A publisher who won't move Heaven and Earth to print a book when readers are salivating over it is a strange publisher, indeed. Gaspereau Press of Kentville, N.S., deserves all the credit in the world for publishing Johanna Skibsrud's first novel The Sentimentalists, winner Tuesday of the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. But someone needs to tell this tiny press that good books deserve a large audience, and that publishers that fail so spectacularly to seize the moment will soon be the last resort of promising new writers.
Perhaps some grudging admiration is due to anyone who hews to a principle - in this case, the principle of creating exquisitely bound books, using a 1960s offset press and covers printed on a hand-cranked letterpress. But the principle seems to be detached from its original purpose in enhancing the experience of readers. The result may be to drive people to hand-held devices and the e-book version. Or people may be put off and will not read the book at all.
The moment is everything. Such a moment never comes to most writers. It may never come again to the 30-year-old Ms. Skibsrud. Giller Prize winners may sell 60,000 to 80,000 copies. Before The Sentimentalists was nominated, it had sold just 400 copies, out of a first print run of 800. There are already 211 "holds" at the Toronto Public Library, and zero copies are listed as available. Vancouver's libraries have 96 requests for zero copies (three on order) and Halifax has 134 holds for three copies (15 more on order).
Meanwhile, the publisher can produce just 1,000 copies a week. "If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it's damn well coming out of my shop," publisher Andrew Steeves said last month. Larger publishers who approached Gaspereau about printing and distribution have been rejected. The true measure of any book's success is not a prize but its ability to connect with readers.