14 November 2010

Plants & Pages: Gaspereau, the Giller, & Gardening.

The past few days since author Johanna Skibsrud won the Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists have been somewhat surreal, at least in book-lover-land. Many of us were delighted that a young writer had been given this big boost (and large cheque), and thrilled to bits that our local artisan publisher, Gaspereau Press, had been the ones to publish her AND nominate her for this award. However, many of the so-called Toronto intelligentsia have had their knickers in a right twist because Gaspereau hasn’t had thousands of copies already printed and ready to go to the bigbox stores like Amazon and Chapters. In some cases, I think there's more than a little Green Envy going on (matching the exquisite Echinacea of the same name in the photo above).

There has been a lot of bashing of Gaspereau over this, often by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, but unfortunately also sometimes by people who ought to know better. I won’t even touch the whole judgery tempest except to say I hope the Giller committee tightens its rules about behaviour by judges prior to the winner’s announcement.

The team at the award-winning Gaspereau Press are known for their commitment to quality publishing and printing. Their books are created by hand on old-style printing presses, using beautiful papers and interesting types. I have a number of their books in my permanent library, and have read many others. This isn't a diss at other publishers--I have lots of quality books from many quality publishers. Gaspereau is just...different, in the best of ways.

Andrew and Gary can produce about 1000 copies a week of any particular book. They are working away at meeting the sudden demand, but here’s the interesting thing. Although the book hasn’t been available on Amazon, it’s been at a number of independent bookstores. Until the last day or so (I haven’t checked today), The Box of Delights in Wolfville had copies. I’ve seen Twitter comments reporting purchases at other indie bookstores around Canada. There’s also an e-copy available for purchase and download for those who use Kobo readers. (I don’t like ebook readers myself but that’s merely my personal tastes, nothing else. )

So those who are loyal to local book stores are or have been, in many cases, able to sate their desire to read this book right away. Others are content to wait, or to download an electronic copy and then buy a print copy later. The wailings about how much missed opportunity the writer is having because everyone can’t buy it Right! This! Minute! are primarily coming out of Toronto, where the street of the bank barons (Bay Street) is littered at night with homeless people sleeping on subway vents.

Regular readers of bloomingwriter can be forgiven for being puzzled about my passion, as a writer, for standing up for the publisher instead of totally saying “Oh poor thing,” to the writer, and offering hankies to the handwringers whining on the pages of the national newspapers. Well, books are an odd subject in commerce. Bookstores can order them in, and then return unsold copies to the publisher at a later date. So what happens if Gaspereau prints 50,000 copies of a book and has 30,000 copies returned to them? Can you say fiscal disaster?

Bigbox stores have a certain amount of clout, but they also can be bullies, in just this regard. To drawn an analogy between two of my passions, books and plants: I know of several nurseries in this region who had been contracted to grow certain types of plants or cut flowers for the bigbox stores. When BogBoxX store cancels its contract, or declines to renew for subsequent years, the grower is stuck with massive amounts of certain types of plants, which they can’t always market quickly in a reasonable amount of time. See nurseries exit the business. This isn’t a situation known only to my region—I imagine most parts of the US, the UK, and beyond have seen similar situations.

The bigboxes buy in bulk, and set the prices they want to pay, often less than it costs to produce a product, whether a plant or a potato or a well-printed novel. We (gardeners, readers, eaters, everyone) don’t make enough fuss about low-quality crap from China, or produce flown in from thousands of miles away and grown under questionable conditions, or plants sold here that were grown in some warm part of the US (which means they won’t thrive here), or any other number of quality-versus quality concerns. Want something ordinary, the same as thousands or millions of others have? Go to a bigbox store. Want something special, unique, wonderful and less than quotidian? Get it from a local nursery, or from a publisher with a passion for creating not just commodity, but actual heirlooms and works of art.

In Gaspereau’s case, as was noted by another writer (I can't remember who or I'd put the link up), they filled the orders to their independent customers long ago, when Amazon or Chapters didn’t perhaps bother to order any copies in the first place. Loyalty breeds loyalty. The bigboxes know nothing of loyalty, so it puzzles them when a small publisher doesn’t fawn over them and impoverish itself to meet their demands.

After a couple of days of reading obnoxious articles in the Post and Globe, people around the country began to post rebuttals and defend Gaspereau's integrity. Some writers are, like me, recognizing that it's a complex story and are hoping that all will be happy soon despite the complexities of the story. No less a sage than Rex Murphy put up an excellent article in the NaPo, including this thought:

I can hear all the objections to this perspective — it isn’t sensible, it isn’t practical, it’s so unfair to the author. In answer to the first two complaints: I say, let’s have a lot more of what isn’t sensible or practical, at least as those qualities are perceived in our fame-besotted, Jersey Shore world. The last objection, that it’s unfair to the author, is more difficult to deal with. Maybe there’s some consolation in the fact that her winning is, precisely because of this story-controversy, now quite singular, and so her book will be all the more welcomed when it does show up in the stores.

Gaspereau, after all, is merely taking a stand for the book — the book itself, as a beautiful object, as a piece of art. I would have expected, even at the higher altitudes of the Giller constituency, some fellow-feeling for that perspective and some respect for the idea that art doesn’t — necessarily — always kneel before commerce and fame.

My friend Ami McKay, a best-selling author and also a Gaspereau-published writer, wrote a post that included a letter to the Globe from another writer, which says, in part:

That Gaspereau Press has been reviled for this incredibly beautiful act of faith is a stunning collective failing of our collective imagination--but it doesn't surprise me given how debased our relationship with art has become. I do have to agree with the final sentence of today's editorial: "The true measure of any book's success is not a prize but its ability to connect with readers."

Johanna Skibsrud is going to be just fine, what with her Giller cheque, her UK agent and contract, and the thousands of copies of the book that have been and will be sold. Gaspereau has a plan to solve their publishing bottleneck which will hopefully make most everyone happy, including their bookkeeper. Andrew and Gary are to be commended for cherishing books as things of permanence and beauty, not merely tossaways to be composted along with the day’s newspaper. And for doing the very best they can for all involved. That's how they roll.


Gaspereau announced this morning that Douglas & McIntyre has acquired the trade paperback rights to The Sentimentalists and will be printing 30,000 copies at once. Gaspereau, meanwhile, will continue to create the handmade copies for purchase by those who desire a unique item. Group hugs for all involved (yes, including Toronto, of course). We love it when a plan comes together.


  1. Jodi:
    I overheard a fellow book affecianado while at my local indy bookseller the other day.....
    'Gaspereau were willing to take a chance with this author, long before the accolades associated with the Giller, so why is it that everyone is so pissed because they [Gaspereau] want to be the ones selling it from their house?' Indeed! It only solidifies the sentiment that we're living in a society that demands instant gratification.... I wanted that book yesterday damn it! A wonderful post that will hopefully quell the incessant chatter surrounding this book. I have placed an order with my indie, and will fully savour it when it arrives. Until then, I have a garden to put to bed for the season!

  2. I enjoyed your post, Jodi, and I agree with what you had to say. I am thrilled for both Johanna and Gaspereau Press. How wonderful to win the Giller!

    Years back when the Gaspereau Review was being published they included several of my stories. It didn't take long for me to understand that the press is very supportive of local writers and take great care with the books they print. Gaspereau Books are distinctly their own, and are produced with much love & care.

  3. I agree. When I read the in the paper that Amazon etc. had to get in line behind the independents, I started cackling.


  4. Great essay, Jodi. Gaspereau Press is a treasure.

  5. I agree with you books are things of permanence and beauty, not to be tossed in the recycle. Great post.

  6. The thing that excites me most about buying the book is the cachet of holding that bit of the Maritimes in my hands, in all its beauty. I think that special and rare = value. Wait for the real thing.

  7. Hi, Jodi,
    Please don't tar all of Toronto with that brush. I love both the artefact and the experience of reading a beautifully produced book, hate big box stores (some, with a passion) and prefer to shop at my local Book City, an independent bookseller. Hoorah, that this book was chosen, and so what if it's scarce for now. Aside from everything else, it makes a great story.

  8. Aw, Helen, Toronto's okay--just some of the prats in the media etc that think it's The Centre of The Universe that get up our noses in the Rest of Canada. Not the concern here. As you say, the fact that the book and its writer were chosen and the publisher cares to create works of lasting beauty are the happy story here. Onward and upward.

  9. I'm so glad that Gaspereau Press is still going to print their handmade copies as well -- they do such beautiful work. Seems like a perfect solution. Leave it to Rex to pen it so perfectly. Great post, jodi!

  10. Indeed, Nancy! It's great news. Now, as for the bigboxes and the nurseries...that might take a little longer to solve.

  11. I understand the woes of the small publishing house all too well as I worked for one for almost five years and saw this time and time again! The publishing industry is really dictated by the larger houses. I always had to hold back laughing at author's who asked about a book tour. I wonder if the ebook industry will shake things up and make it better or worse for the small houses. I fear it may bury many of them.

  12. Enjoyed this post, and constantly marvel at the "need it now" state that the world is in. Good things are worth the wait. Too bad the world has forgotten that.

  13. Dealing with the big box stores is impossible for small business. At Bay Hammocks, we found that we had to totally withdraw from that market - they had no interest in the quality of our product or the success of our business. They only care about maximum numbers at the lowest possible price and demand the right to return unsold product. Best of luck to Gaspereau Press. We hope they find a way to meet this unusual demand, their quality standards and business requirements.

  14. Well, now I want to read the book. But I've got such a backlog already, I can wait. ;) Anyway, this sounds like a publisher well worth supporting! As for its artisan processes hurting the author in any way, I'd have to argue that this author owes a big debt to her publisher for getting her out there in the first place.

    Concerning the dynamics of modern commerce, more and more of us are fighting against the mainstream, I think, realizing that if we don't support our indie bookstores, nurseries, small farmers, local musicians, and even independent restaurants, our choices will soon be as appealing and original as mass-produced cardboard boxes. Not to mention that we are often impoverishing our own small communities when we choose the Big Box option. Some of us are even motivated by the realization that globalization itself is endangered by resource constraints to which no technological solution has yet been discovered, and that we must have healthy alternatives to the multinational corporations already in place before the transition begins.

    Great piece, Jodi.

  15. Sometimes that negative energy can be a bonus. I hope she/they all do well despite the critics.

  16. Hi Jodi,
    My mom, May van de Riet, asked me to send you a note to say how much she enjoys and looks forward to your column. She doesn't miss a single one. She also loves your newly posted photo for yourself that you are currently using with your column. Keep up the great work


  17. Awful lot of twists and turns in this. I hope it works out ok. I hope this solution does work . . . hm.

    If I were the author and there was a queue of people wanting to buy my book but no copies available, I'd be bothered - even if I had just won a prize. But as a reader . . . although it's exciting to have a new book in one's hands, a novel can wait. It doesn't go off like milk or wilt like lettuce.


  18. That book looks like such a treasure. I'd rather have one of the unique copies than some mass market print. I wonder where I can get my hands on one. I honestly don't know where any of the older book stores are left in my area. Chapters sort of took over a decade or so ago. Any tips of a good independent book store in the Lower mainland, BC?


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