More on The Sentimentalists and Gaspereau Press

Noah Richler blogs today about Gaspereau Press, and its dealings with Tracy Bohan and the Wylie Agency. 

For newcomers to this debacle, or what passes as a scandal these days in Canada, Johanna Skibsrud won the Giller Prize.

Her publisher, the small and highly artisanal Gaspereau Press, indicated that it was not going to increase its production of the book to meet the increased demand, as a matter of principle.

The next day, the media learned that Tracy Bohan, Skibsrud’s agent for UK rights, had learned about the book from one of her clients, who happened to be a judge on the Giller Panel. This was before the book made the Giller longlist. Bohan approached Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, who gave Bohan the foreign rights to Skibsrud’s book for free.

A few days later, Gaspereau Press announced that it would be publishing the additional copies, after all,  through licensing agreements with another independent  or two, although it had earlier refused a similar arrangement with one of the big four publishers in Canada, Random House.

Now you’re in the loop :-).

Anyway, after pretty much trashing Bohan’s agency, Richler writes, “Taking Skribsrud’s foreign rights away from Gaspereau, as Bohan did effortlessly, was small potatoes but still it must have had her colleagues slapping her back and laughing hysterically in the halls.”

As for Gaspereau’s  deal with Vancouver independent  Douglas & McIntyre, Richler says what seems obvious: that it was done under pressure. “Jack Rabinovitch [who founded the Giller Prize],  with the tone of an offer that could not be refused, quietly suggested that Gaspereau needed to decide if it was in the business of publishing or printing.” 

(As an aside, I have a friend who has worked just down the road from Gaspereau Press. He believes this was all done for publicity, to put Gaspereau Press on the map. If so, it’s not a map that seems to have any direction.)

Certainly, there are other points of view about this whole mess.

Amelia Schonbek, for example, writing in Maisonneuve, makes no mention of the ethical issues raised by Richler about Bohan’s relationship with Giller judge, Ali Smith. She argues, rather, that  it’s about literature , not sales, and that Gaspereau has been unfairly vilified:

Why did Gaspereau turn down the offers of help? A simple thing that apparently much of the Canlit world doesn’t know how to deal with: principles. Gaspereau believes in doing things with integrity. In the value of making something by hand, thoughtfully, in a way that supports the local economy. If they were going to hand off the printing of Skibsrud’s book to someone else, they wanted it to be someone who shared these values.”

She accuses the media of whipping up a frenzy over nothing, particularly the Globe and Mail in an editorial that referred to the author’s angst over the unavailability of the book:

“Never mind that earlier that morning, in a television interview, Skibsrud was asked, ‘Is that a worry for you, that Oh my gosh, are enough people going to be able to read my book?’ She replied: ‘No, it’s not a worry for me. I know that Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau had said before that we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, so I feel confident that we’ll find a way to supply the books.’ Did the Globe really feel that they were reporting the story accurately when they wrote that headline? Or were they just trying to whip up a frenzy and sell some newspapers, facts be damned?”

The fact that the author, no doubt shell-shocked after her win, was slowly coming to grips with the fact that lots of people wanted her book and couldn’t get it, doesn’t surprise me.

In fact, it reminds me of that TV commercial that has a small group of entrepreneurs  huddled  around a computer monitor as they launch an online product. Their fear of not selling anything quickly turns to panic as the number counter jumps from zero to  a few dozen to hundreds of thousands of orders all at once.

If I was cross-examining Johanna Skibsrud, I wouldn’t get too far by suggesting that she was inconsistent, given that context. And she was quoted before the Giller was awarded as saying that she thought it would be in everyone’s interests to have the book available, those of the publisher, readers, and of course her own.

No, I think that what has bothered me the most about Gaspereau’s intransigence (manipulative or otherwise)  is that it didn’t take a principled position to protect the author‘s interests at a time when she was most vulnerable, but its own.

The idea that just because something is artistic (or literary), it ought not to be driven by business concerns is to my eyes, wrong.  The publishing industry is big and Darwinian. If a publishing company isn’t run according to sound business principles, it won’t be around for long. 

Gaspereau Press struck me as a bit like a porcupine wandering down the highway that thinks its quills will be enough to survive.

The issue, despite what Schonbek says, wasn’t the sale of newspapers, it was the sale of books. Most artists (authors, musicians and artists) live at the poverty line in this country, or well below it. This was a chance for an author to actually cash in. And not just Skibsrud but every one else in the food chain.

According to an article in Publishers Weekly, Canadian book sales in the third quarter were down in sales volume and price by about 3-4% from last year. More so for non-fiction, a big chunk of which is moving to e-books and on-line sources. But everyone was hoping for good Christmas sales, however, boosted by — what else?  — the Giller.  

  “We have traditionally in the last few years seen a good spike on both the Giller shortlist and obviously the winner,” said Booknet CEO Noah Genner. “And it is significant enough that it helps pull up the whole market a little bit.”

According to PW, BookNet reported a 191% sales increase for shortlisted titles in the week following the Giller Prize announcement.

And last year’s winner, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, saw a 712% sales jump. In a single week.

Can you imagine how many of Johanna Skibsrud’s books would have sold in that one week if Gaspereau Press had arranged to have Random  House publish the trade paperback for it?  

 What Tracy Bohan got, but Gaspereau Press couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around, was that it wasn’t about the cover, it was about the book.

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