‘Vigilance and a Total Team Effort’: Interview with Rob Spillman on Publishing More Women Writers

In this interview, I speak to Rob Spillman about how Tin House is working to make sure women are more equally represented within its pages. He also suggests that other publishers can and should follow Tin House‘s lead. Rob received the 2015 VIDO award from VIDA in recognition of his work with women writers. 

Laurie: I’m really honored to have you as an interviewee for the Women Writers School blog. I’ve been a fan since I read your comments in The Guardian about how you set to work evening up the representation of men and women in Tin House following the first Vida Count. In fact, I’ve already written about those comments here on the blog and in my manifesto for the business. Could you tell us some more about how you did this? I mean, you say you put in a lot more effort with women – how did you actually work with them?

Rob: We found that women were a lot less likely to re-submit after being rejected, even with an explicit request to please send something else. So I am even more explicit now—I make sure to spell out that I really do want to see more work. At the same time, I find that I don’t have to work that hard with white straight men—we have been conditioned to privilege, so feel entitled to keep submitting, even in the face of zero encouragement. I also try to spread the word when I do presentations and interviews.

On a practical level, I also keep running counts on gender balance and inclusion, just to make sure we’re on track. If you aren’t paying attention, then nothing will change

Laurie: Do you think it’s possible that this could be a model for other publishers to take up? Do you think any other publishers are likely to follow in Tin House’s footsteps?

Rob: I think so. VIDA has done an invaluable service in calling out gender imbalances, and you can’t get away with it or do public events with an all white male panel without getting a lot of justified blowback. I have absolutely no patience for fellow editors who claim ‘It is so hard’. It isn’t hard. It only requires paying vigilance and a total team effort.

Laurie: I suspect that making Tin House a successful, award-winning example of how you can get more women writers into the pages of a literary magazine may have ruffled some feathers. Have you received any pushback from the publishing industry or elsewhere?

Rob: Not really. I’ve only heard complaints about how hard it is (see above) and questions about whether quality suffered—which is ridiculous. There are so many brilliant women writers out there, as there always have been, but now there are more means for them to be published more widely.

Laurie: One of my professional goals is to get more and more women writers promoting themselves and each other online. I see this as a feminist project and possibly a way to get the public and/or the publishing industry to sit up and take notice of all the talent there is amongst women writers. We can develop so much grassroots energy and interest using all the online tools available to us now. I think this is key to changing the perception of women writers for the better. Would you agree?

Rob: Whew, there’s a lot to this question. Short answer—yes. And it goes to all levels. When I ask my students at Columbia to give me examples of successful pieces to share in class, it invariably skews more toward male writers. This is a chance to put forward under-represented writers. Any chance, take it. And this goes for putting together readings, who you are promoting on social media, reviews, awards, etc… And even the language in how writers are talked about—male writers have no problem calling each other “geniuses”.

Laurie: Do you recommend that your authors at Tin House do some of their own marketing? What methods or strategies do you think are most effective?

Rob: Most writers have to market themselves. My advice is to think of the publishing world as an ecosystem—you only get what you put into it. So be genuine in supporting other writers on social media, with readings, reviews. If you do this with genuine enthusiasm, when you have something out in the world, people will pay it forward.

Laurie: The 2016 Vida results will be coming out soon. How did Tin House do?

Rob: According to our internal numbers, we’re doing really well.

Laurie: Do you have any new projects or upcoming publications you’d like to tell us about?

Rob: I’m excited that our bestselling book this year is by a female poet of color—Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Success breeds success and we’re seeing a lot of great submissions by women and people of color.