Hayden's Ferry Review


An Interview with Graywolf Press

It's Small Press Month at HFR!

Throughout March, we'll be showcasing interviews with some of our favorite independent presses. It's our way of celebrating the craft of publishing and their imperative contributions to bridge the writer to reader gap. Here's our first homage: to Graywolf. Enjoy!

What makes your press different from other publishers?

Graywolf Press occupies a unique place in the publishing world, as it is larger than many small presses, but still smaller (by far) than the larger New York houses. We feel that this allows us to publish work that we deeply care about from a range of authors, both emerging and established. Robert Boswell is an example of an established author that has left a bigger publisher to work with Graywolf, in part because of the attentiveness and thoroughness that are standard values here. At the same time, we are dedicated to publishing new voices, such as Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape a Leper Colony, which we will publish in March 2010.

We also pride ourselves on the attention we give to each book. Because we publish a limited number of books each year, all of them are given full editorial and marketing support. We believe that to truly publish a book, you can’t just print it and send it out, but that you need to nurture it, from start to finish. This can involve intense rounds of editorial work and revision on the author’s behalf, and marketing that is tailored to the book and its strengths. We’re also a nonprofit organization, which means that key funding comes from both individual donors and foundations.

What’s a recent book you’re excited about?

Well, the short answer is that we’re excited about all our books, or we wouldn’t publish them. That said, we’re particularly happy about Stephen Elliot’s The Adderall Diaries; Robert Boswell’s The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards; and Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, to name just a few titles we published in the past year. We are also thrilled that three of our books were named NBCC Award finalists this year: Notes from No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss; Close Calls with Nonsense, by Stephen Burt; and Chronic, by D. A. Powell.

What advice do you have for emerging writers looking to be published by a small press? What is it about a work that makes you want to publish it?

It’s important for writers to hone their craft, and seeking publication in literary magazines and journals is a good way to do that, as the act of submitting work drives you to revise and rewrite until, by the act of doing, you become a better writer. Familiarizing yourself with our list by reading Graywolf books is a great way to make sure you are sending your work to the right place. Professionalism—as evidenced by following submission guidelines, sending cover letters, and proofing your work for spelling and grammar errors before submitting—is a must if you want to be taken seriously. But no matter what publications or credentials you have, it all comes down to the work.

We’re always looking for singular, character-driven work that has an engaging voice and a sense of absolute authority. We aim to publish fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that you just can’t find anywhere else, whether because of its innovation, originality, or freshness of voice or form. We’re looking for writers whose work just grabs us and won’t let go. Again, you can get a great sense of what we’re looking for by reading some of our recently published books.

What prompted the founding of the press?

The press was founded in 1974 by Scott Walker in Port Townsend, Washington. He started out publishing letterpress editions of poetry. 35 years later, Graywolf Press has grown into an independent press that publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

It seems like with large publishers in financial straits, the small presses are getting more attention. So we ask: what has your press done to grow? Do you see further growth?

Our growth areas are tied in some ways to the downturn at larger publishers, though we certainly have our own successful goals and initiatives. Graywolf Press partners with a number of organizations in support of prizes such as the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which supports the work of African American poets; the Robert Fagles Translation Prize, which supports poetry in translation; and recently, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless prizes in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. These partnerships allow us to expand the depth of our list by welcoming work that we might not otherwise find. Our editors also travel to international book fairs, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, to seek out work in translation that might be right for the press. In addition we are actively soliciting work, reading widely, and building relationships with authors in a variety of ways. We expect continued growth, and will continue to foster relationships with authors who may at some point consider the plusses of working with Graywolf Press, rather than just the size of the advance tendered.

How big can a press be and still be considered small?

That’s a tricky question. With ten staff members and an output of about twenty-seven titles a year, we’re no longer a fly-by-night operation, but we consider ourselves a small press. Being a small press has as much to do with an aesthetic as it does size. Certainly being independent is crucial, as it allows you to take risks that larger, numbers-driven publishers won’t. Small presses have always aimed to give an outlet for work that big publishers won’t take a chance on, and today that is just as true. Poetry, story collections, and mid-list authors all get squeezed when they don’t sell, and that’s where we step in. A book can sell in smaller quantities than large publishers require and still be a success for us. In the end, regardless of size, if a press is doing the good work of producing literature that otherwise wouldn’t have a home then it should wear the small/independent press label proudly.

What is your relationship with small magazines/journals?

We subscribe to a number of literary magazines. All of our editors read widely in the hope of finding work that resonates with them. Often, an editor will ask to see more work from an author on the basis of work they have read in a magazine or journal. Though we don’t have particular ties to any organization, we feel that the work being done by literary magazines is an essential part of the publishing process. At the best journals, authors receive the chance to work with an editor before publication, though of course this isn’t true everywhere.