Giller winner says good news coming regarding availability of scarce book
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, November 12, 2010 6:24PM EST
Johanna Skibsrud says she's touched by the "overwhelming support" she's received from readers across Canada and hopes to have good news "very soon" about the availability of her scarce Giller Prize-winning novel "The Sentimentalists."
Tiny Nova Scotia publishing house Gaspereau Press has made headlines for being unable to meet the high demand for the book, which won the $50,000 Giller on Tuesday night. The company, known for its hand-crafted books, can only produce about 1,000 copies of "The Sentimentalists" a week and has refused to outsource in order to speed up production.
But in an email to The Canadian Press on Friday, Skibsrud said a resolution could be on the horizon.
"Thankfully, in this case, it appears that everyone's interests can still be met," Skibsrud wrote, and added that she's happy readers could soon get their own copy of the book.
"It strikes me that it is this that literature is (or should be) primarily about: the readers."
Skibsrud said she's been blown away by the support she's received since winning the award.
"The only thing that I would like to say about it is how pleased and touched I have been by the overwhelming flood of support I've received recently from writers and readers from all across Canada -- including a letter or support from the Writers' Union of Canada," she wrote.
"This is good news, I think, for the state of Canadian literature."
The "Sentimentalists" saga has touched off a debate over whether Gaspereau has done Skibsrud a disservice by not finding a way to publish more copies of her book.
The 30-year-old Skibsrud -- the youngest Giller winner in the 17-year history of the prize -- has been diplomatic about the situation, though she had previously expressed concern that most readers can't locate a physical copy of the novel.
On Thursday, Gaspereau said it was considering "three or four" options that would help get "The Sentimentalists" into the hands of readers, but when reached Friday afternoon, co-owner Gary Dunfield said a decision wouldn't come until next week.
Indigo Books & Music has thousands of copies of the book on order, but none on store shelves.
Thus far, the publisher's inability to keep up with demand has been a boon for Kobo. It's the only online retailer currently selling "The Sentimentalists," which isn't available at Amazon's competing Kindle store.
"The Sentimentalists" is Kobo's top-selling title in Canada, and while the company declines to release sales data, an executive says the ebook has sold 10 times as many copies since winning the Giller as it did in its entire run before that.
"To put it into context, that book is outselling George W. Bush's memoir that landed the same week -- with an incredible amount of promotion and buzz behind it," said Michael Tamblyn, executive vice-president of content, sales and merchandising with Kobo, in a telephone interview Friday.
"So it's shown both the power of the Giller Prize in terms of being able to focus Canadian readers' attention, and also the degree to which people really wanted to get their hands on this book as soon as possible."
"The Sentimentalists" charts a daughter's quest to learn about her dying father's experiences in the Vietnam War.
Skibsrud, who grew up in Pictou County, N.S., and is based in Montreal, says she mined her own father's experiences in the Vietnam War for the book.
Tamblyn says Kobo approached Gaspereau about converting the novel into an ebook after the Giller nominations were announced.
"Had we not been there, there really would be no way to read 'The Sentimentalists' right now," he said.
"Having an ebook available ... has ensured that both the author and publisher aren't missing out on sales during this critical period right after the announcement of the award," Tamblyn added.
"Every piece of data that we've seen from the bricks and mortar retail side says that the first couple weeks after the book is announced are incredibly valuable."
Another minor controversy, meantime, is swirling over the behaviour of Giller juror Ali Smith, a British novelist.
Published reports have suggested that Smith connected Skibsrud with the London literary agency that represents her. She reportedly did so before "The Sentimentalists" had even been named a Giller finalist.
Giller organizer Elana Rabinovitch says she's spoken to Smith, who admitted that she did tell Tracy Bohan -- an agent for London's Wylie Agency -- that she was reading Skibsrud's book, but did so in a casual conversation in which she also discussed other books she was reading over the summer.
"So what Tracy did with that information afterwards is something I can't speak to," Rabinovitch said in a telephone interview Friday.
Rabinovitch says that jurors are asked to be "utterly discreet" and not to share the book titles being considered for the Giller with anyone.
So while she says that Smith might have exercised "poor judgment" in revealing her reading list -- knowing that she had been instructed not to -- Rabinovitch doesn't believe anything "nefarious" took place beyond that.
"According to the gossip, because the literary agent who finally found Johanna was from the same agency that represents Ali, there was all this sort of implied conspiracy," Rabinovitch said.
"I don't think that she had any intention of subverting the jury process and coercing her fellow jurors into selecting Johanna as the winner.
"That just didn't happen."