Judging a book by its cover may not be fair, but what about judging a publishing company by the books it puts between those covers?
To the extent that “judge” and “fair” are subjective terms, there is much to the David vs. Goliath size of book publishers that would prohibit a genuine comparison. Yet, there is a singular benchmark which can even the playing field — national and international book awards.
In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of new titles are published each year; thousands are printed by big name publishers and thousands more are published by the authors themselves. Somewhere in the midst of this are companies such as Graywolf Press, a nonprofit book publisher based in Minneapolis, Minn., with a total annual budget that some publishing houses would consider advance money for a single best-selling author, about $4 million.
Out of that budget, Graywolf publishes between “30-35 books each year by authors at all stages of their careers, from the United States and around the world,” according to the company.
By comparison, Hachette Book Group publishes about 1,400 books for adults annually. HarperCollins, which has been in the business for about two centuries, publishes about 10,000 books each year across its more than 120 branded imprints.
Accounting for sheer volume, what is singular about Graywolf’s less than three dozen books are the number of national and international awards for which the company’s releases have been long-listed, short-listed, finalists and winners.
Among those — and there are hundreds of opportunities for awards given out annually — are prize names with international recognition: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award … and two for which the publisher had serious contenders — including one winner — in 2018, the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award.
Man Booker Prize
The Man Booker Prize is considered one of the most influential awards for literary fiction titles written in English and published in the United Kingdom. A rule change in 2018 opened the formerly closed UK contest to all nationalities, with the above caveats, to “embrace authors writing in English, whether from Chicago, Sheffield or Shanghai,” according to a release from the chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, Jonathan Taylor.
The more-than-four-decade-old prize offers what amounts to about $66,000 to the winner and $3,300 to all short-listed authors, in addition to worldwide recognition leading to a dramatically increased international readership — a stated aim of the contest.
Graywolf in 2018 was the American publisher of not one, but two short-listed titles, including the novel which won the prize.
‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns
“Milkman,” the winner of The Man Booker Prize 2018, by Anna Burns of Belfast, is no easy read and one of the most challenging titles of 2018. None of the characters in the novel has a name and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country — although a case could be made that that country is the author’s native land.
A case can also be made that the novel’s first sentence encases the entirely of the book’s plot: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
Aficionados of James Joyce and Modernist fiction rejoice: This is the novel for you.
‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson
Short-listed for The Man Booker Prize 2018, “Everything Under” by Daisy Johnson — not the Marvel superhero but the author from Paignton, U.K., the youngest ever short-listed for the prize at 27 when it was announced — is a feminist reinvention of the Oedipus story. The novel tells the tale of Gretel, a girl put in foster care so that her mother can woo a new lover.
Unlike ‘Milkman,” you’ll need more than the first sentence to reveal the plot — “It is hard, even now, to know where to start.” — but lovers of myth will welcome Johnson’s debut novel.
National Book Awards
Like its UK counterpart, the National Book Awards celebrate the best writing in the nation with prizes for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature.
Dissimilarly from the Man Booker after the 2018 rule change, a submitted book must be written by an American citizen or otherwise approved via a petition process. Each finalist receives a prize of $1,000, a medal and a citation on the night before the awards during a private ceremony. At the awards, the winning author in each category gets a $10,000 check and a bronze sculpture. Once part of the “National Book Award Foundation family,” the foundation uses its resources to promote the authors’ new books and readings.
Graywolf has two 2018 National Book Award finalists in its catalogue:
‘A Lucky Man’ by Jamel Brinkley
Jamel Brinkley’s first book, “A Lucky Man,” is about relationships. In nine, searching stories, Brinkley explores the idea of masculinity — what it looks like, what we expect from it, the effects it has when it turns poisonous.
Brinkley, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of several fellowships, uses these stories to question the line between ignorance and maliciousness — and the ability of women to hinder the power of not only those extremes, but places in between.
‘Eye Level’ by Jenny Xie
Jenny Xie’s poems have appeared in most major publications celebrating poetry — the “New Republic,” “Poetry,” “Tin House,” “American Poetry Review” and the like — and this collection falls squarely into Graywolf’s wheelhouse: The company’s first publications were limited-edition chapbooks of poetry — printed on a letterpress and hand sewn by founder Scott Walker.
Like Brinkley, Xie’s collection is also about searching as we travel from New York to Hanoi and beyond in a quest for the peace of solitude.
With stunning imagery — “I was profligate like a floodlight to the sun” (“Origin Story”) — Xie’s sensual journey defines the restlessness of never being able to feel truly moored to a place called home.
There is no magic formula to earning such prestigious publication nods, an editor with Graywolf said — unless the magic is in following a core mission that doesn’t involve actively searching for prize-winning titles.
“We have a team of editors that are continually reading submissions and looking for books and authors that fit Graywolf’s publishing list,” said editor Steve Woodward. “We’re looking for authors who write books we feel will make a lasting contribution to the broader culture. The hope is always that such books will resonate with readers, and in the best-case scenario they do. Even if they don’t receive critical attention or awards, however, the books we publish still embody those same qualities, which is an important part of mission-driven, nonprofit publishing.
“We don’t select authors or titles by thinking they’d be just right for one prize or another; if we did, we’d certainly be frustrated in that attempt, as there’s no telling what book, from all the many worthy nominees, a given set of judges will champion.”
The way the publishing house selects authors is one which internationally best-selling and prize-winning North Carolina author Ron Rash understands. Rash’s novels, poetry and short stories are widely published, albeit not with Graywolf, recognized and acclaimed, but the author shares a similar attitude toward his own work.
“To win an award is always nice, but I’ve seen so many mediocre books chosen, and so many excellent books ignored, to take such decisions too seriously,” Rash said. “It’s about writing the best book I can. What happens after that is out of my control.”
But when recognition comes from being listed with or winning an award, there’s no denying that the publicity can be beneficial, Woodward said.
“Being a finalist or winner of a major prize does bring a lot of additional attention to a book, which can often result in more review coverage and higher sales,” the editor said. “We’re always pleased when this means going back to reprint a book, in part because this means more readers have the opportunity to encounter the book.
“A prize can also change the trajectory of an author’s career, enabling that author to write the next book.”
That’s exactly so, said former N.C. Poet Laureate and current professor of English at Appalachian State University Joseph Bathanti, who himself has won multiple awards, including from the NC Humanities Council and the Sherwood Anderson Award.
“It’s always humbling to be singled out for a literary award or any type of honor associated with your writing,” Bathanti said. “Especially because the pool out of which you are elected is vast and filled with other equally deserving candidates. A good bit of luck and serendipity go into it.
“That said, receiving such distinctions often comes at times when you need the jumpstart, the validation, and there’s no denying that they dramatically increase your confidence and visibility as a writer.”
And the visibility of great literature is, after all, what at least two literary contests and one small publishing house say is the most important role in producing the books of today and tomorrow.