Four Canadian publishers, from the mighty HarperCollins to the micro Biblioasis, are just waiting to pick up the phone and tell their printers to push the button if their entry on the shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize should win on Nov. 9. They will have spent weeks pondering the right number: Is it another 30,000 copies? Or another 50,000? Meanwhile, one lone Canadian publisher is wondering why it should be expected to play the Giller game.
Welcome to the Gaspereau Press in Kentville, N.S., where each book is printed and bound on the premises, where Johanna Skibsrud's Giller-nominated The Sentimentalists has been sold out for weeks and where publisher Andrew Steeves has declined an offer from a big publisher to rustle up more copies for him.
"It would no longer be a Gaspereau Press book," said Steeves, who declined to identify the bigger press. "If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it's damn well coming out of my shop." Steeves said the initial print run on The Sentimentalists, a novel about a daughter uncovering her father's dark history, was in his usual modest range of 600 to 1,500 copies, and that the book had sold 400 copies before the Giller long-list was announced. He has printed just over 2,000 more copies of the inside pages but is waiting on a delivery of paper for the cover. He hopes to be printing the cover and binding the books next week and filling orders the first week of November.
If that's not fast enough for Toronto, he makes no apologies.
"The Giller Prize, it does put you in great peril. You have to make sure you serve your author as best you can, that it doesn't impede their career that they are with a small press, but without abandoning who you are. ... If we decide this is an opportunity to capitalize, the temptation is to put out some mass-market cheaper copy."
Skibsrud, a first-time novelist, poet and PhD student at the Université de Montréal, is not certain that would be a bad thing. In an e-mail from Paris, where she is pursuing her research into American poetry, she said she was disappointed there were not more copies currently available, but she respected Gaspereau's decision because of its commitment to both literature and the art of publishing, and the exceptional experience she had working with the press.
"My personal opinion is that making literature more widely available could never be a 'lowering of standards'; that it could only be a positive - for the publisher, the writer, as well as for the potential audience. But that is the perspective of one author, regarding one book," she wrote. "Gaspereau has a long and respected tradition behind them, and an incredible list, and that will continue."
That list emerges from a former switching station in Kentville, a town of 6,000 about 100 kilometres northeast of Halifax. Steeves, co-publisher Gary Dunfield, and their staff of three print the books on a 1960s offset press, bind them using mechanical sewers and wrap them in covers that are printed on a letterpress cranked by hand.
The house paper is Rolland's Zephyr Antique Laid, which the Gaspereau website describes as "a creamy, sensual book paper." The Quebec paper manufacturer Cascades makes it by special order for a handful of literary presses. Covers, meanwhile, are printed on Neenah Classic Laid from the U.S. papermaker Neenah. For the jacket of The Sentimentalists, Steeves selected a camel-hair colour to show off the cover illustration, a pencil sketch of a Vietnam soldier by Ontario engraver Wesley Bates who is a regular contributor at Gaspereau. Not coincidentally, The Sentimentalists has already won the Alcuin Society's award for Excellence in Book Design in Canada.
Steeves prides himself on combining digital and hand-cranked type and believes that the future of book publishing lies both in the speed of digital delivery - if you can't wait to read The Sentimentalists, you can purchase an electronic copy for $14.95 - and the appeal of the beautiful object that is a well-made book.
But the specialty papers needed for that well-made book are not just sitting around in warehouses waiting to receive more ink if Skibsrud wins. Steeves, who is already trying to get the paper for a third printing for the orders that are already coming in, said he is encouraging both manufacturers to have stock on hand just in case of a win, but that he can't afford to preorder the extra paper and that the paper industry is not very interested in gambling on book prizes.
"I know it is supposed to freak me out, I am supposed to be selling as many books as possible," Steeves said, but he rejects the assumptions behind the rush. "... the thinking that you have to fool people into buying books: If you don't get it out there right now, you will lose the sale; they will be distracted by something else. The reader who is here today will be here in three weeks."
If Skibsrud wins the Giller, her publisher will begin making more books, slowly, his way.