Julescosby's Blog

All Giller, No Filler

Posted by julescosby on November 13, 2010

Hey there folks, long time.

Let’s not dwell too much on the peculiar correlation between paycheques in one’s pocket and their lack of blog activity.  Rather, let’s focus on something of interest to those of us in who find ourselves part of the book world.  As many of you know, The Giller Prize was announced this week, and it’s proven to be an interesting few days for bibliophiles.

The Giller Prize is named for former Toronto Star literary editor Doris Giller.  In its 17-year history, it has been criticized for essentially being a Toronto club, with a revolving door of Hogtown judges and contenders.  This year, however, the committee looked east, far past the DVP to Nova Scotia.  The $50,000 prize went to Johanna Skibsrud for her Vietnam-themed The Sentimentalists.

On a side note, let’s all just accept that we’re going to struggle with her name.  It’s just so comical when stuffy, serious literary types try to ram it through so fast so you don’t know that they don’t know how to say it.  It’s okay, guys.  Just like it’s okay that you can’t say Roibos (seriously though, you haven’t Googled this yet? “ROY-BOSS”).

Menacing monikers and poor pronunciation aside, what followed in the aftermath of the Giller is something that might not a very Merry Christmas for Ms. Skibsrud make.

The gist of the problem is that the publisher of The Sentimentalists, Gaspereau Press, doesn’t fit particularly well into the mold of the modern book industry.  They have a unique system of production, one that emphasizes artisanal quality over industrial quantity.  And it is because of that lack of capacity for mass-runs that this book is in demand.  DE-mand.  Canada’s large retailers – one of which, it should be known, puts food on my table – are scrambling to find a way to convince Gaspereau to ramp up production so that Skibsrud’s name appears under every book-lover’s Christmas tree this year – and, of course, that the receipts appear in their bank accounts.

To be clear, however, it’s not that Gaspereau is outright refusing to publish more books, as some people have been lamenting.  It’s that they are trying to find a way to produce more books without cashing in on their principles, without bowing before the Leviathan that is the status quo of book publishing.

It’s easy to see the problem from the point of view of the retailer.  Our jobs depend not on a steady stream of titles throughout the year, but through massive tsunamis (aren’t you glad that word has entrenched itself in the English language?) like The Girl Who Yadda’d the Yadda Yadda or anything with Dan Brown’s name on it.  That The Sentimentalists will probably not make it to shelves in any sort of meaningfully quantifiable way before 25 December means that it is relegated to the trickle, and could very well be soon forgotten by the terribly impatient book-buying public.

I had intended to go into greater depth about art under capitalism, but that’s another story for another time.  For now, it’s a question of a publisher sticking to a principle, one that flies against the face of the way books are typically produced and sold in our society.  For Gaspereau’s view, I strongly suggest that you listen to their interview with Q’s Jian Gomeshi on CBC Radio from a few days back.  But there are those that still believe that they are unfairly treating Skibsrud, damming the stream of money that should rightfully flow to her by damning the system that would provide the moola.  But that’s not entirely fair, because despite this being a less-than-ideal situation, this is not their fault.

To illustrate my point, imagine a situation where every day on your way to work you buy a bag of peanuts and a lottery ticket with the numbers 1-2-3-4-5.  One day, however, you realize that you only have enough money to purchase one of the two, so you must choose.  You feel a slight rumbling in your tummy, so you opt for the peanuts.  The next day you realize that the winning numbers were 1-2-3-4-5.  You would have won hands down, but you didn’t buy a ticket.  No one would expect that you deserved the winnings from that ticket, and no one would fault the convenience store for not providing the award.

Please understand that I am not denigrating this woman’s accolades, or trying too hard to compare what was doubtless hours upon hours of grueling work to the chance of a lottery ticket.  My point is merely that this is not the fault of a publisher with an axe to grind.  And though I don’t believe we should venerate him, he has a very good point when he reminds naysayers that he published her in the first place.

The opportunity cost for Johanna Skibsrud will be enormous.  But she made that choice.  As a consolation, she gets the afformentioned $50,000.  And she will still sell a tonne of books, just maybe not a shit-tonne.

Still, kudos to Gaspereau for sticking to their guns, despite the wads of cash that have doubtless been waved in their faces over the past week.

There is a silver lining in all of this: The Sentimentalists is available in e-book form.  If you really want to read it, and you probably should if it’s as good as the Giller panel has made it out to be, you can do so electronically.  This means basically that nothing will be produced but 1s and 0s, and everyone from author to publisher to retailer will pocket some of the sticker price. Otherwise, sit back, chill out and wait for your copy.

Besides, you’ll still need to buy Christmas presents next year, right?

Famed Printing Press-inventor and perennial time-traveller Johannes Gutenberg, upon hearing of the Giller contoversy on his most recent arrival in the 21st century was quoted as saying: "Oh Mann, das ist ja mal Scheiße!, roughly "Oh man, that is shit times!"


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