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