Saturday, November 13, 2010

MINE MINE MINE NOW NOW NOW: Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists, Gaspereau Press + the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Everyone sure seems to have a lot of opinions about Gaspereau Press these days, for deciding to hand-print a thousand copies a week of Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel, The Sentimentalists, winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. Daily I’ve seen newspaper reports and opinions about Gaspereau’s decision to say no to certain outside offers to quick-print, and the oft-repeated number of “75,000” when referring to sales of previous winner’s titles. How could they pass up commerce for beauty? What about the opportunities for their author? How could they not understand? Don’t fool yourself: this is not about whether or not her work is getting out there.

Perhaps we need to change the way we think about books, and about how books are sold. Somehow, booksellers, readers and everyone else related to the literary book industry seem to have been self-programmed to expect that books are forgettable, and therefore, have only a shelf-life of six months. Books are aimed now for the quick, the immediate push and then nothing else; like butterflies, a quick season before absolute, utter death. Apparently copies of the book are available still on the Chapters site (Amazon’s unavailability is oft-quoted, but Chapters availability is ignored), and even selling plenty of copies as ebooks for those who want it quickly and can’t wait.

Exactly what is the concern here? Gaspereau won’t play along; I’m sure they, among many other small publishers over the past half-decade or more, have suffered greatly with the big chains over-demanding, over-ordering and thusly over-returning. Imagine a big-box chain bookstore demand to produce two, three or five times more than you would have otherwise, and then returning almost every one six months later, meaning a dead, unsellable stock that you still haven’t paid the printing for, let alone the years ahead of warehousing fees. It’s death to small press, pure and simple. So Gaspereau doesn’t play that way? Good for them. Will it hurt the immediate sales of Skibsrud’s novel? In the short term, sure, but so what? Awards and lists should be the opening for conversation and debate, and not a series of annual absolutes.

Awards make readers lazy, unadventurous and possibly stupid; instead of allowing to celebrate the accomplishment of a jury-decided award, it’s made an entire segment of the population and media focus on only the winning author and winning title, and ignoring most else of what gets written and published. A jury shouldn’t tell you what to read; if books are part of an actual culture, juries should tell you what else to read.

For god’s sake, write down the name of her novel on your calendar, and wait. Better that Gaspereau hold to their guns, despite the snide remarks that media has thrown, from the Globe and Mail to the Ottawa Citizen. Apparently they originally produced only eight hundred copies in their little shop, and ran through their initial run almost immediately. The best part? For some reason, they mailed me two copies of the first run (I immediately gave my extra away to Michael Blouin, who has been boasting on facebook about such). The entire point of their operation is hand-made books, so suck it up, gentle reader. Hold, for the obvious beauty. Savour in small, slow bites.

Wolfville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press, which came initially out of the poetry and fiction journal, The Gaspereau Review, has quite an extensive backlist, and I’m sure any of their other authors would very much appreciate the attention. If you are to like what Skibsrud has accomplished, and already it’s shown that many have, why not take a chance on another of the many books of poetry, fiction or non-fiction that the press has produced over the last decade? Why not pick up either of her other books, possibly? Her first poetry collection, Late Night with Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau, 2008) was lovely, although her second, I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being (Gaspereau, 2010), didn’t really do it for me. Why not explore the short-list while waiting? Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (Biblioasis) is one I would very much like to get my hands on, after a sharp, stellar reading at this past writers festival in Ottawa.

When we were in our later teens, my not-yet-ex-wife introduced me to the idea of walking into a video store and renting flicks neither of us had ever heard of, and what magnificent discoveries we made along the way. The disappointments were surprisingly few.

Reading should be something considered, thoughtful and long, and not caught up the immediate nonsense of instant gratification. As for myself? A copy of the novel has been sitting on my shelf for months, unopened. I’ll get to it when I get to it. I have no problem with any of that at all.
Suburban Dream No. 2

You will be counted on in heaven to bring,

to each and every book-club meeting,
two or three pearls
in order to illuminate the text for us so that it becomes

clear in those few moments, to

all of us, sitting upright in our dragged-in chairs,

how everything has to do with everything,
and our lives go down, and down.

Afterwards, someone will make a little joke,
or else a child will come
barrelling in from a driveway game,
and we will close our books
and laugh on our way to the door,
our voices trailing off into a sigh,
but not because we are either
discontented, or sad. (Late Night with Wild Cowboys)


M.D. Dunn said...

Thank you for this balanced and rational response to a silly, consumer-driven illusion of a problem. If anything, the perceived shortage will perpetuate the interest. I think this is an example of mass production mentality being unable to understand the beauty of the made object. And, like you say, there's always the ebook route for those who can't wait.
I made the mistake of commenting on the G&M site about this "controversy" and am getting pilloried for it. It's interesting 'though to see how the western consumer's need for instant satisfaction is frustrated by careful craftsmanship.
Anyway, thank you.

Anonymous said...

A timely and well aimed corrective to all this hysterical bullying.

"Apparently copies of the book are available still on the Chapters site ..."

I don't think they are, rob. Note the 3 - 5 week delivery time. The search for availability in the Toronto area yielded 0 results. Other areas?

Alex said...

Well put, rob. It's been sad to see how Gaspereau have been cast as the villains in all of this.

Jack Ruttan said...

I still think she or her publisher should post an e-version of the text for whatever price (I think a good one) for folk who want to read it. Then they can also buy the book, if they can find it.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. The guys at Gaspereau are made of awesome (the book, I'll reserve judgement on lest I spoiler it) and I've been very wearied by the bludgeoning they've been receiving. They can handle it, and do, but it's been exasperating to watch.

Kathy said...

Slow books, like slow food...

Images by Ceci said...

Thoroughly enjoyed, and agree with, your commentary.

Society today is much too focused on the "now now now" pressures.

Thanks - and thanks for the sample poem. I think I'll buy that book.

Everyday Athena said...

Fantastic! I told friends that this book frenzy reminded me of the Cabbage Patch Kid "craze" of the 80's. Is that any way to treat a Giller Prize winner? Yes, I'm definitely anxious to get a copy of this book...but good for the publisher for insisting on quality and on doing it his way.

Anonymous said...

To be sure I admire what Gaspereau does and its ethical stand on this matter, but isn't it also true that, among other factors, lack of reliable sales is slowly squeezing the small publisher regardless of the type of printing machine they use? Having some acquaintance with our small publishers I get the feeling they are tired of being obscured by the 'bigs' be they big publishers or big sellers and they'd give an eye tooth for a hit book. It is the rare book from a small pub that pays for its own cost of printing and warehousing (and don't forget marketing). Maybe Gaspereau is the unusual press that is not operating at death's door financially, but I can think of two dozen others who would love those sales figures.

RM said...

Check your independent bookstore- that's where the books are going first.
And there is an e-version via Kobo- which you can download to computer or ipad, I think, not just the Kobo reader.

Dave said...

Unfortunately it's yet another sign that people feel that books are something to be consumed rather than having any lasting value. Good on Gaspereau for believing that the book has an intrinsic value and not compromising on the production just to achieve a higher profit.