Book Publisher Graywolf Press Turns 40

Book Publisher Graywolf Press Turns 40

The Minneapolis-based literary publishing house has been winning every award in sight. But is it making money?

Graywolf Press has been on a roll. And we’re not talking about a run-of-the-mill roll, where an author maybe gets a segment with Kerri Miller of MPR. It’s winning national literary awards by the armful (see “Graywolf’s Winning Streak,” below), winning heaps of praise for its new slate of books, particularly The Empathy Exams, and generally being the talk of the town for the BookTV set. Yet publisher and editor-in-chief Fiona McCrae is still worried.

“I know it might seem from the outside that we’re riding high, but that’s not the case. Things are tight,” the British-born McCrae says from her North Loop office. “They’re always tight.”

A look through the nonprofit’s financial statements shows she’s right. Even after a period when it’s been flush with national acclaim, cash flow is still a problem. Its revenue model involves book sales, of course, but also nonprofit and private donor support. The past three years have shown a slight decrease in sales (see “Graywolf’s Revenue Trajectory,” below right), which caused McCrae, who has been at the helm since 1994, to make adjustments by cutting staff and holding the line on acquisitions.

But 2014 is off to a good start, thanks to the buzz generated by The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The book was released in April and debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at No. 11 in the paperback nonfiction category; it made No. 14 on the American Book Association’s indie bestseller list. It has already gone through five print runs, and a sixth print run of 10,000 copies has been scheduled, bringing total copies in print to 25,500.

Still, McCrae cautions her staff not to get too excited. She’s been down this path before, having a huge hit on her hands in 2007 with Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, which sold roughly 50,000 copies for Graywolf in hardcover (it sold the paperback rights to Picador, which went on to sell 200,000 copies). Graywolf followed a year later with Petterson’s To Beira, which has sold more than 20,000 copies. Those were flush times for Graywolf, and carried the press through a few heady years. But then came a downturn.

Graywolf by the Numbers

  • Publishes around 20 titles a year.
  • Receives 3,000 queries a year.
  • 20 percent of books from first-time authors.
  • 50 percent from unagented writers.

Graywolf’s Allocations

2013 Revenue

  • Book sales: 43 %
  • Fundraising campaign: 21 %
  • Grants: 20 %
  • Annual contributions: 12 %
  • Rights/permissions: 4 %

2013 Expenses

  • Cost of sales: 41 %
  • Marketing/publicity: 25 %
  • Editorial: 17 %
  • Development: 11 %
  • General/administration: 6 %

McCrae was prepared. Early in her career in London, a boss gave her some advice.

“He called it the swinging-door effect—when you take a median between sales figures. One year you go up from your median, the next you go down. You might be $200,000 off the line each time, but between one year and the next it’s actually $400,000, so you have to be ready and be willing to adjust,” she says.

One thing Graywolf does exceedingly well to hold steady when doors swing in the wrong direction is raise money. In 2006 it completed its Advance Fund campaign, through which it raised $1 million, primarily from individuals. This achievement was unprecedented in the field at the time. And it’s currently three-fourths of the way to a goal of $2 million in a new campaign. It has a very supportive community, which is fortunate considering how book prices are trending, due largely to downward pressure applied by Amazon.

As publisher, McCrae finds herself right-sizing her shop fairly regularly. Her shop currently employs 11, but that goes up and down. “We’re constantly pirouetting, pivoting, turning around,” she says, noting that the organization has embraced social media and is using e-book offerings and print-on-demand services to keep cost-per-unit prices low.

Last year, in the house’s mix of revenue, book sales accounted for 43 percent. McCrae would like to see that come up to 50 percent. To shore up its finances in the meantime, in 2013, Graywolf secured a revolving line of credit for $350,000, which was secured by all inventory, accounts, equipment and general intangibles of Graywolf.

And regardless of the financials, Graywolf’s peers are admiring.

“Graywolf has been on a really great run,” says Daniel Slager, editor-in-chief and publisher of the similarly sized Milkweed Editions. “Two Pulitzers in the last few year, National Book finalist, a lot of major awards. There’s no doubt that they’re taking a giant leap forward over the last five years. And they’ve had big success in raising money, no doubt about it. Fiona is very keen to compete with New York houses, and it shows.”

Graywolf does have a global ambition. It has a national council to help in New York and San Francisco, and it goes after big awards aggressively. Awards don’t necessarily mean flush sales, however, although the Pulitzer seems to juice the numbers (“That’s the one that most people have heard of,” McCrae says). But they’re always good things to show board members.

And fundraising is never far from McCrae’s thoughts.

“It’s always difficult to get fundraising off my plate, but I don’t mind doing it. I like doing a bit of editing, a bit of fundraising, a bit of looking at the budget. I like playing center,” she says.


Graywolf’s Winning Streak

2011 Tomas Tran-strömer, author of The Half-Finished Heaven, wins the Nobel Prize in literature.

2012 Tracy K. Smith wins the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Life on Mars.

2013 Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys by D.A. Powell wins the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Incarnadine by Mary Szybist wins the National Book Award for Poetry.

2014 Vijay Seshadri wins the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for 3 Sections.

Who Supports Graywolf Books

From the inside cover of Graywolf’s 2013 breakout book The Empathy Exams: “This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation,, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.”

How much The Empathy Exams Author received for an advance

Leslie Jamison is the author of one of the breakout books of the year in The Empathy Exams. Some reviews: “I’m not sure I’m capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person, but watching Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise,” said Dwight Garner of the New York Times. She was paid a $12,000 advance after being named the 2012 winner of the Graywolf Press nonfiction prize for her manuscript in progress for the book. Royalty terms were not disclosed, but industry standard for a house of Graywolf’s size is 8 percent of the retail price.