Filthy lucre

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was pleased to see Johanna Skibsrud take the Giller last night. I’m one of those lucky people with a first printing of The Sentimentalists, which I’m reading now. And I’m liking it. Better than Annabel, though not better than Light Lifting. But if Alexander MacLeod couldn’t win, I’m happy to see Skibsrud take it.

I’m happy to see it because it’s a good book, and also because it’s a chance for a small press, Gaspereau, to get some attention for the quality of their publishing program. Small presses do the literary grunt work in this country. They pound the ground and flush the new talent out of cover. And then, too often, bigger presses and agents leap into the game, and the small press is back to pounding the ground. They take the risks that agents and big houses do not; they’re the ones willing to take a dive on a new writer. They deserve the recognition.

Furthermore, Gaspereau makes beautiful books.

So my concern over the mess Johanna Skibsrud now finds herself in is not “shit talk about Gaspereau.” The fact is that Gaspereau is fully capable of meeting the normal demand for their books. And Andrew Steeves’ refusal to change his ways when the book was shortlisted was no big deal; the demand for a shortlist book is only a few thousand copies.

But winning … that places you in exceptional circumstances. Winning the Giller is not business as usual. Not for anyone, multinationals included. And this is where Gaspereau is making a serious mistake.

A lot of fuss is being made over booksellers and readers, and whether they’ll be able to get the book. Let me say this: I don’t give a shit about booksellers or readers here. They’re not on my team. Today, I only care about writers.

A writer gets one shot at something like this. At 27.95 and 10% royalty, with the Giller likely to move 75,000 copies, Johanna Skibsrud is looking at a $209,625 payday. But that demand has a time limit; much of it will be gone by Christmas, as frustrated readers buy something else. And next year will see another Must Read. This is a limited-time offer, whatever the feel-good promises that readers will wait, and you have to call now.

Meanwhile, Gaspereau can print only 1,000 copies a week. That’s 6,000 before Christmas; Skibsrud’s take, $16,770, I’m guessing about 20% of what she’d otherwise expect.

Filthy lucre! Writers, artists, we’re not supposed to care about money — we’re supposed to care about art. We’re supposed to love beautiful, hand-crafted books of the sort Gaspereau publishes. We’re not supposed to let the promise of $209,625 sway us from our path of purity. Skibsrud gently says that the business end is not up to her; she just wants readers!

(And she wants her fucking book fucking printed, although not in precisely those words.)

Filthy lucre? Bullshit. Money matters. Money is what lets you keep working at writing, which business is, for the most part, a money-loser. Money pays off the debts you rack up. It pays the mortgage and buys the groceries. This is why writers have day jobs, even when they pretend that they don’t, or understanding spouses with good jobs. And you get one shot at a payday like this one. One shot.

You would hope your partners would understand. Writers should view publishers as partners, a view that the big houses seem to discourage. You sign on with a publisher because you look for the services they provide: editing, printing, publicity and so on. They take the financial risks, and they make the decisions that create those risks, such as just how big the print run should be. You work together, in good faith, to make the book a success. You owe each other this. You are on the same team. And in the small press world, the relationship is personal.

Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau has said that he knows he can meet demand by outsourcing production, but he won’t. He has stuck by his principles, which is admirable. He has said a great deal about the art of making fine books, but I note there’s one subject on which he’s been silent: doing right by your authors. In sticking to “business as usual” in the face of the Giller hype, Steeves is sticking it to market forces and commercial interests for which he has no respect. And Skibsrud’s interests have become collateral damage.

Forget filthy lucre, awards, contracts, and all the rest. Business is personal, and there is one cardinal rule: don’t forget your friends.


UPDATE: I originally attributed “shit talk about Gaspereau” to Stacey May Fowles (and misspelt her name). She did say this, but not with reference to me. I removed the attribution and apologize for “Stacy.”

  1. Lynn Brown
    November 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    As the understanding spouse of a writer, I fully agree with your post. I suggest we contact her UK publisher to have them publish it quicker than planned, making it available to Canadians before Christmas via online purchases. But since I work full time, I don’t have time to actually do this.

  2. November 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    A great post, one that really hits the nail on the head. I’d add that their are three stake-holders here: 1) Gaspereau, which wants to publish high quality books 2) Skibsrud, who obviously values the high quality books that Gaspereau makes but also wants to as wide a readership as possible and of course the money that comes from that readership and 3) the readers who are now interested in the book and want to read it or give it as a gift.

    However much I admire Gaspereau’s committment to craft values, I don’t see how it’s possible to support their stance without working against the interests of Skibsrud and her readers. It’s not enough to say that people can get her novel as an e-book. This is percisely the type of book people will want to have on their shelves or to give as a gift. The value of the book comes not just from the paper and type and craft care that went into the making of it but also the craft care that Shibsrud put into the writing of it. To prize the book as an object so much that you’re willing to keep it out of the hands of readers means you are devaluing the book as literature.

  3. November 11, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Great post and great comments. Apologies for writing a ‘feel-good promises’ type of response to the situation. I certainly hadn’t intended it to be ‘feel-ggod’ in any sense but I can see how it can be perceived that way. I come from a background in independent bookselling and publishing and can respond strongly in defense of indies from time to time.

    But you make a good point and I won’t argue against numbers.

    It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out. Jeet’s comments about stakeholders is instructive, too.

  4. November 11, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I think that those of us who are committed readers will wait. We forget that much of the vaunted Giller Effect consists of sales to people who won’t.

    I’m 100% in support of Gaspereau’s philosophy, on principle. It’s just that the Giller isn’t business as usual. Still, I was reminded today that for Gaspereau to sell the book, they would lose money, because the contract would give Skibsrud a big chunk of the payment. So, in keeping with that theme of partnership and good faith, one hopes they can work out a deal by renegotiating the terms so that both parties can get full benefit of the windfall.

  1. November 10, 2010 at 5:42 pm

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