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Three Articles on Three Great Indie Presses: Graywolf, Coffee House, Europa

Yesterday I posted a little summary on two great translators, so it’s only appropriate that today I post about three great pieces that have come out about three of my favorite presses over the past few days.

First up was this Vulture piece by Three Percent favorite Boris Kachka (BORIS!!) on Graywolf Press. There’s a lot of great things in this article about how the press has exploded over the past decade, going from a modest-sized nonprofit to one of the most notable and beloved presses in the country.

Graywolf has been winning for a while. Over the past few years, as publishing conglomerates merged, restructured, and grappled with Amazon, a midwestern press snuck in and found a genuinely new way forward for nonfiction. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams entered the Times best-seller list at No. 11, while Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a half-versified meditation on racism, stormed post-Ferguson America. Each has sold more than 60,000 copies, putting them in Graywolf’s all-time top five. Citizen just went back to press for a tenth time, putting it close to having 100,000 copies in print. That hardly puts Graywolf in league with Penguin Random House, but neither is it just a scrappy little press punching above its weight. It’s a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the “lyric essay” into a major cultural force. [. . .]

In 1999, McCrae won a $1 million grant by promising to take Graywolf to “yet another level.” A couple of years later, they raised another $1 million with a detailed capital plan: a grant for work in translation; a fund to increase author advances; a budget for travel to global book fairs; a New York city outpost; a “national council” of fund-raisers; and the Literary Nonfiction Prize that would launch Biss and Jamison. Just as important, Graywolf switched its distribution to prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “That signaled something,” says Jeff Shotts, Graywolf’s executive editor. “It put our books in the same conversation with Seamus Heaney.”

Graywolf reached its fund-raising goals, and just as McCrae was beginning to get impatient — “I remember thinking, Where’s the big hit?” — Graywolf’s initiatives came together to help create one: Per Petterson’s 2007 best-seller Out Stealing Horses. Acquired and promoted via Graywolf’s new global connections, listed beside giants in FSG’s catalogues, and hand-delivered on a visit to the New York Times, the Norwegian novel won the IMPAC Dublin award, scored a Times Book Review cover, and sold 70,000 copies in hardcover. Petterson has spurned corporate advances to remain with Graywolf ever since.

A million dollar grant! That’s one way to move up a level. (If any wealthy patrons are reading this, that’s exactly the sort of money Open Letter could use . . .)

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Just down the road from Graywolf is Coffee House Press, another favorite of mine (EVERYONE SHOULD READ VALERIA LUISELLI), who was featured on Minnesota Public Radio yesterday:

“What we really do is connect readers and writers, and there’s a number of different ways we can do that. Publishing is a tool that we can use, but so are different kinds of programming,” said Chris Fishbach.

Coffee House, of course, still prints books. The small, independent press usually releases 18 titles in a year, including fiction, poetry and essays. But it has also started “putting writers in other contexts.”

Most people think of writers working alone at their desks, or speaking into a microphone at a reading, but Coffee House has created a residence program to put writers in new places, like libraries or even on a canoe.

Also, while we’re talking about fundraising, Coffee House is hosting a Housequake event on September 21st at the Fulton Tap Room in Minneapolis. And even if you can’t make it, you can buy an Unticket, which, for only $22.09 (weird fee rate) will get you “an exclusive chapbook of poems that you’ll be the first reader for—they’re all previously unpublished.” AND your money will go to support some of the best people in the nonprofit publishing world.

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We haven’t done anything with #FerranteFever yet—although I have been talking about her rise to superstardom in my publishing class—but we probably will at some point. (I’m really behind on these books, having only read volume one.) In the meantime, you have to check out this article from the New York Times Style Magazine about Europa’s Objects of Desire:

Even if you haven’t heard of Europa Editions, you’ve probably heard of some of its hits. There’s Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (more than a million copies sold); Jane Gardam’s Old Filth (now in its 20th printing); and Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing (so far, the biggest title by an American). Like any good branded product, the books have an instantly recognizable visual stamp: stiff paper covers edged with white borders that frame color-drenched matte backgrounds. According to Europa’s Australian-born editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, “When you see them all together, they draw you in like a bowl of candy.” [. . .]

But what really distinguishes Europa from other publishers of successful titles is that readers — and book buyers — see the house and its authors as equally relevant. Early in 2006, when Europa Editions had been in existence for less than a year, Toby Cox, the owner of Three Lives & Company bookstore in Manhattan’s West Village, noticed that customers were already coming in and asking “What’s new from Europa?” The press had succeeded in transforming spinach into chocolate — that is, in changing the idea of foreign fiction from “ ‘This is a translation’ to ‘This is a good story, well told,’ ” Cox says.

Of course, many eminent houses have published fine paperback fiction with éclat before Europa — notably, Penguin and Vintage — and Reynolds praises the “iconic imprints” New Directions, City Lights and Archipelago, which also specialize in writers from abroad. “I’m proud of the fact that we do work that is literary,” he says. “But I am even prouder of the fact we are doing works that are entertaining and pleasing.”

All three of these presses deserve praise like this on a regular basis. (Along with some others, such as New Directions, Archipelago, Deep Vellum, etc.) Congrats to all three! Now go out and read some of their books!



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