A Very Bold Type

Enough with writing about business! This week, instead of selling tech, I'm pitching my literary talents at a lofty journal's summer salon

By Lisa Bergson

"Are you profitable and, if not, how do you survive?" I ask the arrayed editors of Tin House, an elegant and highly regarded literary journal published out of Portland, Ore. A Woodstock for writers, the first ever Tin House Writers' Festival kicks off with a panel on "Getting Published", now taking questions from the audience. The full auditorium falls silent.

"I'll let Win answer that," says the moderator, turning toward Win McCormack, Tin House's plump, slightly fidgety, red-faced publisher. Win leans toward the microphone. "The answer is no, we're not. We're dependent on a private benefactor, and that benefactor is me." With a bashful smile, he sits back. I don't get a follow-up question, and the subject veers back to the issues at hand. "Here's the big one," is the way a bearded guy behind me opens his question, "Staples or paper clips?" A short debate ensues, with the panel deferring to their interns. "Paper clips."


  Afterwards, we're invited to sign up for a 15-minute meeting later in the week with one of the editors. I figure, when it comes to getting published with Tin House, it can't hurt to have a bit of face time with the publisher himself. I'd also like to understand what motivates Win to pour money into contemporary literature and how he can afford to do so. Does he expect to make money or is he rather a patron of the arts? Curiously, I am the only one of the 80 or so participants to book Win.

At dinner, I spot him sitting alone outside the cafeteria and decide to take a chance. "Would you like to join us?" He nods, "Sure, why not?" I'm sitting at a bench with a beautifully formed, former Playboy writer and an L.A. woman who supports herself writing "For Dummies" books on software programs. ("I've become such a Luddite," she says. "I want to trash all computers.")

"I was heartbroken to hear you're not profitable," the Playboy writer exclaims. Win, divorced and in his late 50s, arranges four perfectly ripe strawberries in a geometric pattern on his plate. He has a shy, bad-boy grin that suggests "I know I'm having too much fun." I ask him about his drink, the Tin House martini -- a megamartini-martini, really -- served in an over-sized glass and widely imbibed at the "festival." "It has this much Pernod," Win indicates, placing his thumb and forefinger a half inch apart.


  In this swirl of readings, panels, famous writers, winsome workshoppers, and beaucoup booze, I'll need to do something special to make an impression. A plan comes to mind. The prospect of coverage could get Win's attention. I rationalize that by writing about him and the workshop, I will offer BusinessWeek Online readers a glimpse into an unusual world, where mind dominates matter, and the profit motive comes second to poetic justice. On impulse, I tell Win my idea.

"I have to be free to write what I want," I warn.

He pauses to consider before responding, "All publicity is good." He adds, "We'll be on Google."

Damn. In an instant, I took what could have been a reflective week for me to write, to read, and to commune with my fellow writers and turned it into an assignment. Now I'm on the spot. What if Win asks me about Tin House, which I haven't actually read, or about my favorite writers, most of whom are dead? Unless I can keep the discussion focused on business, he'll see me for the fraud that I am. My chances of getting published by Tin House will be shot.

The day of our interview, I wash my hair and exchange jeans for a knee length flowered skirt. Our appointment is slated for noon, with the possibility of a literary lunch to follow. Win steers us directly to the cafeteria where I flash my bright orange Tin House Summer Writers Workshop "EAT" card at the cashier.

"Do you consider yourself a patron, a modern Medici?" I open as we gather silverware.


  "No," he says, adding, "Patrons give money to things. But we're actually creating things: the magazine, the book imprint. We created this conference." Win has been in publishing since founding Mother Jones, a leftist periodical, in 1970. Subsequently, having started and sold a fleet of magazines, he has an exact knowledge of the technical details and the business risks associated with launching a literary journal. "It costs a lot, you can't make money, no one reads them, and it's hard to get good material," he says.

But Win had a concept -- he wanted to make a well-designed, "reader-friendly" magazine for "good literature that would attract a wide readership." Now the only literary magazine to sponsor a writers' conference, Tin House has pulled in legions of literati, from Lorrie Moore to Rick Moody to Tony Swofford, merrily roaming the tidy, pleasant little campus at Reed College. They are grateful for Win's support and more than willing to teach, participate in panels, give readings, and subject themselves to questions. "Would that more magazines had an angel like this," declares Sallie Tisdale, my workshop leader for "Creative Non-fiction."

Conversely, the proximity to literary lights and the prospect of possibly publishing in Tin House attract writer wannabes like me. Over lunch, Win brandishes a full-page ad from a rival writers' conference, offering a literary cruise. "Look," he urges. "Would you consider a writers' cruise?" It starts to make sense. I speculate, "You can use the magazine as a loss leader to sell books, conferences, soirees, cruises! It looks good on people's coffee tables, and they can brag to their friends about the famous writers they meet."

Win takes a bite of his grilled tuna sandwich. "I'm not going to do anything else that loses money," he asserts. "I'm already doing that."


  The Tin House managing editor, a burly, efficient woman, walks over to our picnic table and tells Win it's time to go. Abandoning his tray and a nicely assembled, strawberry-laden, but untouched salad, he starts to step away. "How do you pay for it? Does it all come from publishing?" I blurt, catching him slightly off guard. "Call it half and half," replies Win, acknowledging his mother's link to the Northern Trust Company and a family tradition of philanthropy for the arts. "We can talk more later," he says in parting.

Alone at our tree-shaded table, I consider the extent to which I've set myself up. I can just imagine Win, the other conferees, and all the Tin House editors reading this column and making fun of my writing. I decide to level with Win. Otherwise, he's bound to be disappointed when no photographer shows up for the big feature I imagine he imagines.

"How's it going?" Win greets me with an engaging smile the next day.

"Win, I have to confess my columns are only 800 to 1,000 words, and they're usually about my own experiences. I'm writing about how I came up with the column idea as a ploy to get to know you better. But then I felt guilty for being so manipulative and afraid that you wouldn't like my writing."

"They'll let you write all that?" He sounds incredulous.

"Maybe," I say. "We'll see."

Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com

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