Fiona McCrae

Fiona McCrae is publisher of Graywolf, one of the most exciting nonprofit publishers in the US. She spoke to Thomas Roueché about her career, which took her from Faber & Faber in London in the 1980s to publishing luminaries like Maggie Owen and Claudia Rankine from the Twin Cities today.

Thomas Roueché You started out at Faber & Faber in London, and now you’re at Graywolf in Minnesota. I’d love to talk about your trajectory. I guess it was a great moment then?
Fiona McCraeIt was certainly a lively, interesting time in the 1980s with Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mario Vargas Llosa and Milan Kundera all relatively new on the scene. For some years I worked with Robert McCrum, who brought some of those authors to the list. There were, I don’t know, nine or 10 editors working there at that time, a few of which were general, doing fiction and nonfiction, but others were more specialised. There was an editor for poetry, medical books, children’s books, art books and drama. I believe it was a larger editorial department than they have now; some of the specialist lists – such as medical and art – have gone. For a while back then Pete Townshend was acting as an editor-at-large. He used to do editorial meetings, which was quite interesting. You know, he published his biography last year and in it he said that working for Faber was his favourite job. It was an exciting period, with some funds to experiment a bit, I believe. At that time, Faber had some indirect support coming through the royalties from T. S. Eliot’s Cats, so it was an opportune moment to invest in the growth of the list. There were some nice results, too, when I was there: Booker Prizes for Kazuo Ishiguro and Peter Carey, and William Golding won the Nobel Prize, all of which felt special and historic to me. In the early 1990s, before I joined Graywolf, I worked at the Faber office in the States. That was the stepping-stone to Graywolf, in a sense. Curiously, when I was at Faber in London, I used to pay attention to the Graywolf catalogue. 

TR And I suppose Graywolf were publishing interesting books but in smaller runs?
FM At Faber UK, as I remember it, one minute you’d publish something that had a 2,000 or 3,000 print run and then the next moment a book that required a 200,000 print run. When I got to America, it seemed to me that the larger houses had a cut-off point that they wouldn’t go below, and so there was a lot of material that fell under that radar of, say, a minimum of 15,000 copies. Publishers do sell less than that, but it’s not their intention. If they feel that it’s not going to sell above that, then they may shy away from publishing it. That leaves quite a lot of manuscripts that you could actually sell quite a lot of copies of – say, between 3,000 and 5,000 – and, as a small press, get into the black with. That gives you a nice range of material. That’s what drew me into the world of small-press publishing. We were based in Boston, and there weren’t very many similar presses to Faber there. But there were non-profit magazines like Ploughshares or AGNI, both of which are still going. I started to learn a bit more about Graywolf – it was nonprofit and that allowed it to take on poetry and literary books that might not get published by a larger house. That’s what attracted me to Graywolf. The nonprofit structure that provides the subsidy to do the kind of literary investing that I admired at Faber UK. Faber had the backlist to support it that Faber in America didn’t necessarily have at that time. 

TR So, it was really the backlist that was enabling that amazing moment?
FM Certainly in part, as I saw it. But there was another factor, too. I ran into an American publisher the other day who said that all great publishing in the 1980s was partly because we had the net book agreement in Britain, which meant that each book’s price was set by the publisher and books could not be discounted. This publisher argued that when that went, it changed British publishing. He was nostalgic for that golden age.  

TR Do you buy into that narrative of decline since then?
FM As far as I’m concerned, my career in publishing has always felt like living in a street that’s being bombed, but I’ve always been lucky not to be in a house that’s actually been hit. In the 1980s, there were a lot of independent houses that were not independent by the end of the decade. Jonathan Cape, Chatto and Windus, Bodley Head, all of them became part of Random House. And everyone was saying, “Oh, isn’t it terrible?” And then in the 1990s, along comes Bertelsmann, who bought Random House, and everyone goes, “Oh, poor Random House.” And now there’s Penguin Random! So, that tide has gone in the same direction always. It’s never the large house undoing itself and saying, “We’re now going to be six independent houses.” But there are newer, smaller presses coming up all the time. Also, in the 1980s we did end up publishing some books that were completely ignored, you know. It wasn’t as though every single book was a winner, but you could establish literary authors quickly in the UK market. I don’t know whether that still happens so much today. 

TR Is that something that was specific to the UK?
FM It felt like something that could happen in England better than in America, because it’s a smaller country and there are more national papers. But in America once something starts to take off, it’s like a snowball; it gets so big that it doesn’t stop. In England something could pop into the bestseller list and pop out again. The United States is more literary than some suppose. Many Americans automatically think that Europe is more glamorous and intellectual that the States and that Europe has more of a book culture than anywhere in America, but then you hear about how the short story is dying out in England because there’s nothing like the New Yorker there. We are lucky to have so many literary magazines in America that support the short story, for example. There are many, many nonprofit magazines that publish short stories, from the Paris Review to Ploughshares and AGNI and A Public Space

TR Is it fair to say that the internet has brought the global literary world closer together in some ways, but at the same time you become more aware of a gulf between literary cultures?
FM Yes. It’s fascinating. I was very struck just now at the London Book Fair how many people knew about our books, even though they had not been published in the UK. Even when they had been published in the UK, editors knew that the books started with us. Then just last week, a book, Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, got reviewed in the Guardian. It did not yet have a UK publisher, as the review pointed out. The Guardian also gave our book Citizen by Claudia Rankine a lot of coverage before it was published in the UK. That’s unusual.

TR Of course America has an amazing literary culture all across the country: GraywoIf is also interesting in being a prominent independent publisher that isn’t based in New York. 
FM Obviously, there’s a concentration of literary activity in New York. We try to go to New York quite often to meet authors, agents and other large literary organisations like the Poetry Society of America. But there are literary pockets all over, and we have an editor based in San Francisco, where there is also quite a lot of literary activity. Here, there’s Graywolf, Press, Coffee House Press and Milkweed Editions, all in the Twin Cities. There’s been a good tradition of funding literature, and of supporting presses in Minneapolis–Saint Paul and that’s helped all three of us to grow and take risks on work that doesn’t necessarily get taken by the larger houses. With the internet, we don’t feel as far away from things as we did when I got here in 1994. 

TR It’s amazing how that interconnection has changed people’s perceptions of what is out there.
FM I was talking to Paul Yamazaki, the legendary head book buyer at City Lights in San Francisco, and he thinks it’s a golden age now too, especially in terms of how much international and non-white literature is being published. If you look at what was being published in the 1980s it was probably fairly male-heavy, fairly white-heavy. But there’s more diversity in books now. In other good news, over the last couple of years, in the States anyway, the independent bookselling sector has rebounded somewhat. I’ve heard about a number of bookstores having their best years ever. We had one of our best years in 2015, too, so there are a lot of encouraging signs, even if we are swimming against the tide in general.  

TR Is there a problem in that there are all of these amazing independent presses who discover incredible writers who then get stolen by the big publishers? 
FM It does happen, of course. But, for example, before Citizen, with Claudia Rankine, we published Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which did very well. And Rankine came back with Citizen, and then Eula Biss came back for a second time for On Immunity after we published her successful Notes from No Man’s Land. We’ve just had Per Petterson here; he returned after getting very good sales for Out Stealing Horses. So, not everybody leaves! We also have some writers who’ve been published elsewhere first. For example, we publish Robert Boswell nowadays. He started out with Knopf, so it does go in both directions. Partly because of having worked at Faber London, I know this isn’t a phenomenon unique to small presses. Authors move away from publishers all the time – all publishers. Remember Charles Frazier who wrote Cold Mountain? Grove Atlantic published it. He won the National Book Award and the novel sold 4 million copies. And he left. It’s like, oh. Who could have done better than 4 million copies?  

TR Presumably, being a nonprofit gives you a lot of flexibility in that. It allows you not to sweat these things too much. 
FM We think about that. I’m not going to raise money from an individual so that I can beat someone else out of the marketplace. I think it’s a more compelling case to say, “We want your dollars because we’re going to publish these books that would otherwise be under the radar.” Either they’re not going to be well published by a larger house or they’re not going to be published at all by a larger house. But if a larger house comes along and says, “We can do this. We want to give this particular author a very high profile and publish it well,” then you don’t need a nonprofit to come along; there’s no rescue necessary. We’re trying to help writers and maybe when we’re first working with them they’re higher upstream, so to speak, and it’s our job to help them along. But once they’ve got to the ocean, then they’re out there, they’re known, and someone else takes them on. §

  • Fiona McCrae