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Gaspereau leaves many grapsing for Giller

November 17, 2010

Perhaps it’s fitting that the latest Giller winner is called The Sentimentalists. The debut novel by Johanna Skibsrud is published by Gaspereau Press, and until this week was being printed in-house on Gaspereau’s old Heidelbergs at the rate of about a thousand per week. The quality of these editions is said to be superb, and I would love to review the book, if I could get a copy. Unfortunately, they’ve been unavailable since the book was shortlisted for the prestigious prize over a month ago.

When the shortlist was announced, I considered reviewing all of the nominees, but I knew I’d never get my hands on a copy of The Sentimentalists. (I didn’t end up reading any of them, not just because of the unavailability of the would-be winner.) And, thinking about it, it seems odd that a book almost no one has read made it onto to the shortlist and then won the $50 000 prize.

Perhaps it’s cynical to think that the Giller is by-and-large meant to drive sales of books–typically a Giller winner is expected to sell at least 50 000 copies–but people, particularly booksellers, think that this is an important factor of the prize, if not the end goal.

Gaspereau has, as of this week, sold the trade paperback rights to Canadian publisher Douglas and McIntyre (after refusing an offer from Random House, notably left off the Giller shortlist after winning with The Bishop’s Man last year), who will sell it after this week (shipping begins November 19th), at $19.95. Gaspereau also intends to keep selling the original sewn paperback edition at $27.95, so enthusiasts can eventually purchase the original edition, if they wish.

It begs the question, though, how much of the book’s appeal was in its production value, and also how sentimental were the attitudes of the Giller judges when they chose Skibsrud’s first novel. It also makes me wonder how many have been waiting for 5-6 weeks now, and will, in the end, stop caring.

A Snapshot from the Word on the Street

September 27, 2010

Yesterday I had the fortune of volunteering once again for Toronto’s Word on the Street festival. The yearly fall event is a celebration of all aspects of the Canadian publishing environment, and I was happy to devote a Sunday morning to contribute in my small way.

I signed up to help out at the author signing tent, hoping to meet outgoing mayor David Miller, but somehow my name fell off the list and they ended up sending me to Penguin’s 75th anniversary tent. I volunteered to be stage manager, which was supposed to involve keeping speakers on time by holding signs up showing that they had only five, two, or zero minutes remaining, as well as handing out name-tags and honorariums to speakers. However, there were no honorariums for the speakers at the Penguin tent, the speakers (Stuart McLean, Margaret MacMillan and Mark McEwan) were all famous in their own right needed no name tags, and the crew of publicists at Penguin had everything else well in hand, leaving me with nothing to do but hold the radio, patiently waiting to call in an issue to the programming coordinators.

The most fortunate part of the day was getting to watch Stuart McLean, host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Cafe and author of numerous books and pieces of journalism. McLean was the first speaker at the tent, and I had the grace of standing beside the stage, not two feet away, poised listen to his stories and watch his rhetorical flair unfold in front of me. I enjoy the Vinyl Cafe, but, as my partner says, sometimes the stories drag on a little and it’s easy to get impatient listening to McLean drawl on in his even, measured cadence about the misadventures of fictional characters.

Watching him speak was something else entirely. I could see him balanced on the toes of his feet, pushing his body upwards at the start of a sentence or paragraph as his voice would rise, then lower him down as it would fall. His right hand would move in a seemingly frantic manner until I realized that it was following the rhythm of his every syllable. He would move his head forward or kick his right foot against the stage to punctuate words of emphasis. It was almost contradictory watching and hearing him read a piece chosen at whim or random with an obviously practiced ease, often breaking the stories to offer further anecdotes on the confusing nature of Peter Gzowski or respond to a lone heckler shouting “Hack!” and “NPR!” by saying “Hey, I’m on NPR!”

Still, I felt myself drifting off during the longest piece he read about a character named Dave hanging on for dear life to a bike on the roof of his ignorant friend’s car, wondering when the piece was going to end. It didn’t take long to realize, though, that it was the storyteller, rather than the story, that mattered most of all, and that Stuart McLean was a master.

Coupland takes Massey to a new level

August 19, 2010

I guess this isn’t too out-of-the-blue, given his penchant for submitting fiction in the place of non-fiction (his breakthrough work, Generation X was signed as a text book), but his latest move is still pretty exciting. Coupland is slated to be this year’s Massey lecturer, but rather than follow in the footsteps of notables such as  Margaret Atwood, Northrup Frye, and Martin Luter King Jr., he is dancing all over the path. Coupland’s lecture series is a 50 000 word short novel set in an airport hotel lougne at the end of the world. When asked by Quill and Quire Magazine why this format, his reply was: “a narrative seemed like the most efficient and accessible way of putting forth a large number of propositions about life in the year 2010.” I, personally, can’t wait to find out what propositions he means.

It’s a little uncertain how he’s going to deliver this piece, but regardless, it should be fascinating.

Keep Toronto Reading

March 22, 2010

The annual festival sponsored by the Toronto Public Library starts on April 1st, and this year the library is taking a new approach to the month-long dialogue about literature and reading. As reported by the Quill and Quire blog, the library will be distributing 99 red journals (one for each TPL location) around the city, and is encouraging citizens to write comments about novels they love then pass on the journals or leave them in a public space. I think this is a very interesting idea, one that could work fabulously or simply flop. It’s hard to say, but I believe many Torontonians love to read and I can imagine these journals making their way onto the subway. I also wonder whether they will be attempting to collect them, or whether the prospect of finding and writing in them is the end goal. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for them, and if anyone finds one, let me know!

Other events include a book swop on April 8th at the Bram and Bluma Salon of the Toronto Reference Library, featuring Pasha Malla, Damian Abraham, and Zoe Whittall, as well as a bookmark review campaign where you can pick up a bookmark from a library, write a review of a book, and leave it in a book you return to the library. There are also a series of readings as usual from local authors, the “Eh list author series” featuring Catherine Gildner and Margaret Wente among others. All in all, it should be a great event so check it out at your local library.

E-Book Revolution, or Wishful Thinking?

February 22, 2010

The Quill and Quire blog featured an article by Laura Godfrey last week entitled E-book popularity could turn War and Peace into subway reading, speculating on the rise of an “e-book revolution” changing the way we read. E-books are definitely the most newsworthy aspect of the industry, not only because e-book sales have been the only sector still growing. To me, though, this begs the question whether you can call this “popularity” and thereby assume that our reading habits will fundamentally change. True, most writers are only speculating on the possible paradigm shift rather than claiming its inevitability, and most people I’ve ever spoken with about e-books or readers has professed an undying love for the tactile, visual, olfactory and auditory qualities of books.

To be fair, the above article is more specific in its focus on how readers may start reading longer books without a physical cue as to the size of the book (i.e. a bookmark), but it illustrates how little we know about the future of reading habits and how those will influence the publishing industry. The article only reminds me that there are so many questions, and so few answers that the impact of the s0-called e-book revolution (or the question of its very existence) may only be fully realized well after the fact. Is the development of this technology going to make book and magazines more accessible? It isn’t like anyone who wants access to them can’t find it, and it’s hard to assume that people will start reading more simply because they have a new gadget.

As well, given the crisis of electronic waste piling up in third-world countries, the idea of e-books being better for the environment is perhaps bunk as well. This is a separate issue entirely, but reminds me at least that we need to think about the real capabilities and costs of these new technologies before we assume they’re going to change the world.

Wolf Hall

February 15, 2010

Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning novel, published by HarperCollins last year, is a tour de force well-deserving of the prestigious award. Following the career of the controversial Thomas Cromwell, the novel outlines the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the waning role of the Catholic Church in England.

Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell as a thoroughly practical, organized, and often ruthless lawyer, clerk, and eventually Henry’s chief minister, is softer than other portrayals and borders on sympathetic. His character does nothing without reason, and it’s almost impossible to argue with any of his decisions.

For those familiar with Showtime’s The Tudors, this book has a very different tone and mood, with masterful dialogue and far more insight into the motivations of the major characters. Different also is Mantel’s treatment of Thomas More, a ruthless persecutor of heretics and a relentless, rigid scholar who defends the papacy unto his death. More is Cromwell’s foil, a doppelganger that stands in opposition to Cromwell’s pragmatic acceptance of the changing times, and consequent pursuit of fortune.

Fans of the period, or fans of historical fiction of any kind should find no fault in the novel, as long as they can get past the length: despite it’s 650 pages, it will draw you in and keep you excited, even unto the last sentence.

Google playing monopoly, according to US Department of Justice

February 7, 2010

The Google Book saga has been ongoing for more than a few years now, starting when the conglomerate decided to scan and post online every book every written in the English language. After a lawsuit by a group of American writers and publishers, a settlement was reached that would allow Google to post any book published before January 1, 2009, while allowing copyright holders to control how people view their work(s). For books in the public domain, and for orphan works whose owners could not be found, this meant that Google would have final say on how they could be viewed online. Google would be able to charge whatever they wished for orphan works (public domain books being free), and collect all of the profits.

The American Department of Justice weighed in last week, after months of deliberation, and has raised legitimate concerns over antitrust in Google’s plan. They would have exclusive access to orphan works, and other companies selling books online, e.g. Apple, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, would have to go through Google to access them. As well, the Department questioned whether Google should have access to these works at all, and whether it’s fair that authors needed to opt out of the earlier settlement rather than choosing to opt in. They have recommended that Google, the Author’s Guild, and the Association of Publishers return to the table and hammer out another settlement that will address the above concerns.

Personally, I’m not sure how to feel about the Google project. I remember stumbling across it about a year ago, shortly after the settlement was reached, and found myself reading 1984 by George Orwell. I read almost half of it before I realized that it was midnight and I should go to bed. Their initial goal was to make available out of print, or out of copyright works for educational purposes, so students across the United States could use them in their studies. They have partnered with almost every major library in the in the English language world, including those of Oxford, Harvard, and U of T. Educational access is a noble goal, and their initial defense against accusations of copyright infringement (one that was never defeated in court). As well, they will not be scanning any works published after the beginning of last year, so the revenue of publishers should not be affected significantly.

As with the Apple ipad, it seems that the organization with the most to lost is Amazon, but again this is speculation. If Google gains an edge on the online book sales market, I think this would encourage more competition rather than hinder it. Google can easily amend the settlement as regards orphan works, and focus on out of print sales by publishers and writers who have knowingly opted in. After all, isn’t greater access to books a good thing? As always, your thoughts on this are welcome and encouraged.