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Interview: Ethan Nosowsky, Editor-at-Large, Graywolf Press

Ethan Nosowsky is Editor-at-Large at Graywolf Press. He is also Consultant for Innovative Literature at the Creative Capital Foundation. Previously he was an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has edited books by Jeffery Renard Allen, Emily Barton, Elias Canetti, Geoff Dyer, Stephen Elliott, John Haskell, J. Robert Lennon, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among many others. He has served on the Creative Arts Committee for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center, and has been a fiction judge for the National Magazine Awards. He has written for Bookforum, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Threepenny Review.

MW: What are your predictions for the future of publishing?

EN: I’ve stopped caring about whether people want things as an e-book or as a printed book. A lot of people really want and enjoy their digital books and that’s a really attractive medium. My only concern is with the future of longform prose writing and how people want it and how we’re going to connect the reader to the book—whether they want it electronically or in print.

MW: What do you mean by “connect the reader to the book”?

EN: I’m talking about a filtering system whereby a publisher does a certain amount of pre-selection, so there’s a certain quality control; makes sure the book is its best possible version of itself; and does a good job of what we used to call marketing. Marketing is an activity that is meant to find the maximum number of readers for your book, so everybody who might be interested in your book will know about it.

The trick for a place like Graywolf is to combine a very old-fashioned approach to acquisitions and editing and tending to an author’s needs with a very newfangled, inventive approach to distribution and marketing. But the basic issues are still there—editorial, distribution, and marketing.

MW: When you say, “newfangled approach,” are you talking about social media?

EN: Social media is just one more thing that is heaped on publishers to do. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s useful and gratifying for authors to connect with their readers in a way that they haven’t been able to, but what makes this work mysterious is that I’ve seen authors who are highly engaged in social media, and I’m not sure it’s helped sell twenty more books. And there are authors who don’t do it whose books are highly successful. I call people who go from one conference to another talking about new media e-vangelists. But it’s not necessarily the answer to publishing’s problems.

MW: What can an author do to get the word out about his/her book?

EN: We have to find ways to get books to readers in whatever form they want, find ways to be in touch with our potential readers and have a two-way channel communication, and we have to encourage new review outlets, in whatever form they might crop up. The old media reviews still count for a lot for prestige, but they don’t necessarily sell books. So we have to get the word out about our books in a lot of different ways that may not even exist yet—whether it’s an interesting podcast show or a new review media online. Obviously the daily newspapers are disappearing. When I think about the review files in the first days of publishing, they were thick—the Kansas City Star, the Raleigh News & Observer, The Austin American-Statesmen—they all had pretty vibrant review sections that were not just reviewing blockbusters. A lot of places don’t even have review sections anymore.

MW: Do you encourage your authors to use social media?

EN: It’s not any one thing—it’s a density of coverage. Where you used to get that from twenty different newspaper and magazine reviews, now you may get it from five newspaper and magazine interviews, three interviews on a blog, the author’s own activity on a blog, etc. It’s just been dispersed. The sales numbers for a well-reviewed, voice-driven literary novel are not radically different for that kind of book than they were fifteen years ago, but you have to work a lot harder to get that number, and you’re reaching out to a lot of places that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. I think in the last five years, there are a lot more viable and authoritative online review media and web magazines.

MW: What are some of those online review media and web magazines?

EN: The web magazines are anything from The Rumpus to The Faster Times, Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, and Triple Canopy. Some are online literary magazines and some are news magazines that put up literary content and do author interviews.

MW: What about bloggers like Maud Newton?

EN: She’s great. She has a ton of followers. I think bloggers will continue to be important, but what I think is interesting is what Tom Lutz is doing with the LA Review of Books. It hasn’t really been launched yet; their website is in a primitive state right now. And I haven’t even mentioned places like Slate and Salon, which feel more like old media companies.

MW: Do you recommend your authors do blog tours?

EN: Whether it was thirty years ago or today, you want your authors to do as much publicity as they can stomach. You should always do as much as you have energy for. But publishing has never been a cookie cutter industry.

MW: What about Stephen Elliott? What did he do for The Adderall Diaries (which EN edited for Graywolf in 2009) that worked?

EN: Stephen Elliott got a lot of attention for the way he did his book tour for The Adderall Diaries, but he is the last one to say everyone should do it that way. It may be right for him, but it may not be right for other authors.

MW: Can you explain what Stephen did?

EN: Steve wanted 400 galleys from us, and usually a publisher gives two. We all thought at Graywolf that Steve was a natural publicist, but we couldn’t give him 400, so we gave him 40. So he announced on The Rumpus that anyone who wanted a copy of his galley could have one with the condition that they had one week to read it and pass it on their own dime to the next person. So he got a ton of people reading it—he was doing a lot of interviews right before he published the book. It generated a lot of word of mouth, and that is the only thing that really sells books. The problem with that is that it’s not a science-created word of mouth. You have to have a good book. Publishing is not alchemical. In the literary world, you have to start with a book people like. There are a lot of books that are really good books but no one ever hears about for one reason or another, and they disappear without a trace. It’s one of the most frustrating things that happens to you as a publisher or an editor, and it’s devastating to the author, but it does happen. So having word of mouth is no guarantee, but you won’t have word of mouth without a good book. For every book you’re trying to figure out how to get people talking about the book. The challenge and award of publishing is figuring out new ways to do that that are different for every book. Stephen also got a huge amount of old-world professional reviews. Graywolf books get treated pretty well in the media. Book review editors are starting to believe more and more that we have books that are worth reviewing. And it was a good book. It was one of our lead titles for that list when we published it. We all worked really hard on it.

MW: Is it true that Stephen turned down a larger advance to work with you?

EN: It is.

MW: Why?

I think it was a combination of my getting what Stephen was doing and his respecting books I had edited. One in particular was Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, and now he says Geoff Dyer owes him $10,000 because he took that much less (laughing).

MW: What are the advantages of being published by a small press vs. a larger press?

EN: A lot more personal attention from your editor to your publicist. You’re more likely to get a higher level of editorial engagement. You’re more likely to be involved in the entirety of the publication process. We let the authors have some input on the jacket design, we try to be transparent about our publicity plans, we’re just very involved very often. We won’t make them write their own catalog copy or jacket copy or get their own blurbs. I don’t think authors are necessarily the best at writing that. If you know how to advertise your book, you might as well self-publish. The other thing is that for certain kinds of books that might be more literary or darker or unconventional in some way, they can get lost on a larger list at one of the larger houses. They tend to stand out more on our list and we know what to do with them, how to handle them. Bigger houses tend to print the book rather than publish it. For certain books where we might be stretching to compete with a moderate advance at a larger house, it means a lot to us, and it might get published more aggressively by us.

MW: What’s the average advance for a Graywolf book?

EN: Our advances for fiction and nonfiction tend to range from $5000 to $20,000. A third of our list is poetry, a third fiction, and a third nonfiction. At big houses, advances go into the stratosphere, but I’d say for the kinds of books that we publish that might also be at home at literary imprints at big houses, they can be comparable. We often pay less, and we lose a lot of books not irregularly because they’re willing to pay more for them, but I used to lose books at FSG (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to bigger houses all the time. There’s often someone willing to pay more than you for a book. That’s just part of being in the business.

MW: How do fiction, nonfiction and memoir advances compare?

EN: The fiction market has really collapsed over the last ten years, and the advances have fallen quite a bit. Memoir advances can get high, but they can feel novel-ly, so they tend to range. The thing about memoir is that the publicity can be easier, so we can get off-the-book page coverage, so you’re not relying just on reviews. There may be a feature article on your author. Stephen (Elliott) got a lot of press for how he was marketing The Adderall Diaries.

MW: Does an author need an agent?

EN: Generally you need an agent. A lot of publishers won’t look at unagented manuscripts because the volume is just too heavy. The vast majority of the books we publish are agented. The editor may have been the one to approach the writer, and I’m happy to connect writers to agents.

MW: Why does an author need an agent?

Agents are about access, but also about reviewing contracts and taking care of subsidiary rights, whether that be film or foreign rights. There are a lot of moving pieces, and an agent can manage them.

MW: How has the editor’s role changed over the past fifteen years?

EN: Editors have to be much more cognizant of the marketing and publicity equation of books they are going to acquire. In the bigger companies, much more time is spent in meetings than it used to. Editing very rarely happens during the workday.

MW: What are editors doing during the workday?

EN: You could be doing anything from writing copy for books or going through proof corrections, writing notes to reviewers, which publicists do, but editors often do, too, chasing down leads, finding people to read foreign novels.

MW: You hear more and more that editors don’t edit the way they used to, that a book has to be really perfect before it’s sold.

EN: I know a lot of editors, and all of them seem to be editing. Either some people are lying or the editors I know are old-fashioned editors. But not all books get that attention, and sometimes you have a really bad match between editor and author. Having a bad editor can be like having a bad shrink. You can do real damage to your book by getting the wrong advice.

MW: Should a author hire a freelance editor?

EN: Freelance editors can be very expensive, and agents can be tremendously helpful. They might clarify whether you need one or want one. But given how difficult the market is right now, you want to give yourself the best possible chance you can to sell your book, so whatever you can do to increase your odds, you should. Some agents have a very good editorial brain and can do that detailed work for you. The truth of all of these things for an aspiring writer is that you need to make it the best possible book you can make it, and once you’ve done that, then you worry about the marketing part. If there are things you know are wrong with it, don’t send it out. You can’t send it out and say, “Well, I know this part is flat, but I’m going to fix it.” Fix it. It’s better to go slower. I like doing editorial work, but I have to be able to see what the book wants to be. That has to be clear to me.

MW: How difficult IS the market right now?

EN: It’s doing a little better than it was a few years ago. E-book sales are increasing in volume and are a not-insignificant source of income. Publishers can imagine a future for themselves now. But I think the bigger publishers are becoming a lot more conservative. Knopf, Viking, and FSG are all still publishing fantastic books, but they aren’t as willing to take as many chances.

MW: What do you think about self-publishing?

EN: Self-Publishing is great. It all depends on what your goals are. If you want a certain amount of public acknowledgment of your work, if you want your book reviewed by mainstream reviewers whether they are online or in print, then you still need a publisher. I’ve been on panels where people seemed almost angry, “Why shouldn’t I self-publish”? and I told them “Go for it. It’s no skin off my back.”

MW: Are you worried that publishers are going to disappear?

EN: A little. I’m not worried about writers or writing at all. I think there’s a lot of good work out there, and a lot of people still reading. But the question of whether people like me will have the kind of job I have in 10–15 years, I don’t know. It could be bad news for people like me, but I think writing is fine.

21 comments to Interview: Ethan Nosowsky, Editor-at-Large, Graywolf Press

  • Kristan

    Wonderful interview! (Love that his answers didn't have a lot of "fluff.") I really liked the part about how social media isn't a magical solution; it's just another tool in the box. Also the discussion about small press vs. large.

    Thanks for all this insight!

  • “I’m talking about a filtering system whereby a publisher does a certain amount of pre-selection, so there’s a certain quality control; makes sure the book is its best possible version of itself.”

    Let’s be honest, though. The problem with the old model is that pre-selection and quality control isn’t so much about reading quality as marketing quality.

    Perfectly good books are turned away time and time again because the agent / publisher cannot see a commercial return given the huge investment required to bring a paper book to the reader.

    There was a classic example in the UK earlier this year when a TV celebrity was doing the pre-release pitch for her new, debut novel. She thoughtfully explained on live national TV how her editor used to visit her every month to help her write. She explained with gratitude how said editor showed this debut novelist how to divide the story up into chapters so she wouldn’t lose track of what she was writing.

    For this she was paid an obscene advance and of course sold in ridiculous numbers thanks to the TV marketing.

    Quality control? Be serious.

    Publishing is a business. To the extent that better written books (even if the named author has very little to do with it) sell better, editorial quality is a consideration.

    Big name agents are trawling the e-charts looking for future earners from the indie sector. Publishers are also casting their eyes in that direction.

    And when they do we can be sure of one thing. It’s not about editorial quality. It’s about getting a handle on the increasing amounts of money currently passing them by.

  • @ Mark – If you don't think that selection of quality books isn't a big part of what a publisher does, then you've never read slush piles at an agency or publishing house. The amount of garbage out there is staggering — and a lot of it is, sadly, bypassing publishers and being "self-published." Readers beware.

    • Don't doubt that for a moment, EW.

      I spend much of my reading time looking at indie authors on Amazon.

      Sure there's some drivel out there, but no-one is being forced to buy it. Readers can download a sample and make a judgement before they buy, just as they can open a book in a store and read it. No-one is buying blind except through stupidity.

      But what I am finding is novels of astounding literary quality – seriously good wriing – that have time and again been rejected by the gatekeepers. Perhaps a little too long or too short. Doesn't fit a legacy niche well enough. Maybe the market isn't quite big enough to justify the investment to paper. Maybe that genre isn't due to trend next year according to the experts.

      How many best-sellers can we list that went through the slushpile system and got rejected. Almost every major best-seller had their works turned away time and again. Supposing they'd given up the day before they made that final successful submission? How many great authors have done exactly that? We'll never know.

      Epub gives writers a chance to query the only gatekeeper that really matters: The reader.

      Authors like Amanda Hocking write for their readers, not the gatekeepers. Amanda is under no illusions about her work. It;s not Shakespeare. It's editorially weak and even basic proof reading is weak. She's the first to admit that.

      But her readers like what she writes.

      When the gatekeepers were in charge it was they who determined what we had the chance to read, and Amanda Hocking wasn't on their list. Once the readers voted with their feet the gatekeepers soon came running to get their share. As they are doing with other successful indie authors.

      Exactly what quality did Amanda bring to her novels by epublishing that they didn't have previously when the gatekeepers were turning their noses up at them?

      Just one: she proved they could make money.

      • meghancward

        Here's my problem with letting the reader (and only the reader) act as gatekeeper: I think most readers will choose fun, enjoyable, page-turners like The Hunger Games (which I recently read), and books that are slower paced and more difficult to read but that offer a lot of reward once the time is put in (think about all the classics we were forced to read in high school when we would much rather have preferred reading juicy stuff like V.C. Andrews) will be lost. I think it's important for our intellectual stimulation and for our culture that we continue to read high quality literature and not just best sellers. As much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, it is NOT high quality literature.

      • LTD

        Mark, you seem to kind of be proving the point, don't you? Hocking writes like 9 books a year and they don't even have basic levels of editing or proof-reading, but even her own admission (as you point out). So… there is no quality control there.

        If readers want to read drivel, they can. But how does poorly written and edited books making money as ebooks prove that editors don't help with selection and editing quality?

        • My point is about agents and publishers, not editors.

          Serious indie writers (not those who, admittedly, shove their book online the moment they finish the first draft) would LOVE the opportunity of a professional edit if it were a option. But most don't have the funds to pay, nor the expertise to differentiate a good editor from a charlatan who is doing nothing more than proof-read with Spell-Check.

          The point is that almost all published books arrive on the agents' / publishers' desks in need of editing. No gatekeepers were interested in giving Hocking that edit UNTIL the readers decided her stories were good enough despite the imperfections.

          Once those dollar signs started shining Hocking's previous absence of any redeeming qualities was conveniently forgotten, with agents and publishers scrambling over one another to sign her up.

          We are now experiencing a similar sad story ourselves.

          We e-published because we had confidence in our book despite the repeated rejections by the gatekeepers. We would have LOVED a pro edit, but at the time we couldn't even afford a pro cover. Simple economics.

          Fast forward a few months and our book is flying high in the e-charts. Insignificant compared to Amanda Hocking's sales, of course, yet suddenly we are being cold-called in person by some of the biggest agents on the planet, who have never read a single word of the book, but smell future money.

          As serious writers we'd love the pro edit that might result from signing up, but can we have any confidence in an agency that contacts authors never having read a word of the book they seek to represent?

          • meghancward

            Mark – great points. But there are plenty of great freelance editors out there (many of whom formerly worked at publishing houses and got laid off) who self-published writers can hire to edit their books. Although it would be nice to get a professional edit for free through a traditional book deal, people like you and Amanda Hocking can surely afford to hire a professional editor now that your books are selling so well. (Of course it would have been better to have the books edited at the outset, but the joy of ebooks is that you can keep releasing new versions.) I guess the trick is finding the right one. I read somewhere that Amanda Hocking said she did try to hire freelance editors, but had bad experience with them, which reminds me that I owe you a guest post on this very topic!

    • meghancward

      I agree with Evil Wylie. A friend of mine said she worked at a small publisher on the East Coast reading the slushpile. I don't remember how many months/years she was there, but she said the entire time she only passed on two ms to her boss, and those weren't published. She said she was astounded at the crap people send to publishers–so much of it poor writing unformatted and full of typos.

  • This is a fantastic interview, full of useful information. Thanks Meghan and Ethan!

    Because Mark is a Brit, he probably doesn't understand the difference between an upmarket mid-sized literary press like Graywolf and the Big Six. (One third of your books are poetry! Not big money makers, poets.)

    As readers (and writers) we should all hope that people like Ethan will be around in ten years. It's the kind of editor/author relationship that can be found at Graywolf that produces great literary art.

    I've read that many name writers are moving to small houses the way Stephen Elliot has. In fact, I think the more nimble, forward-looking small and niche presses may be the future of publishing.

    Readers want gatekeepers, whether or not writers do.

    Because the Big Six are slipping into a kind of robber-baron neo-feudalism, they may not fare so well. I agree with Mark that they appear to have no interest in quality control. They're treating their authors like expendable serfs, and readers like captive animals that have to scarf down whatever is tossed to them. I'm not going to read one more copycat Twilight, Hunger Games or dark Scandinavian thriller., and I don't know anybody who will. I want something fresh and creative, not a mass produced knock-off.

    Like bad generals, the Big Six are always fighting the last war. Small presses are at least looking at what might be coming up next.

    • meghancward

      I have to agree with Anne. There's a big difference between small, high-quality literary presses like Graywolf and the Big 6. And best sellers don't necessarily equate with good literature. There's a lot of crap out there that does well, and, like Mark said, some really great books that slip through the cracks. The publishing industry isn't perfect because it's run by humans, and humans aren't perfect. Publishers need to strike a balance between buying books that are high quality and books that will sell – otherwise they'll go out of business and be publishing no books at all.

  • such an interesting and informative interview- have loved two recent reads from Graywolf Press and it was very enlightening to learn more.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for visiting, bookspersonally. I'm glad to hear you liked the recent Graywolf books you read. I look forward to reading Dyer's Otherwise Known As The Human Condition, and their creative writing books look interesting, too – The Art of Time in Memoir is one – and I've never read Charles Baxter's Burning Down The House.

  • […] Nosowsky Interview Some good stuff here in this interview with Graywolf editor Ethan Nosowsky, whose work you’ve most recently seen in Geoff […]

  • lindseycrittenden

    Thanks for highlighting Graywolf, long known for their commitment to quality publishing. I'm glad they're still doing well, adapting new strategies with the times & tools, perhaps, but staying focused on the author/editor relationship and bringing good books to readers. Yes, a lot of good books never find a publisher, or enough readers. Yes, as a former slush reader, I'll chime in that too much unprofessional drivel gets submitted over the transom, and the odds of finding the gems are slimmer & slimmer. THose are constants, no matter the times or the formats. As a writer and reader, I'm glad — and encouraged — by much of what was said here.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for this comment, Lindsey. I wasn't familiar with Graywolf before The Adderall Diaries, but I'm relatively new to all this publishing stuff. Sounds like they have a great reputation. And I want to hear more about your slush pile reading. Maybe a future blog post?

  • christicorbett

    Meghan and Ethan,

    Thanks for putting together such an informative interview! I learned a lot!

    Christi Corbett

  • […] recent interview with Ethan Nosowsky of the stellar independent Graywolf Press discusses some of these matters, as […]

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