Graywolf Press is lone wolf in book publishing

The publisher is a thousand miles from NYC but remains one of the best

Here McCrae met her husband, John Coy, an author of children's books, and they live in Prospect Park. She believed it was important to maintain her predecessors' commitment to high-quality texts, both inside and out. "As a smaller press, you're not printing hundreds and thousands of copies, so there's a sense of being close to the values that the author would have. We try not to treat them like they're a widget in a widget factory. We give them a lot of choice about the covers." She adds: "The word we have thrown around is 'singular.' The work we publish is 'singular,' so we want a singular cover."

She delights in the opportunity to snatch up books a major publisher might ignore and says a Graywolf book can succeed by selling only a few thousand copies. "When we're not having to pay enormous overhead or debt for an acquisition or that kind of thing, the numbers we need for a book to do well are much smaller. From Faber I learned, rightly or wrongly, that it's not that books never make money, but that it takes time. Years after it was published, T.S. Eliot's [Old Possum's Book of Practical] Cats was bringing in significant revenue. I saw the way publishing and art intersect. The market goes for something that's done well before, but the most difficult thing is something that hasn't done well before. When you've got this nonprofit structure, you can stick more with the art side. If it's working artistically, we'll make the numbers work."

Under McCrae's watch, the nonprofit publisher has become financially solvent, thanks largely to her philosophy of courting financial support in the same way theaters and symphonies do. Besides relying on the largess of organizations like the Bush Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, Graywolf also receives individual support from many of the same wealthy patrons that institutions like the Guthrie do. In 2006 the publisher completed a million-dollar fundraising drive, with most of the money coming from individual contributors. The funds were used to acquire new books and promote them—including the house's first ad in The New York Times last summer, for Out Stealing Horses.

McCrae also orchestrated Graywolf's distribution deal with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2002, which greatly expanded its reach. More recently she established a New York presence for the press, taking office space in Manhattan and hiring New York-based former Farrar editor Ethan Nosowsky on a freelance basis. That has helped position the press to compete for top writers and top manuscripts, which it has done with increasing success.

"The goals were to get really good writers on our list, and to publish them well," she says. "The way I look at it is—to get into a flowery metaphor—you can put plants under the sun, but if you don't water them, and it's not good soil, the plants don't flourish."

"She knows what's going on. She has her finger on the pulse," says Charles Baxter, a University of Minnesota creative writing professor and Graywolf writer and editor. "I joke with them that they're going to have to be careful with their nonprofit status, with books like Out Stealing Horses. Before they know it, they're going to be making a lot of money."

"They've created a recognizable sensibility at Graywolf—innovative," says New York-based literary agent Bill Clegg. "I think their poetry and nonfiction, and more and more their fiction, have a recognizable courageousness. When a book comes out, one can say, 'Ah, that makes sense there.'"

It's worth noting, however, that certain titles have broken the mold over the years. Take I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's raunchy novel The Apprentice, which was published by Graywolf in 1996 and concerns ill-fated romance at an early 20th-century Japanese mountain inn. The work was dragged into the spotlight three years ago when Libby, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, was indicted in the CIA leak case. Wrote The New Yorker's Lauren Collins of the book: "Libby does not shy from the scatological. The narrative makes generous mention of lice, snot, drunkenness, bad breath, torture, urine, 'turds,' armpits, arm hair, neck hair, pubic hair, pus, boils, and blood (regular and menstrual). One passage goes, 'At length he walked around to the deer's head and, reaching into his pants, struggled for a moment and then pulled out his penis. He began to piss in the snow just in front of the deer's nostrils.'"

According to her staff, this is not a book McCrae likes to talk about.

NEARLY EVERY WORD out of Charles Baxter's mouth is spoken with great passion. Discoursing recently in his Uptown writing studio on everything from the RNC protests to the landscape in his former home of Michigan to the Hollywood adaption of his book Feast of Love (turned into a Morgan Freeman/Greg Kinnear film last year), he seems to take no subject lightly.

While discussing the state of literature in our society, the popular novelist and essayist gets so focused that his fingers interlaced atop his crossed legs tighten and turn purple.

« Previous Page
Next Page »