It’s been a busy first two years for Spiegel & Grau. Last year, cofounders Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel relaunched their imprint—which was shuttered in 2019 as part of a reorganization at Penguin Random House—as an independent press. Now, the house has a full-time staff of 12 after making a handful of hires earlier this month, and has brought aboard Nicole Dewey (who will also continue to run her PR firm, Dewey Media Group) as publishing director.
S&G also has new books out by Jane McGonigal, a bestselling author, video game designer, and futurist, and New York Times journalist Katie Hafner. It recently acquired the memoir A Heart That Works, by comedian Rob Delaney, due out this November, and it has titles under contract from Melody Beattie, ZZ Packer, and Grammy Award–winning country singer Shelby Lynne, among others. And its strategy to “support authors across multiple media formats” includes partnerships on creative content outside of the pages of books, such as reporter Justine van der Leun’s Believe Her podcast, which S&G coproduces with Lemonada Media, which won the Gracie Award for Best Investigative Podcast in 2022.
Independent publishing was a new frontier for the publisher’s cofounders, after they had successfully navigated corporate publishing for decades. Grau and Spiegel were two of the four founding editors, in 1994, of Riverhead Books at Penguin, later becoming coeditorial directors and publishers. There, they acquired books by the likes of Junot Díaz, Nick Hornby, Khaled Hosseini, Chang-Rae Lee, and Gary Shteyngart. At the end of 2005, they left Riverhead for Random House’s Doubleday division, where they launched the first Spiegel & Grau imprint; in 2009, the imprint was brought over to the Random House group and survived the merger of Penguin and Random House in 2013—but not the 2019 Crown and Random House consolidation.
“It was a surprise for us, because we had just finished an amazingly successful year,” Grau said, adding that some of the books they published that year remained on the bestseller list well into 2022. That surprise, she said, gave the duo a chance to try something different.
“We had opportunities to reconstitute the imprint and move to another corporate house, but we saw it as an opportunity to start something new,” Grau said. “We knew that our partnership was durable, that we had a similar vision for what we wanted to start, and we thought that there was an irresistible and exciting new challenge in starting a new company as an independent publisher.”
A combination of their experience in the book business, confidence in their own partnership, and reservations about a return to the ever-consolidating corporate publishing landscape ultimately convinced the two that starting an independent business was the right move.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ve been working together for a long time,” Spiegel said, “and we felt that we were at a point in our career where we actually had our own vision for what we thought publishing could look like. It was a moment to sit and think about what works and what doesn’t work. As publishing becomes bigger, it relies more, necessarily, on category-driven publishing. Since we don’t do that kind of publishing, it’s harder for us to fit into the system. Why go back into a situation where we felt it would become more of a struggle, as the houses got bigger and bigger, to put the attention that was warranted on the kinds of books that we do?”
The absence of a corporate publisher and the safety net (however bureaucratic) it came with has not yet proven a problem for the fledgling publisher. Nor has the pandemic. “We raised money quietly,” Spiegel said. “The publishing world is so small, and there’s a lot of chatter about everybody, and we didn’t get distracted by that. We also didn’t have to travel and spend money to go to meet investors or go to L.A.—it was all done on Zoom. I think it was actually a good time to start a company.”
While raising capital and presenting to prospective investors was all new for Grau and Spiegel, the duo more than managed—perhaps precisely because their experience in the business spoke for itself. “We were oversubscribed,” Spiegel said. “We actually had to turn down money.”
Running an independent publisher, Grau and Spiegel agreed, has given them more flexibility to allocate their resources exactly as they wish to, without interference. “Even at a boutique imprint” at a major publisher, Grau said, “your belief in the book could only go so far.”
Books remain the center of Grau and Spiegel’s business and are distributed by Ingram’s Two Rivers. But in addition to S&G’s partnership with Lemonada, it signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios that gives the e-tail giant’s production arm “ready access” to S&G titles for adaptation.
The success of the first book published by the revived imprint, Fox and I by Catherine Raven, has given Grau and Spiegel a confidence boost. “Fox and I is a good example of a book that would have been considered very quiet in our old world—a book about the friendship between a lone woman in Montana and a wild fox,” Spiegel said. “We made it a New York Times bestseller, and we sold the film rights, and it’s won awards. That felt like proof of concept to us.”
Not that there aren’t challenges or risks in being on your own. Among the biggest is stability: as a newly independent publisher, Spiegel & Grau doesn’t yet have a backlist in place to, as Grau put it, “buffer you from the vicissitudes of frontlist publishing.” But that’s where confidence in each other comes into play.
“At Riverhead, and at Spiegel & Grau, we built these really amazing backlists,” Grau said. “We had the confidence, having done that together twice before—we both have books from those eras, and before, that are still pillars for our former companies’ backlists. That’s part of what we’re wagering here: that we know what it takes. That’s how we’re building our company, too.”