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Supply vs. demand: A lesson in Canadian capitalism, publishing style

November 11, 2010

Johanna Skibsrud

Not that we here in the greatest country on earth much care (USA! USA! USA!), but did you know there are Canadian authors not named Margaret Atwood? Me, neither! But apparently some novelist named Johanna Skibsrud has won something called “the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Best Canadian Novel.”

Her novel, The Sentimentalists, beat out more established writers like (ha-ha! Here come some household names –in Winnepeg!) David Bergen, Alexander MacLeod, Sarah Selecky, and Kathleen Winter for the –whoa!

This prize comes with $50,000? Respect the Giller! The National Book Award is worth only 10 grand, while the Pulitzer gets you a measly $3,000 and the National Book Critics Circle comes with a plaque and bragging rights (but what can you expect from a group of journalists? Have you seen the way they dress?).

Hey, America! Size does matter! Are we going to let the Canadians — Canadians, for pete’s sake! — have a national literary award with a prize five times bigger than our biggest?!? I say, hell no! We need to pull together, or we’ll hang separately. Or at least be eating vinegar chips and drinking LaBatt, instead of good ol’ Lay’s and Budweiser.

So I am taking it upon myself to collect donations from patriotic Americans. If we join together, we can boost the prize money for the National Book Awards until it surpasses that of the Giller Prize. It’s our duty, ladies and gentleman. Send your donations here to me and I will forward them to New York and the fine folks at the National Book Award. All they have to do is pay me a handling charge and make me permanent chair of the fiction judging committee.

Anyway, you’d think winning her nation’s top literary award would make a sudden star out of Skibsrud (try saying that name five times fast) and a bestseller out of her novel. Well, it might have achieved the first — surely everyone north of Duluth who reads English knows who she is by now.

But the second part, making a bestseller out of The Sentimentalists, is proving a bit harder. Why? After all, it should benefit from the so-called “Giller effect,” which sent last year’s winning novel, The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre (who?) to total hardcover sales of 75,000 copies.

The Sentimentalists, alas, can hardly be found in any bookstore in Canada, thanks to its publisher, Gaspereau Press, which, reports Martin Knelman in the Toronto Star, makes books in “a slow, handcrafted way,” producing no more than 1,000 copies a week.

Now I’m all for old-fashioned craftsmanship, but when the market demands a product, producers have the obligation to satisfy it, right? Not Gaspereau, which turned down an offer by Random House to help print enough copies to satisfy demand. Petty soon it will be “Last Gaspereau.”

After all, barely more than a year ago — May 2009 — Gaspereau was laying off workers and trimming its list of titles.

“We built our business making nice books,” says Gaspereau’s Gary Dunfield. “Six months or a year from now, when everything has gone back to normal, we’re still going to make nice books.”

Careful, Gaspereau! That kind of complacent disregard of market forces will get you smote by the Invisible Hand. (Yes, I know “smitten” is correct here, but “smote” sounds way cooler).

Giller organizers and booksellers alike are annoyed by Gaspereau’s recalcitrance, in that nice, respectful Canadian kind of way.

“It’s sad and disappointing,” says Franz Donker, owner of Book City, which has four stores in Toronto. “I feel so sorry for Jack Rabinovitch (founder of the Giller Prize). He put his whole soul into helping the book industry and this situation is a big disappointment for everybody.”

Donker ordered 50 copies a month ago, but said he could sell 400 now that The Sentimentalists has taken the prize. By the time Gaspereau can deliver that many books, however, demand is likely to have vanished.

No one doubts the beauty of Gaspereau’s work. Giller judge Claire Messud told the National Post that when she first received a copy of The Sentimentalists what struck her wasn’t Skibsrud’s writing but the book itself: “Physically, it’s a beautiful book.”

It’s ironic, notes the National Post‘s Mark Medley, that more people will probably read this beautiful book on digital readers than in hardcover: “E-book retailer Kobo was trumpeting the fact they have a limitless supply of the novel in-stock (and for $14.95). By Wednesday afternoon, it was the site’s third-most popular purchase.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 11, 2010 2:08 pm

    Sorry, Mr. Mabe. I am not going to send you a donation to up the book prize ante. But I will gladly take Canada’s healthcare system.

  2. November 11, 2010 2:54 pm

    “We built our business making nice books,” says Gaspereau’s Gary Dunfield. “Six months or a year from now, when everything has gone back to normal, we’re still going to make nice books.”

    This rots my socks. This, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with publishing today. And I don’t mean just in Cananda. Since when is it okay NOT to want to sell a lot of books? The whole idea that writers should want to write for the sheer love of it all — and if the audience is small, so what? — is elitist nonsense. The purpose of writing, even fiction, is communication. Otherwise it’s just masturbation.

    And while we’re at it, if Skibsrud isn’t on her agent’s butt about this Random House thing, she’s crazy. Good grief…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 11, 2010 11:49 pm

      That about covers, PJ. Why be in business if you don’t want to sell things? The unfairness to the author is dumbfounding. She did just take home fifty grand, though.

  3. ellen farker permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:54 am

    Murderous novel GROGNARD by Patrick Quere ”may be involved” in Florida copycat murder case

  4. ellen farker permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:55 am

    Patrick J. F. Quere, 27, published “Grognard” as an ebook with Sunbury Books in Pennsylvania in September. On Halloween Eve, October 31, Quere’s longtime “best friend” murdered his own mother in her house in Hollywood, Florida.

    Not Hollywood, California, but Hollywood, Florida, a leafy suburb of Miami-vice Miami. Who knows, both the book and the murder story now making
    news headlines might both be headed for the real Hollywood soon enough.

    For now, it’s a police case. Miami police say they got their man, and he is under arrest.

    Bradley Winterton, a longtime British expat in Taiwan, who writes for the Taipei Times there, reviewed Quere’s book in September, mostly panning it and wondering why it was
    ever published.

    But when he recently learned via news reports and a friend’s email alert that Quere’s former “best friend” is now under arrest for the Halloween murder, Winterton wrote a front page recap of the entire affair for the newspaper’s feature section, complete with
    quotes from Quere, who he interviewed by email, and the publisher, Lawrence Knorr.

  5. ellen farker permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:58 am

    “Grognard” has now been withdrawn from circulation by the publisher and is no longer for sale, according to publisher Knorr. In addition, the Miami Herald newspaper’s crime beat is planning a front page story
    any day now, explaining how the book might have played a pivotal role in the murder.

    For his part, Quere tells this reporter that he is glad the book has been withdrawn for now and feels depressed that his first novel has drawn media attention in this surreal and tragic way.

    “Given the evidence, and my friendship with the accused, there are too many coincidences for this tragedy for it all to be a coincidence,” he said by email on Friday. “I regret [it, but I must say] that it is my personal belief that ‘Grognard’ served as a sort horrific guideline for the accused to commit this murder. I am deeply saddened by the whole thing, and personally I wish I never wrote the novel. But there exists the element of hope. Hope that something can be learned by this tragedy from a mental health point of view so that it can save lives, and make the invisible visible.”

    Hollywood police seems to be in the dark about all this, however.

    According a news source deep in the bowels of the Herald, “Florida police had never heard of Quere — or his strangely-compelling (or compellingly-strange) book before, and , they cannot think of any reasons they’d want to speak with him since Beau Bruneau confessed to the crime and the evidence against him is indisputable.”

    End of story? Not on your … life. Stay tuned for further….. denouements.

    Meanwhile, read Winterton’s rivetting interview this week with Quere online:

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