I did some research into independent presses and after sorting through the results I realized I had encountered books by this press (Graywolf). Specifically Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine which had recently popped up on the “Suggested For [Me]” section on Amazon. I did some more research and found that, to my surprise, I also had first hand experience with some of their authors (most notably John D’Agata). So lets talk about the Graywolf in the room.
Graywolf is a Non-Profit organization dedicated to literary books that will have a lasting impact. They want to produce literature that will backlist, and backlist well. Their goal is to publish modern classics, and on their website they go out of their way to distance themselves from larger publishers (they publish around 25 books per year) with more of an emphasis in profits than literary prestige. Many Graywolf books have been nominated, or won awards, and Graywolf even hosts their own literary contests. The most recent of these awards is 3 Sections by Vijay Sephardi, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2014.
The press itself is incredibly small with roughly 14 people on staff, and around 6 unpaid interns in the areas of development, editing, marketing, and publicity. This is dwarfed by the near 70 members of the various boards and councils that run the non-profit organization. While it is a non-profit that was founded, in part, through the National Endowment for the Arts fund, 66% of their profits come from book sales. That’s no small feat for an independent press in today’s market. Their books are so widely published, that they are actually distributed by a larger corporation: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a subsidiary of Macmillan Publishing, which is in turn a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group (one of the big five).
The market of Graywolf is people who are interested in literary books. Their books often win contests and awards and much of their sales come through this, as well as smaller publicity efforts such as books tours and trade shows. They also publish an easily accessible PDF of their backlisted titles, a subtle encouragement to purchase their older books.
I believe the greatest challenges for a publisher such as Graywolf is in sourcing material which fits its goal of diverse modern literature when one attempts to answer the question, “What is both literary and significant?” In this writer’s opinion the same argument against this goal is the argument James Cameron made when discussing the Oscars:
There have been a few times throughout the history of the Oscars where a wildly popular film was well-received, but your typical year the Academy takes the position of: “It is our patrician duty to tell the great unwashed what they should be watching,” and they don’t reward the films that people really want to see—that they’re paying money to go see—and they’re telling them, “Yeah, you think you like that, but what you should be liking is this.”
Cameron is arguing that perhaps the best films are not the ones chosen by the Academy, but the ones chosen by the people that consume them. In the same way I would argue that art which resonates at the hearts of the masses is potentially more noteworthy than art carefully selected by a panel of literature academics. However, Graywolf in all of its beautiful uniqueness, has had tremendous success with both critical and popular acclaim (If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland has sold over 280,000 copies). An inspiring thought for a young writer pondering, or perhaps attempting to tow the line, between works that have literary merit, yet also appeal to a broad audience through entertainment. Because, in my opinion, the best art entertains and informs in equal strides; a characteristic which Graywolf seems to embrace, though they would be reluctant to admit it.