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Author's angst grows over unavailability of Giller winner

Johanna Skibsrud has been a media darling for all of 12 hours, but as the Giller Prize-winning literary debutante took calls from across the country yesterday morning, she quickly developed a veteran politician's answer to the first questions every reporter asked: Why can't we read your book? When will we be able to? And is your publisher nuts or what?

The ultra-limited availability of The Sentimentalists, published more than a year ago in a luxe edition of a few hundred copies by Nova Scotia's Gaspereau Press, became the talk of the town as soon as the novel made the 2010 Giller Prize short list.

Now that the book has won, it is blooming into a scandal.

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Skibsrud bit her lip when Gaspereau co-publishers Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield spurned offers from Toronto-based publishers to reprint and distribute The Sentimentalists widely after the Giller jury made it a finalist.

Now she openly admits to being "concerned" about the partners' decision to continue hand-printing her prize-winning first novel at the leisurely rate of 1,000 books a week.

"Every writer at any stage of your career - prizes or no prizes, no matter what - you want as many readers as you can get," she said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for that."

With luck, she added, "we can still find a way to supply the books to everyone who wants a copy in a way that would sit well with Gaspereau as well as everyone else - including me."

The impasse certainly undercuts claims about the vaunted Giller effect, which is said to increase sales of winning titles exponentially, and which booksellers large and small across the country rely on to bring Christmas cheer.

"I think the jury inadvertently screwed the Giller by giving the prize to this purist little press," one disappointed publisher said, speaking anonymously. For the first time ever, he added, few of the nominated titles are being promoted or are even available at the Indigo-Chapters chain. "That's unbelievable."

There is not a single copy of The Sentimentalists available in any of the Indigo Books & Music stores, company president Joel Silver confirmed. "The Giller lights a match," he said, "but you still need to feed the fire. … If people aren't reading about it and talking about it, then I think it'll fizzle out faster."

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And the Giller effect is no longer a mere domestic affair. One reason Skibsrud can afford to be patient with her artisanal publishers is that British Giller juror Ali Smith helped the young poet acquire an agent and to arrange foreign publication of The Sentimentalists even before it emerged as a leading competitor for the 2010 Giller Prize.

The call from Smith's agent, London-based Tracy Bohan of The Wylie Agency, came before the book was long-listed in September, according to Skibsrud. Acting on what the author called "a gentlewoman's agreement," Bohan submitted the book to several London editors and quickly found a buyer in Jason Arthur, director of William Heinemann, an imprint of Random House UK.

Even before Skibsrud received her $50,000 cheque from Giller founder Jack Rabinovitch, she cashed a healthy advance from Heinemann for the right to publish her book in Britain and the former Commonwealth, excluding Canada.

"By the time we actually saw the book it was on the long list," Arthur said in an interview yesterday, adding he was "very keen that we did the deal here quickly."

After inking the international deal, Bohan turned her attention to Canada, flying to Toronto to attend the Giller ceremony and, after her client won, representing her interests with Gaspereau the morning after.

"It was a very congenial meeting," Skibsrud said, emphasizing her respect for Gaspereau "and the decisions they make."

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At the same time, she expressed hope her new agent might succeed where other Toronto publishers who proposed to take on the book, including House of Anansi press and Random House - had failed.

"That's something my publisher and my agent are discussing," she said. "I believe that what has been said will be true - that as the demand arises, those books will be supplied."

Gaspereau's Dunfield said the press has already filled orders from independent bookstores and is working on a shipment to Indigo. "We're going to make books as quick as we can and ship them as quick as we can," he promised, adding that any new arrangements will have to wait for the time being.

"Andrew and I will talk about it and make a decision," he said. "That's what we'll do."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Heinemann's Arthur is rushing to get the book into stores by early next spring. "I wasn't worried about losing sales," he said, describing his quick decision to buy The Sentimentalists even before it had won the Canadian award. "But I was very keen that we got it out in time to enter it for other prizes it would be eligible for in the U.K."

Arthur said he was struck buy the book's "exquisite writing" and its similarity to Paul Harding's 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel Tinkers, which his company is also publishing in Britain. Like many observers, he is semi-respectful of Gaspereau's anti-commercial stance.

"On the other hand," he added, "I really hope they can find a way to produce enough books for the many readers she's now going to be attracting."

One irony is that the prize-winning book, much lauded among those who have seen it for its craftsmanship, is currently only available electronically by users of Indigo's Kobo e-reader. But Skibsrud is good with that.

"I'm just excited about literature, no matter what way it can be accessed," she said. "I'm just hoping there will be a copy of some kind for every single person who wants one."

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