Skip to main content

Johanna Skibsrud is the winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize honouring the best in Canadian literature.

Her voice quavering, the 30-year-old Nova Scotian thanked her publisher Gaspereau Press, which brought out the book in a tiny edition of a few hundred copies.

Ms. Skibsrud thanked her father, Olav, a Vietnam war veteran whose story she tells in the book. "I can't imagine how proud he would have been," she said.

Saying she was "utterly shocked" by her win, she added that she plans to use her $50,000 prize to pay off her student loan and travel the Trans Siberian Railway.

Undoubtedly the most obscure book ever to win a major literary award in Canada, The Sentimentalists was hand-printed more than a year ago by the tiny publisher in Kentville, N.S., in an edition of 800 copies, most of which had disappeared by the time the three Giller judges announced their short lists. Gaspereau publisher Andrew Steeves subsequently raised eyebrows by refusing a commercial publisher's offer to produce a second edition for wide distribution. "If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it's damn well coming out of my shop," he told The Globe and Mail.

The daughter of a Vietnam war veteran, Ms. Skibsrud is a poet who incorporated her father's life story into a poetic meditation on family relationships, memory and loss.

Firmly established as Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize is known for its effect on book sales, turning winners into instant bestsellers. Typical was 2009 winner The Bishop's Man, by veteran CBC journalist Linden MacIntyre, little known prior to its win - but then going on to sell 75,000 copies in hardcover.

The influence of the prize has increased as independent bookstores disappear and readers lose a valuable source of advice in selecting new fiction, according to Douglas Pepper, president of McClelland & Stewart. "With fiction especially, people need guidance," he said. "They want to know when they plunk down their $30 whether or not they are going to like the book."

The Giller is also unique in being the only Canadian literary event broadcast live on national television. "We're the poor cousins to everybody else in the media," said Patrick Crean, president of Thomas Allen Publishers. "The Giller is the one portal we have into the world of celebrity." The result, he added, is that "the amount of attention authors get when they win it is unbelievable."

This year's competition drew even more attention than usual due to the short list's strong tilt in favour of new and obscure authors publishing with small presses, ignoring the well-publicized products of what Mr. Steeves calls "the giant multinational book factories in Toronto."

This year's Giller jury "broke the mould," said Mr. Crean, whose company brought out Sarah Selecky's Giller-nominated story collection, This Cake is for the Party. "They really did." For the second time in as many years, the three-member panel included two foreign judges - authors Claire Messud from the United States and Ali Smith from Britain - who joined CBC broadcaster Michael Enright in winnowing almost 100 titles down to a single winner.

Their most controversial omission was Emma Donoghue's Room, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in Britain and went on to win the Rogers Writer's Trust Prize for fiction in Canada last week. It will be made even more glaring should Room go on next week to win the Governor-General's Literary Award, for which it is also nominated.

"A prize is only as good as the book it picks," said Leo MacDonald, vice-president of sales and marketing at HarperCollins Canada, publishers of Room. Winners can still be unpopular, and also-rans successful. "We're up to 30,000 copies already with Room," he said. "If that book had won something like the Giller or the Booker it could have been massive."

A typical Giller winner sells about 75,000 copies in hardcover, according to Mr. Crean, making it a massive bestseller in the Canadian market. "If you win it makes a huge difference to your year, but you can't really run a business that way," he said.

Indeed, many publishers privately regret the effect of annual awards in promoting an all-or-nothing tendency in book sales, spoiling the chances for any work that fails to earn an important nomination. But such a view is not widespread in November.

"We'll take all the help we can get," Mr. Pepper said. "It's not that easy to sell books, you know."