The publisher of Graywolf on her rise from secretarial work to running a non-profit press, the pleasure of finding books others have overlooked, and the moments when great art breaks out.
Image by Erin Smith Photography
Graywolf Press is celebrating its fortieth year of publishing celebrated books and authors, and for the last twenty, publisher Fiona McCrae has been running the show. Hers is a coveted, high-profile position, but she’s seen the industry from all angles. She started out at Faber & Faber in London, doing secretarial work for male editors who didn’t know how to type. “I realize now,” she says, “that it was a far more male-dominated environment than I really understood at the time. There was only one female director in the older generation, and she was given cookbooks…”
When McCrae eventually moved to America and found her way to Graywolf, she was arriving at a publisher with modest beginnings that mirrored her own. Graywolf’s first publications, back in 1974, were limited-edition chapbooks of poetry, lovingly printed on a letterpress and hand-sewn by the company’s founder, Scott Walker. Since then, the publisher’s list has slowly expanded to include short stories, memoirs, essays, and hybrid works. As a non-profit literary press, it continues to rely on donations and grants from those who value risky writing, but its recent growth seems largely attributable to good editorial instincts on the part of McCrae and her staff. This is the press that has made national bestsellers out of literary novels-in-translation that no one else wanted to go near, like Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It’s the publisher that recently championed bracing new American fiction by the likes of Fiona Maazel, and a lauded, unsettling essay collection by Leslie Jamison. It has also brought us great, strange work from across the Atlantic, like that of IMPAC-winning Irish author Kevin Barry. At the same time, Graywolf has managed to stay true to its roots, publishing poetry collections that have gone on to win a stash of major awards. In the last few years alone, its poets have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Tomas Tranströmer in 2011), the Pulitzer Prize (Tracy K. Smith in 2012), the National Book Award (Mary Szybist in 2013), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (D. A. Powell in 2013). Yesterday it was announced that another Graywolf poet, Vijay Seshadri, had won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
I met McCrae on a cold morning in midtown Manhattan. She was talkative, engaging, with a somewhat mischievous sense of humor, and she was reluctant to succumb to the gloomy predictions that sometimes afflict her industry. “For every big breakout book there are people who say that kind of thing will never happen again,” she said. “And then it happens again.”
—Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: How did you find your way into the publishing industry?
Fiona McCrae: Typing skills acquired on my way to becoming a teacher got me my first job in publishing, which lasted eight months before I ended up in the editorial department at Faber & Faber in London. That changed my life. At that time, publishing had gone through a round of convulsions and many people told me, “Things should be pretty stable from here on in.” Of course, through my whole career since then, nothing has ever been stable. It’s been change after change after change, though I have been very fortunate to work at independent houses always.
Guernica: What was Faber & Faber like in the 1980s?
Fiona McCrae: The financial health of Faber & Faber in London was helped at that time by the success of the musical Cats. T.S. Eliot had been published by Faber, of course, and he’d also worked there. The fact that the musical was based on a collection of poems Eliot had written meant we had some good revenue coming in. Faber was able to take risks on new writers, and to avoid being taken over by a larger publishing house. It was a very exciting period.
I was doing secretarial work for four editors across the company; none of them could type. They were working on the fiction, drama, poetry, and art lists. Postcards would come in from Beckett, or letters from William Golding and Tom Stoppard. I was in heaven. Then I worked for Robert McCrum, who was young, under thirty, but already the editorial director. He was publishing more books than the four editors combined. He brought Peter Carey, Milan Kundera, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jayne Anne Phillips, and many others to Faber. I learned a ton, of course, but I realize now that it was a far more male-dominated environment than I really understood at the time. There was only one female director in the older generation, and she was given cookbooks, the women crime writers [including P. D. James] and personnel. Frances Coady joined Faber a year before I did, and she was the first woman to shoot up the ranks with any kind of alacrity. I progressed in stages—editorial assistant, assistant editor, junior editor, senior editor. And as a senior editor, I acquired books myself.
Guernica: Eventually you moved to the U.S. with Faber?
Fiona McCrae: Yes, Faber and Faber, Inc., in the U.S. was growing in prominence at that time, and I was asked to join and to help the team in Boston to build up their list of American writers. Straight away, I enjoyed being at a small press in America. There was a vibrant literary scene in Boston, with many literary magazines like Ploughshares, AGNI, and the Harvard Review being very active hosting readings and launch parties, etc. Seamus Heaney was at Harvard at that time and was very connected to the poetry community. At events, I found myself talking with equal delight to Seamus one minute and an emerging experimental poet the next.
It also struck me that the larger U.S. houses weren’t taking on books that they thought would not sell over several thousand copies.
Guernica: And you saw this as an opportunity.
Fiona McCrae: Absolutely. Publishing is full of generalizations, but a lot of the larger houses really wouldn’t buy a book if they didn’t think they’d sell at least 15,000 copies of it. So there were are all of these interesting, challenging manuscripts that small presses could and still do pick up over here in the U.S. At a small press you could sometimes sell 5,000 copies of a given literary book, which can be enough to get you in the black if you’re paying a modest advance. And you believe in the work and hope it might break out in some way—winning a prize, for example; finding a wider audience. The small non-profit publishing scene was very vibrant. There were exciting books to champion. Still are.
Guernica: How long did you stay at Faber, Inc., in the U.S.?
Fiona McCrae: About three and a half years. I have very fond memories of my time in Boston.
One of the things I wanted to do at Faber, Inc., was to start publishing poetry. I’d been in touch with Graywolf Press around this time—with Scott Walker, its co-founder—because I was interested in how they were making a go of selling poetry to U.S. audiences. Also, when I was in London, I used to look at Graywolf’s catalogue a lot, searching for books that were coming out in America that we might consider for the British market. I admired the list from afar.
When Scott left Graywolf, someone persuaded me to apply for his job as publisher. My first reaction was that I would be ready for that job in two years, but I sent in my application, and the rest is history.
Guernica: Do you remember what you hoped to achieve with Graywolf at the outset, and how that began to change when you began actually doing the job?
Fiona McCrae: I remember being quite self-conscious at the outset about taking too many Faber authors with me to Graywolf Press. I’d published Andre Dubus III at Faber and I remember hearing that he had a new novel that was doing the rounds. I didn’t follow up on that because I thought I should find new writers. That book turned out to be House of Sand and Fog…
Fiona McCrae: Yes [laughs]. Which isn’t to say that if Graywolf had published it, it would have been as hugely successful for us as it was for Norton.
On the poetry side, when I started at Graywolf I remember having three manuscripts laid out on my desk—one by Carl Philips, one by Eamon Grennan, and one by Vijay Seshadri. I was trying to work out which of these three we should accept for publication, and I remember thinking, “Well, they’re all good.” So we published all three poetry collections—and they’re still in print! A few years later, Jeff Shotts joined Graywolf and he soon took over the poetry list entirely. But he’s been kind enough to let me stay involved. Poetry is where Graywolf Press started, and I’ve always thought there was a logic to that: starting with the most intense, concentrated form of literature and working out from there.
I was overly affected as a child by fairy stories where the bronze casket turns out to be the winner, not the gold.
Guernica: I saw you speak at an event last night at the offices of the literary journal A Public Space—where, as you know, I work—and you were addressing a crowd of emerging writers. You talked about Graywolf publishing “against the tide”—finding work that other houses might overlook or might not think would work. How much of that is out of necessity, and how much is by design?
Fiona McCrae: I think it’s both. The two drive each other. My nature is much more attracted to against-the-tide books. For example, at Graywolf, if I hear that there is another offer on a manuscript, it generally makes me less interested, not more. I do not feel competitive in that way, so I don’t believe that the fact someone else wants to publish a piece of writing makes that piece of writing good. I think I was overly affected as a child by fairy stories where the bronze casket turns out to be the winner, not the gold. With a Graywolf author like Per Petterson things have happened for him in a wonderfully organic way—he’s become a big name for all the right reasons, from quite modest beginnings. When publishers spend a huge amount of money on a book up front, they start from the position that it has to work, or else, and that can drain the pleasure from the experience and make everyone overly tense, and certain successes are deemed insufficient in some way.
Guernica: You publish a book like Out Stealing Horses with pretty modest expectations of sales, and then when it wins the IMPAC things grow from there, naturally. That’s your preferred route to success.
Fiona McCrae: Yes. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in the publishing industry in loving those “sleeper” stories. I prefer them to the stories of splashy advances. At Graywolf, I prefer knowing we were the only ones who offered on a book, who saw it might work.
Of course, I don’t mean that everyone we publish would stand no chance at another publishing house. But we like to make the right offer on a book, and to make that offer to an author who really does connect with Graywolf. With Out Stealing Horses, we bought that for a fairly modest advance when a number of publishers over here [in New York] had turned it down. And then unexpected things started to happen.
Guernica: What was the first unexpected thing?
Fiona McCrae: Well, early on Amy Tan phoned up out of the blue to offer a blurb that we hadn’t asked her for. That never happens. And then the book was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, then shortlisted, and finally, incredibly, it won. And then the same for the IMPAC, which was announced one week before [it appeared] on the front page of the
Another example. I remember us publishing Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, and then in 2011 publishing her new collection Life On Mars. We thought she deserved to win something that year, but then the National Book Awards came and went. Nothing. Later in the year I was at the National Book Critics Circle Awards announcements. Nothing. Then I was in London for the London Book Fair in April, out with three friends who’d studied English literature with me at university, and a text came through saying: “Tracy K. Smith has won the Pulitzer Prize.” That was great fun—to see that happen to someone [for whom] you’ve published over three books.
Publishing Kazuo Ishiguro was like that in England. Faber published his first work in an anthology, and then his first two novels before The Remains of the Day, which of course won the Booker Prize.
It’s not our job, as a small non-profit publisher, to come between an author and a big advance.
Guernica: What about those difficult moments where you do well with an author’s book, and then they cash in by leaving for a bigger publishing house?
Fiona McCrae: It happens, of course, but sometimes an author just needs more money than we can offer. There’s no point wringing your hands over that. It’s not our job, as a small non-profit publisher, to come between an author and a big advance. In fact, it goes with the territory at any-sized publishing house. People leave Penguin. People leave Knopf. The nice thing, when authors don’t leave, is that all the books stay under one roof, and the continuity can be very productive. Per Peterson has always remembered that we took him on when others didn’t want to publish him. And after the huge success of Out Stealing Horses, there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to stay with Graywolf. We paid more for his next book, of course, but he could have got a bigger advance by switching publishers. He chose to stay. And we took on Kevin Barry in a two-book deal, so were able to publish his short-story collection after he too got the front cover of the New York Times Book Review and went on to win the IMPAC.
Guernica: How have e-books changed your business model at Graywolf? What are the considerations at play for a small independent publisher?
Fiona McCrae: E-books have provided new opportunities, but they have negatively impacted paperback sales, which in turn affects the rights situation. Paperback houses now understandably want e-book rights included in any deal, and we feel we can publish the e-books just as well as them. In the case of print paperbacks, we sometimes had to say: “Well, we’re smaller, we have less cash for printing and managing and shipping this vast number of paperbacks, it’s going to be better to sell our rights to a larger house.” With the paperback of Out Stealing Horses, we sold the rights to Picador, which rightly printed hundreds of thousands of copies. There’s a cost to that, and a risk, and we were probably too small to take that risk. I think with the advent of e-books, the age of selling paperback rights might be over. When Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane got the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, we held on to the paperback rights.
Guernica: Graywolf has been growing for a few years now. What are the risks associated with that?
Fiona McCrae: One of the problems with the kind of surge we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the last few years—with high sales, a lot of reviews and award attention—is that our list is filling up faster than it used to. As well as re-publishing our existing authors, we need to make sure that we still have room to take on new voices—to publish debut fiction and be alert to other foreign books out there that haven’t yet had a chance in the U.S. The Graywolf Press Non-Fiction Prize is partly about that—discovering new talent. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is the latest winner. Essay writing is a really interesting area for us right now. From our beginnings in poetry, there are now all these different Graywolfs out there. There’s been a blossoming across all the genres we publish, and the next five years for us will be about managing growth.
Guernica: As Graywolf grows, are the advances you pay authors growing?
Fiona McCrae: They have gone up, definitely. We raised some money to help us increase advances and to be competitive, though you have to bear in mind we’re still a relatively small non-profit publisher. We’re just in the middle of another campaign to raise more funds nationwide so that we can continue to keep our advances to authors at the level they are now. We’re appealing to people who understand the value that an independent publisher has in the literary culture.
Our books enrich the people who read them. All good books do.
Guernica: Do independent publishing houses like you, Norton, Coffee House, Grove, and so on fulfill an even more important role in the culture now, in 2014, when supposedly the five biggest corporate houses publish 80 percent of the books in America?
Fiona McCrae: I think so. The value of independent presses like us is about what the books themselves can add to the culture. It’s very simple. A person who lived their whole life without reading a Graywolf book wouldn’t keel over and die. But they’d be impoverished in some way, I think. Our books enrich the people who read them. All good books do. I really believe that. And I think a culture has a responsibility to nurture its talent. Simply through encouragement and editorial support, independent publishers like us can do a lot in that regard.
Any day of the week you can see that the big publishers are publishing some great books. I’m not looking to bash the bigger publishers, which are full of good editors and good books. But I think sometimes the context they’re working in involves the wrong kind of economic stress—or at least, a focus on economics and commerce that is not always conducive to interesting literary dialogue, or finding the new things that are happening at the edges of the literary culture. A very big publisher is unlikely to publish poetry unless the poets have already proven themselves—made it. And they are unlikely to go anywhere near essays, or hybrid books that fall between genres or play with conventions. Translation. Short stories. Criticism. We’re able to publish all these things, but someone who is required to hit X financial target each year is unlikely to go anywhere near those areas of literature.
Guernica: The bigger conglomerate publishers are more drawn to the safe middle ground, in your view?
Fiona McCrae: Well, they’re drawn to safety in one respect, and not in others. A big publisher might pay $2 million for a debut novel—we’ve all read those articles recently. That’s its own kind of risk-taking. On one level, there’s comparatively little risk for me publishing an essay collection that might only sell 5,000 copies, provided I don’t overpay on the advance.
Big publishers and small publishers work with different kinds of risk, and often with different kinds of authors. At a large U.S. publisher, an author who has sold ten or fifteen thousand copies is not going to be a priority. At a smaller, independent publisher, that author might be something of a star—a success—and they might thrive in that context. Their publicist might throw a huge amount of work behind building their career further, and they might end up winning prizes, or getting some other big break. Equally, if your focus as an author is on selling 150,000 copies, you’d better not come to Graywolf. I’d love to sell 150,000 copies of your book, and I don’t think it’s beyond us, but we’re not set up, really, for that scale of activity on a regular basis—we can’t give you a thirty-city tour, a big print advertising campaign. That’s not what we’re about, in the same way that big publishers aren’t always about nurturing these unique books that aren’t easily categorized, but nonetheless deserve to find readers.
Guernica: Did you read George Packer’s piece on Amazon in The New Yorker?
Fiona McCrae: I did. I agreed with almost everything he said.
Guernica: It was a terrifying article, no?
Fiona McCrae: That article perfectly describes this funny thing about publishing. My boss when I worked in London—someone who’d published Booker Prize winners, remember—used to say that two-thirds of publishing is about failure. I agree with that: it’s the nature of the business. And yet publishing is an industry that keeps attracting to it, in various ways, people who want it to be two-thirds about success.
If a book succeeds it always does so against the odds.
There are dozens of obstacles to any given book succeeding. If a book succeeds it always does so against the odds. The odds in one generation might relate to the fact that people would rather be watching television than reading your book. The odds in the next generation might be that they’d rather be on their computer than reading your book. Once it was that people would rather be riding a bicycle than reading your book. It doesn’t do any good to be talking, as an author or publisher, about the obstacles. There are better uses of energy, I think. Yes, we can all feel helpless and wary in this industry sometimes, but it’s better, as a publisher, to look at the ways in which e-books and Twitter and so on can help us reach new readers, rather than treating social media as an enemy to literature. At the event for emerging writers at A Public Space last night, we had a full house. How? By A Public Space and Graywolf posting about it on Facebook and Twitter. Not a single piece of paper was printed, but people came. And these were informed people—they knew who we were and what we publish. They were the appropriate audience. No one turned up to try and sell me something that does not fit our list. Through Twitter we reached exactly the right people—tuned into the right channel—within a few minutes.
Guernica: Is it a good time, then, to be an independent publisher?
Fiona McCrae: There’s evidence of buoyancy in the trade as magazines like A Public Space come into the picture and get read and grow. Brigid Hughes sent me one of her new discoveries a while ago—the Danish writer Dorthe Nors—and we published her story collection, Karate Chop, in partnership with A Public Space. Against the odds that book is doing very well. Dorthe became the first Danish author to be published in The New Yorker, Harper’s also took a story, and the reviews have been great. Meanwhile, The Paris Review gets reinvented, and other lively new players arrive, like Melville House and Tin House. For every big breakout book there are people who say that kind of thing will never happen again. And then it happens again.
There are opportunities out there now for small and medium-sized independent publishers like us, and there are opportunities for good authors, too. It’s hard, of course. But by pursuing and publishing good books, you can start to overcome the odds. It happens. Someone switches off their TV, or their computer, and they start to read a book you published. And sometimes they love what they read.