The last few years have been particularly good ones for Graywolf Press, the Minneapolis independent now in its 35th year, headed up by Fiona McCrae. McCrae, who was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and grew up in Hertfordshire, just north of London, began her publishing career at Faber & Faber in London, where she started as an editorial assistant and ended up a senior editor. Then, in 1991, she came to the U.S. to become director and senior editor at Faber's U.S. outpost, responsible for expanding the American list. She was hired to be director and publisher of Graywolf in 1994, and since then she's made big changes that amount to a reenvisioning of what an American small press can be. She cites pre—HarperCollins Ecco as a model of where she wants to take Graywolf—a big indie capable of launching and sustaining important literary careers in fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
Graywolf is having a very strong run with the works of Swedish novelist Per Petterson, whose Out Stealing Horses debuted in 2007 and turned into a surprise bestseller, selling roughly 50,000 copies for Graywolf in hardcover, and another 200,000 copies in paperback for Picador. Graywolf followed a year later with Petterson's To Siberia, and has sold about 20,000 copies to date, and the house is poised to publish Petterson's I Curse the River of Time in 2010. But Graywolf is more than a single author. Debut novelist Salvatore Scibona's The End was nominated for the 2008 National Book Award. In 2007, Elegy, a collection of poems by Mary Jo Bang, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. And, at the end of 2008, in what was perhaps its biggest honor, Graywolf poet Elizabeth Alexander was asked to read a poem at Barack Obama's inauguration; Graywolf just published Alexander's inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” as a chapbook in an edition of 100,000.
Beyond all that, McCrae led the press to launch several successful series—its Art Of... books, on the craft of writing, and the Re/ View series, which brings important out-of-print poetry titles back to market. Plus, Graywolf, a nonprofit, did some heavy fund-raising starting in 2004, raising $1 million in order to, among other things, be able to offer competitive advances to prose writers, something few indie presses even attempt. McCrae also opened a New York office for Graywolf and hired former FSG editor Ethan Nosowsky as editor-at-large; his responsibilities include buying new books of nonfiction. In 2002, Graywolf signed a distribution deal with FSG, extending its reach.
While Faber is one of the biggest houses in the U.K., its U.S. imprint (which is now a part of FSG, but wasn't when McCrae came over) was really a kind of small press. “That's what gave me a taste for the opportunities for a smaller press,” McCrae says. She dug into the local scene immediately, going to readings and talks: “I was able to get a lot of writers by going around in the Boston/Cambridge area.” She signed Boston authors like Andre Dubus III and Jodi Picoult. Then in 1994, the news came that Graywolf's publisher, Scott Walker, was leaving the company. At the same time, McCrae was becoming interested in running her own house: “I was not running Faber Inc. One of the things that appealed to me about the job was a chance to run the place,” she says.
McCrae believes the publishing business is changing in favor of smaller presses, which can have close contact with their audiences and realistically support the smaller sales that typify many literary books: “I think that's been true for a long time, and it's just getting truer and truer and truer. There's still obviously a layer in which we don't compete, and it's not our job to,” McCrae says.
“I've never felt wholly responsible for Graywolf's successes,” McCrae says. “There was already a really good platform there, and Graywolf was one of those places that people felt very affectionate about.”
McCrae's work has brought results. Graywolf is now one of the best-known literary small presses, and its books are getting the kind of attention—major national book awards, big sales—that any publisher, even a New York trade house, would be proud of.