For Ben Metcalf of Harper’s, there can never be enough competition. “Each one of those small magazines that lasts is another room for new voices,” he says. “There’s a lot more great writing out there than we can ever publish.”
In decades past, The Village Voice was a place of internecine warfare, its staff a noisy, angry cast of characters who were forever plotting to overthrow one another. But once every three years, the union contract came up for renewal, and that’s when the white boys and the cool cats linked arms to fight against a common enemy, affectionately known as “management swine.” Nothing brought the staff closer together than the threat of an imminent strike— especially when the face of evil was Rupert Murdoch, who owned the Voice until 1985.
But that was then, this is now. The current editor in chief, Donald Forst, has a laid-back style and the mood in editorial is conspicuously subdued. Indeed, last week, as 24 representatives of labor and management commenced a series of meetings to negotiate the latest contract, there were few overt signs of hostility in the room. But the absence of posturing and rhetoric was merely a sign of resolve by union reps, who are determined to resolve an unprecedented number of outstanding grievances before the contract expires, on June 30.
“Negotiations so far have been very businesslike,” says Voice publisher David Schneiderman, who first participated in contract negotiations in 1979, when he was editor in chief of the Voice. “We hope to continue to make progress. We’ve never had a strike and we’re not looking for one.”
According to management insiders, management took its cue from the union and adopted a new tone for negotiations: rather than “dicking around,” management would put more on the table up-front and say no to fewer demands, as a demonstration of its good faith in the collective-bargaining process. (Management lawyer Bertrand Pogrebin initially opposed the strategy, but Schneiderman persuaded him of its merit.)
And so it came to pass that management threw out two bones at a meeting with union reps on June 17. First, in response to union complaints about its dental plan, they offered to switch the union to Delta, the insurance provider used by management. Secondly, management announced a new Career Development Program that will offer skills training to all employees interested in advancement.
“Not many employees apply internally for posted jobs,” says Schneiderman. “If we have a better job-recruitment process, we think we can fill jobs faster. I want to encourage people to think about their careers here.”
Union reps greeted the proposals with cautious optimism, noting that the dental plan being offered was not the same as the management plan. And some were dismayed that management rejected several specifics out of hand, including a demand that writers be paid electronic-reprint fees and a series of provisions related to job security, which is one of the key themes this year. Job worries are directly proportional to expansion by parent company Stern Publishing, which now owns seven alternative newspapers nationwide. The union suspects Stern Publishing is restructuring the company without union input, hoarding profits and farming out work to nonunion employees— claims management denies.
Paranoia runs deep at the Voice, but union reps are confident as they head back to the table this week. First on the menu: the union demand that management adopt the famous “Weinstein formula,” devised in 1993 by former senior editor Jeff Weinstein in hopes of restoring fairness to wage increases. Instead of increasing all employees’ salaries by a fixed percentage, the proposal would award a progressive weekly increase to all employees, based on a complex formula, with slightly higher increases going to lower-paid workers. Union reps believe it is needed because of the yawning disparity between salaries of senior staffers and those of entry-level and longtime, low-pay employees.
The union is also presenting a package of “health and safety” demands. While some of these may sound frivolous to an outsider (“There shall be twenty  cubic feet per minute [CFM] per person of fresh air in all parts of The Village Voice offices at all times”), it seems like a no-brainer that the Voice should automatically provide adjustable keyboard trays to everyone, given the long-standing high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among its staff.
The union is determined to make progress on the Voice‘s affirmative action policy. According to senior editor Andrew Hsiao, spokesperson for the union’s negotiating committee, minorities currently comprise 28.8 percent of the total staff, and a mere 9.7 percent of senior editors and staff writers. This is the first time the union has asked management to set a concrete goal for minority hiring, to wit: a 3.5 percent increase over the period of each consecutive contract.
“In the past,” says Hsiao, “management has expressed its commitment to affirmative action, but progress has been minimal.” He points out that the union is proposing a goal, not a quota, and that “if we increased minority representation by 3.5 percent every year, we might reach some measure of racial parity in about 10 years.”
Asked about the possibility of a strike, Hsiao said, “Though we are trying to lower the temperature in the negotiating room, the passions are really high on our side. We’re facing our own miniversion of media empire-building, with all the layoffs, temps, and talk of outsourcing our jobs— so if management doesn’t respond to the job security demands, or tries to stiff us on wages and benefits, the chances of a strike remain high.”