Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can the Giller screw you?

So the shortlists for two of the three biggies in Canadian literature have been announced. Even though crowd favourite Michael Winter is nominated for the Writers' Trust Award, the Giller Prize shortlist is by the far the more interesting of the two. The Giller shortlist:

The Matter with Morris, David Bergen (HarperCollins)

Light Lifting, Alex MacLeod (Biblioasis)

This Cake is For the Party, Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen)

The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau)

Annabel, Kathleen Winter (Anansi)

Anyway, this year's selections have caused something of a minor bruhaha. For the first time in, like, ever, it's a battle of the little guys. That's right: no Random House, no M&S, no Penguin, Knopf, etc. etc. HarperCollins has a single title on the list - David Bergen's latest - and Anansi has a title, too, though I don't think you can fairly call them one of the big boys / girls.

Past titles shortlisted for the award have benefited the so-called 'Giller Effect,' a substantial boost in sales, media attention, etc. With few [quote / quote] names on this year's list, there's some speculation as to whether or not the GE will happen. Which kind points to the shady subject of practicality.

I don't know if you know this, but Gaspereau (to use the most glaring example) prints their own books. And apparently The Sentimentalists, their Giller-shortlisted title, is almost out of print. If you were a bigger press, that would mean putting in an order for a second print run, complete with nifty Giller stickers embossing the covers. But what if you print high quality books in low numbers? What if you manually print each and every book (with love) and in order to fill out requests for your Giller shortlisted title you have to push back your Fall publishing schedule to have another run printed? And, God forbid, what happens if the Giller Effect DOESN'T quite work with titles from smaller, less known presses without the marketing and PR budget to paint the town red for their titles?

I mean, seriously. What happens if a smaller publisher sells out its original print run but doesn't sell enough copies of print run two (2) to make it fiscally prudent? Having stacks of book at the front of bookstores costs money. So does having them displayed face out on the shelves. Snazzy promotional materials cost money, too. You bet your ass that David Bergen's book will benefit from such things, because HarperCollins has the infrastructure to take an award nomination and spin gold from it.

But where does that leave Gaspereau? Or Biblioasis, for that matter? For the former, in the worst case scenario, potentially delaying their catalogue to print a book that SHOULD sell but doesn't for all the wrong reasons - lack of promotional budget, high production costs, an infrastructure that can't handle the kind of demand that the Giller nod will probably get them.

To be clear: all of that is speculation. Maybe I'm underestimating the resources (and resourcefulness) of the presses nominated this year. In which case, I can stop talking. I really can. It's just, man. How screwy is it that getting shortlisted for the Giller might actually lose a publisher money?

All of which is not to say that I think we should be nominating the so-called 'major presses' and say peace out to the rest. I'm happy that smaller independent presses are getting their due. It seems like in recent years award nods have been the great equalizer that makes smaller publishers more attractive than they might have been in the past. And kudos to the (tellingly, mostly international) trio of judges for choosing the titles that appeal to them based on content, not some misguided notion of who SHOULD be on the list.

I'm just really, truly curious to see how it plays out this year. As for who I think will take it, I'd put my money on Kathleen Winter, and not just because I'm reviewing her novel Annabel for the next issue of Matrix Magazine in Montreal. It's a good book, plain and simple


  1. i think it comes down to controlling your print run regardless. canada is just too big are there are too many stores in general. if consumers bought their books directly from publisher there would be no problem. blockbuster is going out of business, so why shouldn't more chapters-indigos do the same? how many bookstores do we need in canada anyway? let's say 1000 people want to buy the giller shortlist title in the next 30 days, or 2000, and there are 700 copies of the book now in various indigos, etc, and amazons, and indie stores nationwide. what do you do? reprint? hire a publicist to tell consumers where the book is?

    chapters-indigo / amazon orders are such a huge per centages of a print run that it can be hard to control things.

  2. should read "canada is just too big and there are too many stores in general"