Earlier this month, a crowd that included Graywolf Press authors, past and current employees, and board members gathered in Minneapolis to honor publisher Fiona McCrae as she prepares to retire after 28 years at the helm of the venerable literary press founded in 1974. McCrae will step down in early July; associate publisher Katie Dublinski will assume the role of interim publisher on July 10 while the board continues its search for McCrae’s successor.
The program included brief remarks by author Charles Baxter, who described McCrae’s “secret weapon” as “a wry sense of humor accompanied by a laser-like intelligence.” Those attributes, Baxter said, have positioned Graywolf to become a “North American outpost of great poetry, prize-winning essays, and fiction, socially conscious and alert to contemporary life.” For the occasion, Danez Smith revised their poem about everyday heroes, “My President,” reciting a line that drew applause and cheers: “And Fiona is my president, leading the wolves into a new wilderness, her howl made of light, her claws of ruby and gold.”
But perhaps it was editorial director Ethan Nosowsky who, in an email to PW, best summed up the essential role McCrae played in transforming a press struggling in 1993 with a $200,000 deficit into what Chicago Tribune columnist John Warner last year proclaimed to be “pound for pound, the greatest publisher in the world.”
“There are many wonderful publishers who are not terrific managers; there are many terrific managers who are not inspiring publishers,” Nosowsky wrote, “There are perhaps some inspiring publishers who are also somehow terrific managers but there is no way they are also brilliant fundraisers. Fiona is so good at all of these things. I have always admired the way that she is extremely ambitious for Graywolf and has very high expectations of herself and of her staff, but pushes things forward with a human touch.” Those qualities have produced a press that netted $3.5 million in fiscal 2021 and whose authors regularly win the book world’s most prestigious prizes.
During an interview at Graywolf’s new offices, McCrae maintained that she “wasn’t the driver, but sat close to the driver” for the past 28 years, ascribing much of Graywolf’s success to its 18 employees. “I give a lot of the credit to the editors and to the marketing team,” she said. “I also think the gods of publishing have been kind to us. Lady Luck has visited Graywolf a couple of times.”
McCrae, who began her career at Faber and Faber and spent 12 years there before joining Graywolf, said that her experience at both Faber’s London headquarters and Boston offices served her well, as she learned “what makes things work and how you build energy and get a community around what you are doing.” She also realized during her time there that “the model that suited me was multiple editors” with differing literary tastes.
“I think that one thing that distinguishes Graywolf from other small presses,” McCrae noted, “is the distribution of the editorial function.” According to Dublinski, who has worked alongside McCrae for 24 years, McCrae “sees eclecticism and variety as strengths, where another publisher might have chosen to establish a niche or to have cultivated a particular aesthetic sensibility.”
Indeed, McCrae said she revels in the notion that readers “never entirely know what to expect” from Graywolf: its titles at first glance seem “disconnected” from one another, with offerings by authors as diverse as Baxter, a 75-year-old retired University of Minnesota professor, and Smith, 33, a queer, Black, and HIV-positive poet and performer. Its top-selling title, with more than 400,000 copies sold in all formats, is Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. “There’s a lot of breadth across our list, but it’s coherent,” McCrae explained. “Most of the writers, particularly in the last 10 years, are paying attention to our world—it’s not the 18th century, it’s not even World War II—it’s the 21st century. That has given us a coherence.”
There is much more to Graywolf’s strategizing, however, than simply creating a list that reflects the zeitgeist. As far as McCrae is concerned, publishing books without marketing them is “just printing” books. Promotion is essential, she insists. From the beginning of McCrae’s tenure, Graywolf has emphasized its relationships with key trade and consumer media, as well as maintaining a presence at various industry shows and fairs. “Successful sales and marketing starts very early,” she said.
The emergence of social media has also played a role in Graywolf’s sustainability, by raising its visibility at about the same time that it published Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, a 2007 title that became a breakout bestseller and to date has sold over 60,000 copies in all formats; Graywolf reported $1 million in net revenues for the first time that year.“For all of the horrors of social media, it’s helped small presses,” McCrae said. “I think social media has helped what had been slightly unpopular genres, like the essay and poetry, be discovered.”
Reflecting upon her legacy, McCrae likens the last 28 years to “conducting an interesting experiment,” marked by its failures almost as much as its successes. “We had bombs,” she admitted, “We overprinted, we underprinted. We rejected manuscripts that maybe did well elsewhere. We kept people waiting too long, hired the wrong person.” But, she added, “I was on a journey. The number of different cylinders that we were firing on—that’s one of the things that I am most proud of.”
McCrae views the present as “an exciting time” in publishing, with a “very interesting new generation” moving up through the ranks, and she issued a challenge to her industry peers: “There’s a cultural moment where, if you can, you should step away,” she said. “Let the next generation come in; that’s all to the good. Make a place for somebody with a different profile.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified where Graywolf Press was founded. The press was founded in Washington state in 1974. Picador's paperback edition of Out Stealing Horses has sold 350,000 copies in addition to the 60,000 copies sold of the original Graywolf edition.