It’s only appropriate, Graywolf Press publicity director Erin Kottke said, that the Minneapolis literary press would kick off its 40th anniversary celebrations on February 28 in Seattle during AWP. Not only because AWP annually brings together Graywolf’s core constituency of hardcore literati, but also because this year’s conference was held about 60 miles south of Port Townsend, Wash., where the press was launched in 1974. The AWP event was the first in a yearlong series that will pay homage to the press’s beginnings; it opened with a reading by five authors, including Tess Gallagher, whose 1976 collection of poems, Instructions to the Double, was Graywolf’s first book.
The celebrations will continue at various venues around the country this spring and into the fall, as befits a company that is headquartered in Minneapolis and has a satellite office in New York City. On May 19, Jeffery Renard Allen, Deborah Baker, Kevin Barry, Matthea Harvey, Leslie Jamison, Jessica Francis Kane, Salvatore Scibona, Tracy K. Smith, and Mary Szybist will participate in a group reading and book signing at Manhattan’s Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, followed the next evening by a private gala at the Century Club.
A poetry reading will be held in October at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., and two events are scheduled that same month in Minneapolis: one at the University of Minnesota, which houses Graywolf’s archives, and a fund-raiser at the Walker Art Center. The press is also planning a fall event in San Francisco, but that is “still in brainstorming mode,” Kottke said. Throughout the year, Graywolf authors from the past four decades are also virtually participating in the festivities, penning their recollections; the essays are being posted on the press’s website.
Graywolf has come a long way since Scott Walker and Kathleen Foster started publishing poetry chapbooks with 300-copy print runs 40 years ago. “It was very much a labor of love those first couple of years,” Walker recalled, during a 2004 interview with PW. “I didn’t make more than $7,000 the first 10 years. We almost gave up.” After incorporating Graywolf as a nonprofit, Walker moved to the Twin Cities in 1985 and ran it from there, publishing 23 titles and posting a $200,000 deficit in 1993, before resigning his position in 1994.
In contrast, Graywolf netted more than $1 million in sales revenues in the last fiscal year, down slightly from 2012’s historic highs, when Tracy K. Smith won a Pulitzer Prize, Natasha Trethewey became U.S. Poet Laureate, and Geoff Dyer won an NBCC Award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition—a perfect storm of honors that drove both frontlist and backlist sales that year. Even though January sales exceeded projections, the press anticipates slightly lower gross revenues in 2014, only because there are fewer hardcovers among the 24 frontlist releases and eight reprints scheduled for release this year.
“Sales went up in 2007 with Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, and our fiction and nonfiction also started being nominated for and winning national awards,” said publisher Fiona McCrae, who this year is celebrating 20 years at the helm. “We haven’t gone back since.” Pointing out that Graywolf has always been known for its poetry offerings, McCrae noted that in 2013, the number of titles selling more than 5,000 copies was “higher across the board”—a trend that she expects to continue.
“We have a very high momentum for the poetry list,” she said. “But we’ve also been building up our nonfiction list since setting up the nonfiction prize [in 2004].” In addition to publishing 11 poetry collections and 13 novels and collections of short fiction, including more of the “Scandiwegian” literary fiction that has repeatedly propelled it to bestseller lists since the Petterson hit, Graywolf is releasing eight nonfiction titles in 2014, including On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss, recently selected as a 2014 BEA Editors Buzz Panel pick.
McCrae also disclosed that the press is aggressively growing its works-in-translation list. “It’s more expensive,” she pointed out, “but it makes the list deeper and more varied, by engaging with the international community.”
“People look at Graywolf, see it’s on a roll, and think we have all the answers,” said McCrae, reflecting on her two decades as publisher. “But it takes a lot of work and resources to keep momentum going.” Although marketing director Michael Taeckens is relatively new, coming over from Algonquin in 2012, and editorial director Ethan Nosowsky joined from McSweeney’s only last year, many on the 11-person staff have worked at Graywolf almost as long as McCrae has. “We’ve got really solid people, who take ‘exquisite care,’ as Mary Szybist said after she won the 2013 National Book Award,” noted McCrae. “This group is going to find and attract great writing."