The Costs of Island Living
Congratulations to fellow ex-Nova Scotian Johanna Skibsrud for winning the Giller last night. The Sentimentalists was the only book on the shortlist I actually read, and one of maybe 5 Canadian novels I got through this year. I am not an active participant in that world, I’m afraid.
I’ve been as swept up in the publishing story around The Gillers as the literary one. Andrew Steeves, who heads up Gaspereau, has been both celebrated and chastised for refusing to let the book be mass-produced to meet the demand of the Christmas book buying public. One commenter on this G&M story said that his stubborness proves that many Canadian publishers aren’t actually interested in selling books. Booksellers, at least the independent ones, on the other hand, are applauding how close Steeves is sticking to his guns.
I’m of two minds here. On one side is the sensual experience of reading a handmade Gaspereau book, which is the very distillation of the lost art of craft bookmaking. I don’t even buy them unless I order one from the publisher or get them off the rack at a specific bookstore in Wolfville, NS that dedicates a whole shelf to Gaspereau products. It’s an intimate, local experience in a real, touch-and-feel, kind of way, the literary equivalent to a cheese connoisseur searching out the perfect brie. If it’s not made and consumed in France, it’s just Easy Cheese.
This particular communicative cycle between author, bookmaker, and reader is only a marginally economic experience. The fact that the books cost money is an ancillary fact of the transaction. If you want to buy a Gaspereau Press book, you don’t care what it costs. Likewise, if you’re going to make books the Gaspereau way, you don’t care about making money.
Enter the Giller.
The standard sales figures for a debut novel-turned-Giller winner is around 75,000 units domestically, using McIntyre and Lam as recent comparisons. At around 30 bucks a book, that’s 2.5 million dollars gross, and about $250,000 in royalties for an author. This is what the tactile costs, this is the “best/worst case scenario”. The small presses love to talk about “sacrificing for quality” in the context of self-congratulations, without a sense of the specific dimensions of that sacrifice. I can’t imagine Skibsrud saw such a sacrifice coming when she signed on with her poetry publisher to hand make an 800-copy run of a novel for the collector’s market.
The Giller publicity machine and Gaspereau are conflicting institutions, really, they have different motivations and place the economic life of a book in vastly different contexts. One sees bookselling as the necessary finality of book creation, one sees bookselling as the very rationale of that creation. They both believe in readers, of course, but define their role in reading quite differently. Penguin wants to present as many options as they can, as fast they can, and as cheaply as they can. Gaspereau wants to continue the book creator’s role well beyond the point of sale. You are aware of having bought a Gaspereau title even as you read the words on the page. The paper, the cover, the whole smell and sense of the thing is pregnant with the specific design and procedure of the press. This costs money, and is destined to leave Gaspereau at a major economic disadvantage, but again, the economic reality is an ancillary fact of the creation.
This being said, we fetishists and localists need to understand that there are ways in which our capitalist overlords have as beaten when it comes to generosity. Their model demands readers, while ours only allows them. That the economically measurable “quantity” metric of readership rules over the more ethereal “quality” metric is unfortunate, but economies of scale exist as mathematic equations in the service of choice. Choice and money. But let’s not let the ad hominem of profit motivation stand in for the entirety of the corporate book selling experience. If Random House really wanted to own the world, they surely wouldn’t ever have started with books. But they would make sure that enough copies of The Sentimentalists got out there to offer it as a choice to book buyers, to let libraries shelve it for their patrons.
There’s a posed fashionability to how the small press perceives itself. This, by extension, is also true of poetry. I understand I say all this from the p.o.v. of someone who publishes poetry with a multinational corporation, but all poetry is small press. Anyone who disagrees with that is welcome to come read my royalty statements, although they’ll need to buy me dinner first. We fret and complain about the impossibility of sustainability for small presses and their authors, from within the comfort of a collector’s market that doesn’t actually allow any sort of easy transition into sustainability. Self-publishers who use Lulu or something can go from 300 units to 30,000 units on the viral strength of a couple well-placed public mentions. But Gaspereau and their peers cannot. Johanna Skibsrud, over the next year, will pay the full bill for a sacrifice that the rest of us can only discuss as some vague lifestyle choice. Surely, she’ll experience other financial windfalls (the prize itself is work 50k, and there’s international royalties to consider), but she will also lose several thousand domestic readers, and a potential domestic payday of about $250,000. That’s what it costs, if anyone is wondering. That’s what it costs to live on an island.