By Frank Moher
Okay, so I was set to go all crazy right-wing on Gaspereau Press and suggest that its federal funding should be pulled because of its refusal to capitalize on its Giller Prize victory. Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists won the $50,000 award on Tuesday night, and immediately her Nova Scotia-based publisher, who handcraft their books, was beset with questions about how they were going to meet demand.
Their early response wasn’t promising. Said Indigo Books and Music: “We want to order thousands of copies.” Said Gaspereau Press’s Andrew Steeves: “They’re not a core client for us. They are someone we deal with because they are a factor in the industry, not because they’re good customers.”
Right. That’s the way to deal with a windfall. Insult the nation’s major books retailer.
But then I went to the Canadian Heritage website and discovered that, in 2009-10 at least, Gaspereau Press didn’t receive any money from the federal Aid to Publishers fund. My notion was that any publisher who didn’t try to sell as many copies of its books as possible had no call on the public purse. Government subsidy is essential to our book industry, but its purpose is not to pick up the slack for those who can’t or won’t make intelligent business decisions.
But if they’re not into the taxpayers for the big bucks, I guess they’re free to be as capricious as they want. (Apparently they do receive a dwindling subsidy from their provincial government; I’ll leave it to the good people of Nova Scotia to wonder about that.) And then I came across this funny and homey pictorial account of how they spent the big night, and I thought: how could I be mean to such obviously fine people?
But I still think they’re wrong. “We got here because we make nice books,” co-publisher Gary Dunfield told the Post. Yeah, not so much.
Gaspereau do indeed make nice books; beautiful ones, in fact. But they got where they were Tuesday night because Johanna Skibsrud, according to the judges, wrote a very good book. Gaspereau may have been perspicacious enough to publish it, and dedicated enough to do so in an exquisitely wrought edition, but I certainly hope the quality of the paper and binding is not why the judges gave it the award.
Skibsrud, of course, has good reason to be concerned about their attitude. As do people who want to read the book, but don’t want to, or can’t, read it in an e-version. Gaspereau has received multiple offers from big publishers to bring the book out in a big print run. They have refused them. “If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it’s damn well coming out of my shop,” Steeves told the Globe in October. Spoken like a true printer, but not a true publisher.
No one could be happier than I that the Giller has been wrested from domination by the big guys. But that isn’t licence for the little guys to act stupidly. “The reader who is here today will be here in three weeks,” says Steeves.
Maybe. But in three weeks, Indigo will still be sold out.
Update: A few days later, they changed their minds.