First lady Michelle Obama (right) watches as her husband Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States during inauguration ceremonies held Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009, in Washington, D.C. At the inauguration, poet Elizabeth Alexander recited “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration,” which will be released by small Minnesota-based publisher Graywolf Press as a 32-page, $8 paperback on Feb. 6. (AP photo)
ST. PAUL, Minn. — For a publishing company that considered it a big success to sell 2,500 copies of an anthology of contemporary European poetry, it was a new experience to get urgent calls from the Barnes & Noble corporate purchasing department.
That’s what happened at Graywolf Press when Barack Obama picked poet Elizabeth Alexander, a Graywolf author since 2001, to recite a poem at his inauguration — putting her in such hallowed company as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.
The St. Paul-based publisher is printing 100,000 copies of Alexander’s inaugural poem, by far the biggest run in its 35-year history.
The recognition for Alexander is the latest in a string of good fortune for Graywolf. In the last two years, the tiny nonprofit publisher of literary fiction, poetry and essays helped launch Norwegian writer Per Petterson to U.S. literary stardom on the strength of his novel, “Out Stealing Horses,” and guided first-time novelist Salvatore Scibona to a National Book Award nomination.
“By the day, it’s getting harder and harder to do what they do,” said Alexander, also a professor of African American studies at Yale University. “They’re building the most important, interesting and rich poetry list of any press anywhere. They’re putting out more literary fiction, not less. They’re small, but they keep finding ways to step it up.”
Graywolf’s modest headquarters, located at the rear of a crumbling, aged office building just east of St. Paul’s border with Minneapolis, have little in common with the glitzy world of New York publishing. But at a time when the big houses are making major layoffs because of the economy and struggling to envision the future of books in a digital era, Graywolf Press is looking at expanding its yearly output and adding more established writers to its roster.
“Obviously, you can’t plan to have one of your poets picked to read at the inauguration,” said Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s director since 1994. “There’s a sense in which, I feel, we’ve created opportunities that will make more good luck come along.”
Graywolf will probably never be able to compete with the seven-figure advances still dangled regularly by the big publishers looking to put out the next runaway bestseller. But its recent achievements bolster one of its main selling points to writers looking for discriminating readers: Cachet.
“If there’s one thing they’ve done, it’s to have built an expectation that when a new book comes out from Graywolf, it’s going to be a good book,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, director of the New York City-based Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.
Graywolf was nonprofit from the beginning, with its founders aspiring to carve out a place for good literature not as likely to be valued by the marketplace.
In 1986, co-founder Scott Walker moved Graywolf from the Washington town of Irondale to the Twin Cities. He was mainly attracted by the local reputation for strong foundational and corporate support of the arts — the grants and donations that are still Graywolf’s lifeblood. In 2004, the company achieved a goal of raising $1 million, money that beefed up author advances and enhanced marketing efforts.
Still, Graywolf can’t compete with the advances that the big publishers offer to established or well-regarded writers. McCrae said a typical Graywolf author will probably get an advance somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000, compared to the six-figure sums regularly handed out by its bigger competitors.
What Graywolf’s staff of nine does try to offer is personal attention to writers and their work, and marketing aimed at getting the books into the hands of selective readers.
“The business model of big houses relies on publishing a lot more books than they can pay attention to,” said Scibona, whose novel “The End,” a story of Italian immigrants in 1950s Cleveland, scored the National Book Award nomination. “They’ll drop 50 literary books into the open ocean and throw a party if one of them floats.”
That was Per Petterson’s experience. A bestseller in his native Norway whose novel “In the Wake” was published in the U.S. in 2006 to little notice, Petterson afterward had trouble finding an American publisher for his other novels. Then Graywolf snatched up “Out Stealing Horses,” the intense tale of an elderly Norwegian man recalling his turbulent youth.
“It is not as if the literary community just by chance picks up a book and says, ‘Hey, here is a book from Norway, it HAS to be interesting,’ Petterson wrote in an e-mail. “Perhaps it’s the enormous enthusiasm the people at Graywolf show, and the guts.”
Graywolf kept pushing “Out Stealing Horses” to reviewers and independent bookstores, and it paid off: The New York Times Book Review named it one of the five best novels of 2007, and it has sold more than 200,000 copies. As McCrae looks at the challenges facing big publishers, she sees opportunities for Graywolf.
“There’s going to be more writers looking for a home,” McCrae said. “And it feels like every chapter of our success is a new platform to launch from.”