Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Giller Effect: The Long, the Short, and the Unintended

This is an edited version of a post I published on Thirsty yesterday, of which I’ve since had some reason to repent. As I said in that version, keeping my mouth shut has never been a great strength. But I also must admit that I took a couple of things out of context, and aimed my cannons (water, of course, abhorring actual violence) rather wobbly and not always in the right direction. For that I apologize. I stand by the fact that there are more interesting stories to tell than “small presses struggle to keep up” BS, which isn’t true for either of the small presses (& there really are only two) on this list, though for different reasons. But that doesn’t mean I was right in calling out those I did. My apologies. Dan

For Gaspereau’s perspective, please read What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Giller, over at their own press blog.

It has been, without a doubt, a very exciting couple of weeks. Also one of our busiest. It is our first experience of the vaunted Giller effect. And for Biblioasis, the effect was immediate and profound. We launched Light Lifting on the 19th of September. Alex hadn't held a copy of the book in his hands until 10:30 pm on the 18th. The book had only arrived from the printer 8-10 days before then. No one, largely, cared about this book. But on the 20th, all hell broke loose. We did half a dozen interviews in our hotel rooms, and when we arrived in Toronto the next day we had two reporters from national papers waiting. A profile and three reviews ran in big newspapers across the country that first weekend. There were more than half a dozen radio interviews. More of both followed the week after. For a first collection of short fiction. I'm fairly certain it's unprecedented. Munro, Gallant, MacLeod Sr., Adderson, any others: I'm pretty sure if we ask them they would tell us that their careers began ... differently. The immediate and sustained public response to Alexander's Light Lifting is exhibit one of the Giller effect. And it does not stop there.

Before the longlist announcement, there were only 500-600 orders in the chute. Though I was very disappointed by this -- I printed 3000 copies of Light Lifting, almost unheard of for a first book of short fiction, whether published by a small press or a multinational; when I told Marc Cote this at Eden Mills he rather politely and gently questioned my sanity -- it's not actually a bad initial order for a first book of stories. Approximately half of these were set to go to Chapters, in regional and their largest format stores. Despite my consistent hectoring, and my sales manager's undoubted pressure, we were not going to get any more in there. This was further complicated by the fact that Indigo orders came in very late this year: if I remember correctly, in the case of Light Lifting, only a day or two before launch. There's not much we can do about that, alas. They have their systems in place. And though that can be a great thing when everything is steady and predictable, it's not such a good thing when the unexpected happens. As it did on September 20th, and once again on October 5th.

Everyone I talked to about this -- other publishers and publishing professionals, sales people, some booksellers -- said that the Longlist, though nice, does not mean much in terms of sales. Despite that, it resulted in hundreds of additional orders, including bump ups from Indigo and amazon -- though only after harassment -- and further orders from independents -- though in some cases only after pleading phone calls from the press publisher. On the morning of the shortlist we may have had 1100 copies or so in bookstores. That was all we could convince booksellers to take.

Only a few people expected us to make the shortlist. I certainly didn't. I didn't go to Toronto for the announcement, though I wanted to do so. But it would have resulted in disappointment, or it would have meant that I would not have been in the office to do the work that needed doing should we, against all odds, make it. I was on the phone with John Metcalf at 10:42, 18 minutes before the announcement was supposed to have been made, when it came across the Twitter feed: David Bergen and Alexander MacLeod first two Giller finalists. I was shocked enough not to believe it at first. But when i got off the phone at 10:44 my first call was not even to Alex. I took 30 seconds to call my right hand man Dennis, to tell him to put the go ahead call into Friesens, who we had set up for printing the week before. Later we called them again, after the Indigo order for 2000 copies came through, to bump up the second printing from 3000 to 4000. We were ready to run.

Three days later, our three thousand copy print run is completely gone. We have over 2400 copies in (or on their way to) stores and at wholesalers at the moment. Minus whatever we have sold over the last couple of weeks: BookNet Canada says XXX, but our primary market has always existed outside of these places. That may change now with this book. We are, I would say, in pretty good shape. By the end of next week 4000 more copies will be making their way to the warehouse, to fill the more than 2000 additional orders now waiting. We've set up dozens of interviews, are in the process of following up on more than hundreds of review copies, setting up additional events. The only thing that slipped off my radar this week -- and I only think about it now as I write this -- is the damn Globe & Mail ad I meant to put in. But it can wait until next. I would say, largely, we seem to be on top of things.

Unless, of course, you read the articles and twitter comments and blog posts that came so close upon the announcement of the Finalists questioning whether or not small presses can handle this sort of thing. This has been the unexpected Giller effect. It's made me wonder what these commentators find more exciting: the independent feel of this surprising and exciting Giller list, or the prospect of small press failures. In some cases, unfortunately, it feels as if it is the latter. The latter, alas, more easily feeds into the chatter that passes for informed commentary in some of our papers and journals, and most certainly on blogs and on twitter feeds. Some of these comments lack nuance and the appropriate attention to detail, and often refuse to ask the right questions. They paint with too broad a brush. In the rush to comment quickly and declaratively, they have lost sight of the more interesting narratives. For example: is it the presses who are struggling to keep up, or might it just be the booksellers? What does this say about the way they order books, even longlisted books, in the first place? What does it say about their customers’ buying habits?

Below is a list, by no means exhaustive, of some stories I’d personally like to see covered this Giller season. If there are any others out there, please add them to this thread in the comments.

  1. The Small Press argument. Almost everyone from the Globe to Q&Q have painted the four independent presses (by which we largely mean non-Bertelsman) with the same brush, when there is considerable difference in size and approach between us. Anansi and Thomas Allen are not small presses. Anansi has made it clear many times they don’t like to be tarred with that particular brush, and I think this is probably fair. To both of us. There’s such profound differences between the nominated presses, that an article focusing on this might not only be interesting, it would very likely prove illuminating.
  2. Gaspereau Press: the real story here is not whether or not they can keep up. The real story is what happens when commercial demand meets artisanal craftsmanship. Perhaps more than with any other publisher this year, what we have here is a clash of opposing values. I, for one, would find an article on this fascinating.
  3. Who is actually having trouble keeping up? I’m not sure anyone is, but since it seems to be an area of concern, a little proper digging please.
  4. Something happened here. The jury has said that they did not consciously set out to put together an independent list, that they never looked at who published what. I’m inclined to believe them. Is this a blip, a jury-related aberration? Or might this be the first sign that the internationalization of the jury process has opened up what has up-to-now been a relatively closed playing field? Compare and contrast to the Roger’s Trust Fiction Prize, and what the Governor General’s Award does next week. What does that tell us?
  5. What will this Giller recognition for independent publishing in Canada mean for the industry as a whole? For independent publishers? Anything?
  6. There’s been plenty of talk about what we’re going to have trouble doing. I’m guessing we must also be doing a few things right. Discuss.
  7. What might this Giller finalist selection mean for the short story in Canada? Depends who wins, I guess. Has its time come?
  8. Totally self-serving storyline: Biblioasis has one book on this shortlist but two authors, having published Kathleen Winter's first book of fiction in 2008. What the hell is a Biblioasis anyway? And where the hell is Emeryville? I just peeked through my closed blinds, and there are no cameramen stationed outside my window. Perhaps they can't find me?


Anonymous said...

Dan: A very thoughtful and informative post which I don't think contains any inappropriate thoughts. I fully agree that there are only two "independents" on the list -- and I think any serious reader understands why small presses can't simply order up thousands of copies in hopeful anticipation. You have done excellent work in getting copies of this outstanding debut into the hands of readers. Well done on all counts. KevinfromCanada

Anonymous said...

Dan, I'm late reading this article, but had to leave a quick kudos here. I found a lot of media reaction to this year's Giller infuriating, and sounded off about it myself. If awards seek to honour literary merit, why all the media focus on who published what, and how many first books there were? This year's list had the potential for a real shift in CanLit and reading habits and all the bogus ways the industry runs, and certainly this year's Giller lists could have sparked some positive articles. And yet all I read was needless bullshit. Someone in a Globe article even said "no one under 40 should write a book." What a cerebral comment. And every time I say the headline "4 of 5 presses are independents" I was a little infuriated that who publishes a book mattered more to the journalist than who wrote the book and what literary attributes landed him or her on the Giller shortlist