General 8-17-2006

Thinking Souls: An Interview with Mary Matze

Shannon Gibney speaks with Mary Matze, the publicist for Graywolf Press, about the current state of book publishing and Graywolf in particular.

mary Matze
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Minnesota, and the Twin Cities in particular, is widely recognized as the premiere literary arts hub in the Midwest, and depending on who you talk to (and if they live in New York), the premiere literary arts hub in the nation. From the Loft Literary Center, to COMPAS and WITNESS artists-in-the-schools programs, to a plethora of university writing programs, the reach of the written word is quite formidable in our state. Yet, many of us don’t have any idea how these literary organizations are run, how they came into being, or how they meet the daily difficulties of competing for readers and resources. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mary Matze (MM), publicist at Graywolf Press – probably the most successful independent publisher in the country, based right here in St. Paul – and discussed the many challenges and rewards of managing a nonprofit press.

SG: Why does Graywolf exist?

MM: Graywolf exists to put contemporary literature out into the world that wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by publishing houses.

We’re a publishing house that’s not driven by the bottom line. Because we’re nonprofit, we don’t have to make millions of dollars off our books. We can publish books that we want to publish, that we find literary merit in, and that we think deserve an audience, even if it’s a small audience.

The truth is that the publishing industry is controlled by about five large corporations. They pick books based on sales. FSG (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), for example, is trying to publish books that will sell well, and then are also considered literature that has a lot of merit. They’re kind of an original. But they’re driven by the bottom line – they’re driven by profit.

Graywolf wants to be fiscally sound, we want to make profit off our books, but that’s not why we’re picking them.

SG: How and when was the press created?

MM: Graywolf began in 1974 by Scott Walker in Port Townsend, Washington. Scott was approached by Jim Sitter, who was instrumental in Graywolf’s move to St. Paul in 1985. Graywolf at the beginning was housed in his apartment.

The Twin Cities has amazing funding for the arts, and that’s why they wanted to build a publishing community – this is what the legend is, anyway. They wanted to build a literary community in the Twin Cities so they could tell a Scott Walker, “We have funding for you, we have space for you, so why don’t you come out to the Twin Cities?” After seeing how well the community was doing, Walker decided to move out here.

We were in a space on Selby Ave. back then. We moved over into this building [2402 University Ave. in St. Paul] in the late 1980s. In 1993, the press started to experience financial difficulties, and in 1994, Scott Walker left the press. It kind of disintegrated for awhile. They didn’t have a director for about eight months to a year. Basically, the company was going bankrupt. Then we asked Fiona McCrae to come in. She was working at Faber and Faber, first in the UK and then in Boston, and then she decided to come and be the director of this press.

The press has been flourishing since Fiona took over. She kind of picked it up by its bootstraps. She significantly cut back on the number of books we were doing at the time. We were doing about 27 books per year, which was more books than the press could handle. And actually, she cut that back to maybe 12 books – a very small number. Right now, we’re getting back up to that 25-27 number, 10 years later. At the time, she said, “Two books per staff member.” That cutting back on the number of titles, and then really focusing on finding funding for the books and making some business decisions about how we were applying the funding, and how we were spending the money on the books, I think really turned the press around.

SG:What are some of Graywolf’s distinctive strengths?

MM: I think one of the strengths of Graywolf’s list is that we’re looking for writers who are emerging – like David Treuer, for example. He was this amazing, budding writing talent, and we picked up his book (Little), and he got great coverage for it, and he sold the paperback rights [to Picador]. Then David decided that he had this good monetary deal from Picador [for his next book, The Hiawatha], and then he went there, and they buried it. One of the strengths of Graywolf is that people are invested in the books. Our list is small enough, our staff is dedicated enough, we can afford to pay them, and they’re not overworked and underpaid. People have the time to invest in the titles that we’re publishing. And then we can nurture the careers of writers like David, and then he comes back to us.

I think that we’re publishing the best poetry in the country. We probably compete a little bit with Norton and FSG, but I think that the poets we’re doing really consider it an honor to be published by Graywolf. And people don’t necessarily look to other houses for poetry publishing.

SG: What are some other things on the horizon that readers can look to Graywolf for in the next few years or so?

MM: We’re working on a series that’s being edited by Charlie Baxter about writing – it’s called The Art Of. We have books for the next three or four years. The first two will be published in spring 2007: The Art of Subtext, by Charlie Baxter, and The Art of Attention, by David Revell.

I think that we’re looking to increase the number of books that we’re publishing, and we’re doing that through this series.

We’re also hoping to make more ties to the Twin Cities community – to work with community organizations. We’ve been working with the College of St. Benedict on developing their literary arts center. And we want to work with more organizations like the College of St. Benedict and Franklin Artworks, to help develop our own literary culture a little bit more here. And we also want to make more partnerships nationally, with more colleges.

SG: How many people are on staff?

MM: We have nine full-time staff members, and one part-time finance person.

Fiona’s the publisher. We have an executive editor, who takes care of production, like covers and artwork and stuff like that. Then we have someone who logs in the manuscripts and takes care of permissions, the back-end rights and contracts. Then we have a full-time poetry editor, and he also works with the board a lot on community development events. Those are the other hats that the editors wear. And then we have an editorial assistant. And then there’s three marketing people, and one development person.

SG: What’s your process? Someone has sent you a manuscript, or an agent contacts you — What’s the general process for a Graywolf book? How long does it take, and what’s involved?

MM: For fiction and nonfiction, what usually happens is that the book is recommended to us by one of our own authors or a well-known author. And then there are also agents.

We also have the slush pile, which a lot of people are familiar with. That’s people sending in, they’re un-agented, they haven’t been recommended, they just send in their manuscripts. Those are screened first by Rachael, and then given to the intern to take a look at. We try to make sure our interns have a really solid reading background. We want to be able to catch things that are coming in that are good.

Then editors will read the recommendations or the agented manuscripts, and whatever they like they choose. We say it takes about three or four months, but if something’s clearly not right for us, the time is shorter.

Poetry is really backlogged right now. On the poetry side, the major thing is that we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. We get about 3,000 to 5,000 submissions every year, and that number increases every year. So the time varies. I’ve heard complaints from some folks about how long it’s been taking. So, we try to keep it to three to four months, but sometimes it takes longer.

SG: So an editor reads a manuscript and thinks, “I really like this.” What happens then?

MM: I think an editor says, “This is worth taking a second look.” And that goes to someone else, and if they like it, they’ll bring it to the attention of the other editors. Eventually, they come to a consensus on what we’re going to publish.

But like I said, we get 3,000 to 5,000 submissions a year, and up until this year, we were only publishing 16 to 18 titles a year. So the percentage of books that actually get published is so small, compared to the number of submissions we receive.

Regardless, editors have a pool of books they’re considering. Sometimes they’ll get something in that everyone’s just so excited about, and they read them on the weekends, and sometimes they take a reading day to do that. They have meetings about it.

We have books lined up through 2008. So, at least through the marketing side of things, you almost have to work at least a year in advance on the books.

The mistake that a lot of published authors make, or first-time authors, is that they say, “I don’t want to do a lot of readings.” So then after their book comes out, they’re like, “Oh shoot! I should have been working on this before!” And then they really want to start working on it, and it’s too late.

SG: So you almost have to get a reading base before your book comes out.

MM: Well, you have to start thinking about the book, and who’s going to be interested in it, and things like that, a year and a half before it comes out. I think it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around.

SG: So what you’re saying is that authors need to understand that part of the success of their book is going to be them helping to get the book out there.

MM: Oh yeah – absolutely. The industry is such that authors almost have to sell themselves. They have to go out and do events and readings and stuff. And that’s absolutely not a strict rule. But if they want to do a reading, for example, the bookstore is going to be booked up four to five months in advance. And particularly, the high-end reading series, they book out a year. If you want to visit colleges and universities, you definitely have to be in touch with your friends. That’s something that people have to be aware of.

So we’re booked out about two years, and it takes about a year for marketing. We have lunch meetings for the books, where we talk about where we want to advertise, if they’re going to send them on tour, what our budget is.

SG: Can you speak about the state of the publishing world and the literary community here in Minnesota? I know that the Loft just finished this Big Read initiative, and there’s a lot of fear out there that people aren’t reading. There’s this idea that the Internet is taking over people’s desire to read “serious literature.”

MM: I think that’s an interesting question. It’s something that a lot of publishers are asking themselves.

I don’t think that people are reading less. I think that the Internet can be a very useful and congruous tool. Publishing on the Internet and reading can go hand-in-hand.

If we’re putting out good books, people will want to read them. There’s nothing more disappointing than spending six hours of your life reading something that’s bad.

As long as people continue to support their libraries – and I think Minneapolis is having some financial difficulties with their public library system right now – I think that the publishing industry will survive. Books have continued to survive through the ages – it’s one of the oldest industries in the world. But I do think there are too many books being published right now. And that’s just me, personally, I don’t speak for the press on that. I think there are a lot of ways for people to publish books, and I think that’s great. I really like that populist element. But I also think that it makes it much more difficult to really find good talent. You’re supposed to be able to rely on the publisher to weed through and pick out the stuff that’s the best, and I feel like sometimes that doesn’t always happen.

SG: How would you define the Twin Cities literary community? Is there a difference between what people read, how they read, or how they interact with the written word, as compared to trends that you see nationally?

MM: The Twin Cities is a very literate community, but with the closing of the Ruminator there is a literary void to be filled. Bands love to come to the Twin Cities, because people here are interested in music. I think that authors love to come to the Twin Cities, because people here are interested in literature. The Ruminator used to be a landmark stopping place.

SG: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

MM: Pay attention to what is being published in book reviews, and make sure you read. Try something new. I think that’s the key to enjoying books, not to come in with an expectation for what it should be. Be open to language. And make sure you read reviews. Reading reviews, for me, is just an invaluable way to select books that I want to read.

To find out more about Graywolf, visit

Come back to Thinking Souls in a few days to read an interview with David Treuer, whose books Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, and The Translation of Dr. Apelles (both released by Graywolf this month) are raising quite a few eyebrows. We’ll also have an interview with Kyle Hunter, who designed Treuer’s book covers, as well as reviews of both books. And don’t miss your chance to add your voice to the mix – the Thinking Souls online book club is the place to hash out both formed and incipient ideas about art and writing in Minnesota!

Next month: We’ll talk to Aletha Little of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature about their work promoting and preserving Black literature. Pick up a copy of Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an American classic and a Givens Foundation re-issue, for September book club discussion.