Monday, November 08, 2010

Gaspereau Press

Last night my wife and I were discussing which posts from the last five years merited a transition to paper. The conversation quickly turned to publishing models, and who might best endure the current stormy sea-change. I raised Gaspereau Press as a group I admired, and hoped would flourish.

Gaspereau places an emphasis on craft and aesthetics. Their books are outstandingly beautiful and, due to their material and construction, will outlast anything on the current hardcover bestseller list. Or perhaps I should say, “Anything else on the current hardcover bestseller list,” because with the recent Giller Prize shortlist, Gaspereau finds itself at an unexpected crossroads.

The Giller is a big deal in Canada. The event itself is Big Top glitz — champagne, tux-and-tails, lovely young things and industry mucky-mucks having a high time of it. It's all quite pleasant for the shortlisted authors, too, regardless of who wins. Their profiles and sales get a significant nudge. The winner receives $50,000 — and a huge bump in sales.

Gaspereau has a book on the Giller shortlist: Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists. Skibsrud has done well with Gaspereau; this short novel as well as a previous collection of her poetry received the top-drawer treatment that honors the author's words with a reciprocal devotion to craft and detail. But with the sudden surge of Giller attention, she and Gaspereau are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Current demand is greater than their arcane production methods can meet. Should Gaspereau farm out production to a larger publisher — temporarily, just this once — to give the author the full benefit of the boosted public attention?

In interviews Skibsrud seems a bit rueful about the effect the Gaspereau philosophy is having on her fortunes as a writer. It's hard to blame her. If the product was available, her royalty cheques would be looking pretty good right now. The difficulty from the publisher's point of view is in ascertaining the actual demand. Unfortunately the final, glum reality is that even Giller winners get remaindered and/or pulped, because book stores (particularly That Canadian Behemoth) anxious for stock inevitably raise projected demand way above the actual demand. This wreaks devastation on the perilously slender profit margins of a small press.

But Gaspereau's aesthetic throws another curve into the problem. As that lovable aesthete, Alice Cooper, has pointed out: if you want to increase demand for a product — whether it's a rock show or a golf club — restrict its availability. Skibsrud's book is the one people are talking about, because when they asked for it at That Canadian Behemoth they were told it is “unavailable for order.”

I hope Skibsrud takes some solace in Cooper's wisdom, because I think Gaspereau is doing the right thing — for the environment, for the publishing/book selling scene, for the public imagination. Hell, if it's the words you want, you can get 'em right now as an eBook for a mere $15 (or less). But if it's the book you want — because you don't just take words seriously, you take books seriously — there's nothing for it: it's cash up front, then join the queue.

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