Fiona McCrae, Publisher and Executive Editor at Graywolf Press, along with Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor, received the 2017 Editor’s Award from Poets & Writers. The honor usually goes to an individual, but the committee decided to give the award to Fiona and Jeff jointly “in honor of the tremendous impact they have had, individually and collaboratively,” according to a published statement.
Graywolf Press, a non-profit, independent press headquartered in Minnesota, has been having a huge impact in the literary arena for some time now. In 2009, Publishers Weekly said in a story about Fiona that, “The last few years have been particularly good ones for Graywolf Press.” Fast forward another 8 years and that statement is still true, actually more true. Graywolf, regardless of its relatively small size and limited number of books published each year, has become a literary powerhouse. They have collected virtually every notable award there is, including the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. They’ve had artists as finalists and winners of many awards, many times.
Vijay Seshadri, 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning poet, introduced Fiona and Jeff the night of the Poets & Writers awards dinner. In his closing remarks, Seshadri commented on both Fiona’s and Jeff’s “other-directedness.” I know Fiona and Jeff and Graywolf because I served on their board and now sit on their National Council. I know how talented they are as editors, but it was this “other-directedness” observation that made me want to talk with them about their bold leadership. One of the clear hallmarks we’ve picked up in our dozens of interviews of other bold leaders is this strong orientation to be more about others than yourself.
So, I asked them, “Where does this other-directedness come from?” Jeff responded first. He pointed out that the Graywolf mission calls them to be discoverers, to think and act as an organization beyond what is immediately known. He said, “Part of our work is to look for others, writers, who are themselves, bold.”
Fiona picked up and introduced the word “singular.” She said, “We look for people saying something in a way that nobody else does.” In many publishing houses, what is new is often viewed as wrong or too risky. The work is not understood and so, turned down. It’s a familiar story – famous artists, turned down many times before someone took a chance on them. Building an organization on the clear intention to hold out for, make room for, and find the new, diverse, and at times not well understood voice is bold. Jeff said, “I’m looking for the next voice in poetry.” And I can tell you with Jeff’s track record, every new poet wants to be found by him!
So, why can Graywolf produce amazing results consistently, year after year? Jeff responded, “The answer is in your question. We are not driven by copies sold like the rest of the industry. Our bottom line is a combination of a whole bunch of things. Sales is not first. This allows us the freedom to find that new, challenging work. We also want to entice readers and ask ourselves, ‘How do we help people see new work in exciting ways?’”
That Graywolf operates as a team in a very solitary profession is clear, and recognized by the industry and by the artists that work with them. I asked, “How do you help each other and the full Graywolf team maintain this perspective?”
Fiona replied, “Everyone here subscribes to the team orientation. It’s not Fiona’s book, or Jeff’s, or Ethan’s [another editor] book. If we all make a decision to take on an author and book, it is a joint responsibility. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve never felt alone. Our editors are generous to each other.”
Not all books are successful. But there is no finger pointing. Everyone owns the misses and shares in successes.
When asked about the core bold leader attributes Aveus has uncovered – curiosity, confidence, empathy and trust – Jeff remarked that Fiona is all of these things. “She has a terrific way of always looking to the horizon and taking the broader view. You literally can draw a line, when you read our strategic documents over twenty years, and see the path we’ve taken. You see the ways that Fiona doesn’t ‘get lost in the proofs.’ Even though she loves the editing work, she is always looking beyond the page.” This helps everyone on the Graywolf team do the same.
Regarding confidence, Fiona said, “None of us are brash. We have an underlying steely belief in the ‘true north.’” She continued, “The best in the publishing world are curious. And we have an unending appetite.”
Regarding empathy, Jeff said, “Empathy is in the work. If it is born, it’s in the author. They want the reader to empathize. These are writers who care about the world and they want readers to understand. We’re not looking for straightforward writing because empathy is not a straightforward act.” (Just as an aside, that is a brilliant insight and one many leaders do not understand!)
Both Fiona and Jeff want to be sure to credit the whole team. Unlike many publishing houses with tremendous turnover, this is, as Jeff said, “not a gig.” It is a team culture and shared passion for the work they do. Fiona bristles a bit when people talk about (and they do!) this being “Oh, the Graywolf moment.” As Jeff pointed out, it is not a moment. It is not serendipity. It didn’t just happen. Graywolf is experiencing the long continuum of success, born of their collective bold leadership.
Late in the interview, a last notion came up. This is an enterprise that takes “active patience,” a phrase coined by Jeff in a Poets & Writers article. He would say active patience is in the culture and competencies of the whole Graywolf team. Their active patience creates success because it allows bold and daring work to take its time to be written and edited, and gives it the time necessary to find its audience. Vijay Seshadri himself won his Pulitzer twenty years after Graywolf published him, for example.
Graywolf’s entire approach to the art of writing distinguishes them from other publishers, large and small. They really are “singular.”
What can you do that is singular and distinguishing for your organization?