FSG, Graywolf Ink Distribution Deal

Susan Barbieri

Graywolf Press, a 26-year-old literary nonprofit publisher based in St. Paul, has entered into a new distribution deal with New York publishing giant Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The deal goes into effect June 1. Graywolf will remain with Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, the St. Paul company that has distributed the publisher's titles for the past 15 years, until then.

Graywolf director Fiona McCrae says the move is being made with hopes that FSG's marketing muscle can help raise the profile of Graywolf authors and advance the smaller company's reputation for publishing high-quality books. "I hope that it's going to give the press, and by extension its authors, increased visibility in the trade and to a lesser extent with the media," McCrae says. "Amongst the literary community, there's a very high regard for Farrar, Straus, and from what I can tell from the initial reaction that we've had, it's a very nice match."

The new deal had been in the works since February 2001, when McCrae met informally with longtime friend and FSG founder Roger Straus and he mentioned the possibility of a distribution arrangement. McCrae knew Straus from her previous position as director and executive editor at Faber & Faber Inc., an imprint of FSG, in Boston. McCrae says she didn't have any complaints with Consortium and that her decision had nothing to do with that company's recent internal changes. Founded in 1985, Consortium distributes more than 70 independent publishers from North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. Longtime president Randall Beek left Consortium in November, and Don Linn, a former Wall Street investment banker with no background in the book business, purchased the company in December.

"We've had an extremely happy relationship with Consortium, and leaving them has been as amicable as you could want, really," McCrae says. "It's got much more to do with what Farrar, Straus is offering than any failures of Consortium."

What FSG offers is a high profile. Since its first international list of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children's books in 1946, it has published numerous winners of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize. Among the 21 FSG authors to have won the Nobel Prize are Joseph Brodsky, T.S. Eliot, William Golding, Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, Hermann Hesse, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Pablo Neruda, Nelly Sachs, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. McCrae believes the association with FSG will attract writers to Graywolf in greater numbers and that the larger publisher's expertise will benefit her sales staff. FSG's "impressive" sales reports, for instance, will provide Graywolf with detailed market feedback.

FSG stands to gain a portion of sales from the Graywolf titles it markets and distributes. So far, distribution has been a small percentage of FSG's business, but president Jonathan Galassi says it's a percentage the company would like to increase. FSG also distributes Aperture, Soho Press, and the Harvill Press, but Graywolf is the most literary client the company has ever had, Galassi says.

"We like Graywolf a lot—we think they're terrific—and we were very happy that they approached us about this," Galassi says. "We admire what they do. It's a different kind of publisher than we are, but they're very appropriate to appear in the same catalogues as us. I don't think there are any books that Graywolf does that we wouldn't think were terrific."

Galassi adds that he believes the alliance will be beneficial for Graywolf. "It'll help them get their books distributed a little deeper maybe. It's like they have a slightly bigger brother who's handling them now," he says. "As Roger Straus always said, the only sure way of making money in publishing is by selling other people's books. So it's a moneymaking venture for us, but you can only really make money in publishing, in my opinion, if you're selling something really good. And we think we have something very good to sell here."

Consortium thought so too, and it's no surprise that executives there would have preferred that Graywolf stay in their den. Graywolf has a lot of prestige nationally and a reputation as a great literary press, notes Bill Hammond of Publishing Strategy International, a publishing and business consulting firm in Minneapolis. Hammond says the relationship between Graywolf and Consortium was cordial right up to the end. "I think I understand why Fiona is going to Farrar, Straus; that, too, is a great company. It's one of the largest literary publishers in the country. There's good synergy there," Hammond says. "Ultimately, Consortium would have done just as good a job, has done just as good a job, as any other distributor could do. But I understand the appeal of a company like Farrar, Straus and the perceived opportunities—though personally I think she'll find that the sales of her books will remain very close to what they have been historically."

Graywolf Press was founded in 1976 by Scott Walker in Port Townsend, Washington. The press has published poets Jane Kenyon, Carl Phillips, and John Haines; fiction writers Janet Kauffman, Josip Novakovich, and David Treuer; and essayists Brenda Ueland, William Kittredge, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena. Walker resigned as director in March 1994, and McCrae was appointed in October of that year. In short order, McCrae reorganized the staff and acquired several new writers. Under McCrae, the press has developed an editors-at-large program and expanded its nonfiction line. Graywolf publishes 16 books a year, including poetry, novels, essays, literary criticism, and memoirs.

Julie Schaper, president of sales, marketing, and publisher services at Consortium, says Graywolf left because of "intangible" factors, not because of anything Consortium failed to do. "I know that Graywolf likes the idea of being associated with a venerable literary publisher, and they feel that will be beneficial to them in terms of their profile in the book industry and also may help them in attracting interested authors and potentially funding," Schaper says.

"We are truly sorry to see [Graywolf] go. But I have a great deal of respect for Fiona and she's really set the tone for the departure by handling it in the most professional manner possible, and I really appreciate that."

Susan M. Barbieri is a freelance writer in St. Paul.