Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Big bookstores can't get Giller-winning novel

Giller Winning novel in very short supply

TORONTO - Montreal's Johanna Skibsrud was the toast of the literary world Wednesday after nabbing the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, but the author's tiny Nova Scotia publisher couldn't say when her winning title would be available in one of the country's biggest bookstore chains.

"The Sentimentalists," Skibsrud's debut novel, is published by Gaspereau Press, which can only print about 1,000 copies a week. The company prides itself on hand-crafted books and has been steadfast in its refusal to outsource in order to meet demand.

"Our plan is still to produce the books here and to produce them at a sane rate that we can manage," publisher Andrew Steeves said from Gaspereau's headquarters in Kentville, N.S. "You have to hope for the goodwill and the patience of the booksellers and the readers. I think it's an interesting opportunity to slow the world down a hair and let people realize that good books don't go stale."

Skibsrud, 30, became the youngest Giller winner in the 17-year history of the prize when her name was called out at Tuesday's black-tie gala. She was emotional as she thanked her late father, who partly inspired her novel, about a daughter's quest to learn the truth about her father's life and his backstory in the Vietnam War.

A Giller win is like winning a literary lottery — particularly for an unknown author — and typically results in a boost in sales. But a downtown Chapters Indigo store did not have any copies of "The Sentimentalists" on Wednesday, even though it had received at least 10 inquiries about the book by mid-morning.

Steeves said he's filling the orders of independent bookstores first because they are his best customers. He couldn't say when Chapters Indigo would receive a shipment. He noted that people can download Skibsrud's book on e-readers if they are desperate to read it right away ("The Sentimentalists" was the third best-selling title on Kobobooks on Wednesday). Steeves, who co-founded Gaspereau 13 years ago, said the company's unique work is important to Canada's literary landscape.

"If you want a world that will only produce the kind of books Random House does then you know, you're going to get a pretty bland, McDonald's culture," he said, adding that Random House does "some great work. I don't really subscribe to the 'panic theory' of, if you don't have it right there, someone's going to buy something else. If people really want this book, if they really value the kind of ... cultural environment that can produce this kind of book then they will wait."

Skibsrud — who grew up in Pictou County, N.S. — admitted Tuesday night that she has, at times, wished that readers could get their hands on "The Sentimentalists" more quickly. Still, the author — who was scheduled to head to Turkey on Wednesday for a vacation — said she has faith in her publisher.

Gaspereau typically produces about 600 to 800 copies of a debut novel, Steeves said. He added that the company has almost completed a second print run of "The Sentimentalists," but would not give specific numbers.

Steeves noted that it was Gaspereau that paid attention to the novel in the first place. On some levels, he said, he really can't worry if Skibsrud is frustrated that her novel is in short supply. "My job is to be faithful to the values that we subscribe to here — to make good books, to do them well, to do them the best way we can and to stand up for and live out those principles," he said. "If we want to have a vibrant Canadian literary culture, you have to be able to foster not just a broad range of authors, but a broad range of publishers and ways of publishing."

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