Graywolf is turning readers into donors

Books from Graywolf
Graywolf Press is one of three top non-profit literary presses based in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Most publishing houses really don't need your financial support. The Harper Collinses of the world are in the business to make a profit, and they do a very good job of it by putting out the latest diet fad cookbooks, sudoku puzzles and paperback romances.

But literary publishers like Graywolf Press are non-profits. They tend to publish a book because they believe it needs to be read, not because they think it will make money. These small houses publish most of the poetry and foreign literature in translation on bookstore shelves.

Fiona McCrae
Fiona McCrae, publisher and director of Graywolf Press.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Graywolf Director and Publisher Fiona McCrae says running such a press requires extra financial support. "We've always had quite good foundation support from those foundations that support literature," she says. "But we haven't been so strong on the individual side and that's quite characteristic for non-profit publishers, because you don't have such a strong direct connection to your audience as you do if you are an art gallery or a theater."

With a grant from the Bush Foundation, Graywolf launched an outreach effort to strengthen its connection to readers. It invited in local philanthropists known for their generosity to the other arts, introduced them to the world of non-profit publishing and asked for their support. Three years later, Graywolf has managed to raise $1 million for what it calls its "Advance Fund." Individual donors gave most of the money. Unlike many arts organizations, Graywolf has not let the money just sit there and earn interest. While it only just reached its $1 million goal, Graywolf started spending the money back in 2004.

"A million-dollar endowment doesn't yield very much," says McCrae. "We thought if we could invest a million into our own books, that would create a backlist that's sort of our own literary creative endowment. 'Backlist' meaning books that you aren't currently publishing but that you have published and are still selling."

This year Graywolf is reprinting twice as many books as the year before. Sales have increased by 18 percent since 2004. McCrae says the Advance Fund made all of that possible. Graywolf has used the money to offer more competitive contracts to authors, travel farther afield to find new voices, create a new prize for nonfiction, and open an office in New York. McCrae says Graywolf is growing, not so much in its size, but in its vision.

Writer Charles Baxter first started working with Graywolf in the late 1980s. It published his book "Burning Down the House," a popular collection of essays on fiction writing. The Graywolf Advance Fund is paying for Baxter to edit a new series of books on the art of writing, aimed at fueling the creativity of a new generation of authors.

"In a society like ours in which commercial values often are at the forefront of our considerations," says Baxter, "it's always good news when a press like Graywolf gets a fair amount of money to take some chances, to look a little further along the horizon for quality work and to bring the reader material that will inspire and interest and challenge."

What Graywolf has accomplished in raising this money is both unusual and important, according to Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York City. Lependorf doesn't know of another publishing house that's sought to develop a relationship with its readers with a goal of creating a larger pool of donors.

Lependorf says foundation support for literature is both dwindling and inconsistent, so he's pleased to see Graywolf attain its goal. "It proves that there is real support for literature for really great writing," says Lependorf. "And it also means that readers are learning more and understanding that they need to play an active role in their cultural landscape."

Lependorf says he hopes the news of Graywolf's success will not only send a message to other presses looking for new sources of money, but also encourage more philanthropists to get involved in supporting literature.

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