Canadian writer Johanna Skibsrud won the coveted Giller Prize last night for her debut novel, The Sentimentalists. It sounds like a great read. If you can find a copy.
Skibsrud’s novel was published by Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia. It’s a tiny operation that cranks books out by hand. Gaspereau Press’s mission statement reads as follows:
“At the core of our philosophy is a commitment to making books that reinstate the importance of the book as a physical object, reuniting publishing and the book arts. Many of our covers are letterpress-printed, feature original artwork by artists … and are printed on fine paper, in some cases even handmade. Most of our books are smyth-sewn & bound into card covers and are then enfolded in letterpress-printed jackets. Our house paper is Rolland’s Zephyr Antique Laid, a creamy, sensual book paper.”
They do sound gorgeous.
When Skibsrud was shortlisted for the Giller Prize a month or so ago, the 400 copies that had sold to that point leaped to 2,000 orders. But the book couldn’t be completed, due a lack of those beautiful covers. Even so, publisher Andrew Steeves declined an offer from a large publisher to lend a hand. A Gaspereau Press book is, in Steeves’ eyes, a work of art. If someone else published the novel, it wouldn’t be a Gaspereau anymore.
The author’s response at that time was a little conflicted:
“My personal opinion is that making literature more widely available could never be a ‘lowering of standards’; that it could only be a positive, for the publisher, the writer, as well as for the potential audience. But that is the perspective of one author, regarding one book. Gaspereau has a long and respected tradition behind them, and an incredible list, and that will continue.”
One author, and one book, perhaps. But now that author has won the Giller. And Steeves is still refusing to move quickly to meet the increased demand. He’s quoted as saying:
“Our plan is still to produce the books here and to produce them at a sane rate that we can manage. I think it’s an interesting opportunity to slow the world down a hair and let people realize that good books don’t go stale … If you want a world that will only produce the kind of books Random House does, then, you know, you’re going to get a pretty bland McDonald’s culture.”
Take that, you big publishers. Ouch. Still, it seems rather ungracious, given that Random House was one of the publishers that offered to help out.
According to Joel Silver, the president of Indigo, Giller Prize winners “tend to gain a massive amount of momentum over the next six to eight weeks. And then sometimes the media love wears off and it’s tough to get attention.”
Most Giller books sell in the first four weeks.
Does this small window of opportunity make any difference to Gaspereau Press? Apparently not.
According to The Chronicle Herald, Steeves says he can’t really worry about whether Skibsrud is frustrated that her novel is in short supply if that conflicts with his mission:
“My job is to be faithful to the values that we subscribe to here — to make good books, to do them well, to do them the best way we can and to stand up for and live out those principles.”
Surely the mission of a publisher is to, well, publish books. And to sell them. Not to mention to promote their list. But Gaspereau Press apparently judges its books only by their covers. (It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘vanity press.’)
Forget the Christmas market. Forget the momentum the Giller would provide to sales over the next few months. Forget the boost it would give a new author and a small publisher. No, a book published by Gaspereau Press isn’t something we’re supposed to read, apparently. We’re supposed to admire it.
Which would be great, if we could get actually get one.
Steeves’ suggestion for those ‘desperate’ to read the book is to download the e-version. Which of course isn’t hand-pressed with original art or creamy white pages or particularly beautiful. But at least it’s available.
Johanna Skibsrud has been extremely gracious about her publisher’s intransigence. I hope her $ 50,000 prize takes the edge off her disappointment. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she switches publishers in the future.