for what it’s worth

This is my nickel’s worth of thoughts on the Giller controversy (written under the firm scarlet bias of a former Gaspereau Press employee). And this is prefaced with as much congratulatory whoop for Johanna as it is possible for one person to produce.

I defy anyone who says  Gaspereau Press doesn’t care about or stand by their authors. Working there kinda felt like you cut up a bit of yourself and laid it on the press. That might sound romantic, but it’s not. It’s a by-product of a business that is more than a business. It’s what happens when something becomes a living breathing interconnected part of the community, both writerly and local. It was more than just a job. What they produce is more than just a book. As publishers they are fundamentally engaged with the entire process of a book from start to finish. This is remarkable and unusual but it shouldn’t be.

Part of the controversy seems to boil down to a conflict between art and craft (probably Art and Craft in capital letters, all high and mighty). It illustrates the problem of an age where the book is seen not as an end in itself but a vehicle, a corpse-like vessel for a writers’ work. But the art of the book (typography, printing, binding, editing, design) is about more than just production. Johanna’s writing is excellent and she deserves to have a book appropriate to the calibre of her work.

I could argue from my perspective as a book conservator. A typical ‘perfect-bound’ book cuts the back off the book’s sections and holds itself together primarily with its glue. The pages are poor quality greyish wove, all scratchy, and smelling of lignin. Some major publishers in Canada use paper that’s barely a half-step over newsprint. A Gaspereau Press book uses decent quality paper, is sewn, and then perfect-bound. Structurally, that’s a momentous degree of difference. A distinction between girdered metal and a rickety cartoon bridge.

Most of the online discussion talks about how beautiful a Gaspereau book is(often as a prelude to the word “but”). This misses the point almost entirely. A Gaspereau Press book is not simply a fetish object, a ‘beautiful book’, a ‘collector’s item’. It could be those things. But it is also supremely functional and ultimately, it is a product of careful consideration and thought. Not just for aesthetic reasons but because the book is a holistic product. This marks the first time that a book has simultaneously won the Giller and an Alcuin award for book design. 

At this year’s BookCampTO, there was a presentation on the book as fetish object that featured work by a firm that prints and binds for larger publishers. They were lovely simple clamshell boxes and hardbound books. But people handled them like they were made of precious gold. This felt like a major problem to me. This was a room full of writers, publishers, publicists, media consultants, booksellers, etc, all deeply embedded in the principles of selling and making books. And they were agog over a clamshell box. The drooling over the hardcover books was also baffling to me given that most modern hardcovers are held together without sewing and they have about as much structural integrity as the much maligned paperback. Just with a heavier cover.

It suggests to me a fundamental lack in cultural literacy even within the book publishing establishment about what a book is, what it is capable of, and the parameters from which it came. There are publishers that do not even check the grain of their paper stock. Show those books to me in twenty years and I guarantee they’ll have pulled out of their ‘perfect’ binding, particularly as the glue ages and brittles.

Sure, we want to buy something simple, we want to buy something easy, something that can be quickly labelled and shelved in a neat little pile and off-loaded on the consumer. We want to eat McNuggets.

Sometimes maybe it might be a good idea to absorb something of value, something of worth, not because it is easy or quick but because it isn’t. Because it takes time and thought and a whole lot of work. What do we admire about a Gaspereau book, and do we really only admire those qualities if they are convenient? Some writers seem to assume this kind of attention to detail is a nice frill. I think there’s an assumption that there’s a premium on beauty: a luxury tax. We expect too little.

Wouldn’t it be appalling if we wrote the way GP is being told to produce their books? Conveniently. Without due care. Without consideration. Do we only write what is easy? Why should an author settle for less than what their writing deserves? How ultimately self -defeating. We should value ourselves and our work enough to demand more, to learn more, to throw down a flag or two.

I’m not a Luddite. I like e-books. I love the dips of research made possible through this flickery box. I love books in all their forms. I don’t think books should be hallowed or held under bell jars. A book is a functional piece of joy. Or at least it should be. And in the case of a Gaspereau Press book: it is.

Johanna deserves every bit of good that comes her way through this win. Order her book because it’s worth the wait. Buy it as an e-book now if you can’t wait to read it. Hard to say how this might be resolved in the coming weeks but it felt important that I say this loudly: I don’t believe for a fraction of a second that Gaspereau doesn’t care about their authors. My impression as a former employee and a friend is that they do pretty much naught else.

24 responses to “for what it’s worth

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention for what it’s worth | notes from a cartwheel --

  2. yay! i’m so glad you weighed in on this, Christine. and i agree with you 1005. there’s something so condescending about the media’s take on all this, i find. i’m about to listen to your interview with Johanna. thanks for writing this.

  3. that should be 100% but 1005% works too 🙂

  4. Bravo. Well stated Christine. I for one love the variety of approaches publishers like Gaspereau Press explore in the design & beautiful functionality of a “book” (as much an art piece, in my mind, as a painting or film), as a container of words of worth. As someone who has only recently been looking at what is possible, & how much art, skill, & wonderful attention to the smallest detail goes into a well built book. Congrats to both Johanna & Gaspereau Press. May others take note.

  5. “a book is a functional piece of joy” beautiful. Yes, bringing up the bar for book literacy in culture would be wonderful. Keep speaking it C.

  6. Well, I for one would not compare wanting to read a book in any font, on any paper stock with whatever binding to eating Chicken McNuggets. The analogy should be what is more nourishing, and a well written book nourishes regardless of delivery -i.e. the ebook will feed me just as well as the pbook but maybe Twilight will only give me entertainment energy to go on till my next vampire read? -anyway no one is telling GP to produce their books a certain way -just this Giller Award winning novel that happens to have won around Christmas Season! that is exponential and exceptional -in Arts and Craft terminology: a one off.

  7. Love your distinction between “beautiful” and “functional,” and your highlighting the trouble with fetishizing beautiful books. Also impressed by your reminding us that there is, for some publishers, an art of bookmaking just as there is an art of writing.

    Think, however, that helping Skibsrud maximize her audience and maintaining a high standard of production are not mutually exclusive. Gaspereau’s commitment to craft is entirely commendable, but it also has responsibilities to its authors and their readers. Not saying that Gaspereau doesn’t care about authors (you of all people would know, you worked there); just that in this case, Skibsrud has a chance to reach more readers than imagined, and Gaspereau can help her achieve this. Not by changing the way it makes The Sentimentalists, but by partnering with another good publisher or printer.

    It’s just not realistic to imagine that the total potential audience for The Sentimentalists will “order her book because it’s worth the wait.” The people who will wait–likely including everybody who has chimed in on this debate on either side–reflect only a fraction of the total potential sales for this book. It’d be a shame to leave the rest on the table.

  8. That’s a fair point Kiley and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive either. I have much faith that they’re working on a solution. Oceans worth.

  9. In addition, I should say you paint a picture of Gaspereau that makes me even more interested in it and likely to check out the books it publishes.

  10. As a paper conservator, reader and lover of the physical form, function and beauty of well-made books, I completely agree with Christine. I have the luxury of understanding why paper grain is important (pull pull!), the problems over time of adhesive bindings versus a good sewn structure. I am in the minority of the converted.

    I know how hard it is to express concerns over fine form and function in a society that knows little of material culture and history and therefore does not value it or the fine work of my profession. The majority do not realize that books as we know them incorporate folded groupings of paper, even if those useful folds get cut off in the process. Or that paper quality matters. Or how long some books have lasted (oh a thousand years or more) compared to more recent offerings to the recycler. New and contemporary does not necessarily better make!

    Christine speaks from direct experience working at Gaspereau and does not say things lightly, she sssumes nothing. She is a very carfeul observer and a sensitive soul. And Christine is right to reflect the same argument of Art and Craft back on the writing process itself. I think that is the best way to further her argument, a cause I also champion, becasue it would take too long and to give even a pithy history of the rise and fall and rise of the book as luxury item, object and fetish object. However potentially disposed to be sympathetic, the audience would just drift away (in mind if not in body).

    Has Grant weighed in on this yet? I have not taken the time to scan through all the brewing haha.

    Wendy the paper conservator and reader, not a writer

  11. I’ve spoken with Gary at Gaspereau a few times about this and am confident they’ll come up with a solution that doesn’t compromise their commitment to their original quality product, but ALSO allows them to take advantage of striking while the iron is hot. (ie, taking advantage of the incredible volume of sales that can be had)

    In any case, one also has to admire how much discussion has resulted all because GP was quite vocal in their artisan POV. This gave the media a new angle to focus on which nicely gives more attention, publicity and talk about a Canadian publisher, author and book.

  12. But Gaspereau’s books are received as fetish objects by a lot of people, whatever the publisher’s intentions are.

    Anyway, of course Gaspereau cares about their authors. That doesn’t mean their decision makes any sense. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but after reading their website and blog, with its disparaging comments about e-books and its presumptuous anti-commerce twaddle, they come off as smug and haughty.

    Positing this as a conflict between craft and commerce, as most of those weighing in have done, is ridiculous. Gaspereau can continue to produce their lovely editions while a larger press can put out a standard paperback. This doesn’t cheapen the book. Gaspereau’s approach makes sense when they can only realistically expect to sell a few hundred copies, but when an author has the chance to sell tens of thousands, this artisanal approach limits the book’s sales potential. Obviously Gaspereau believes they’re above such nasty, capitalistic concerns. They don’t seem to be thinking about whether their author is.

    As Kiley said above, those who will wait for a Gaspereau edition reflect only a fraction of the sales potential for the book. Getting your art into people’s hands doesn’t cheapen it. It’s a sign of ambition, of caring about the world, and reaching out to communicate with people, which is the whole point of literature. Gaspereau’s stance is the opposite–to reach out only to a tiny coterie of the like-minded, to exclude the masses, to circle the wagons. It’s pretentious, smug, intellectually elitist crap.

  13. Pingback: “Prize Fight” by Jeet Heer | The Walrus Blog

  14. I pretty much disagree with every sentence you wrote Adam except the first and second. This includes your opinion as to what Gaspereau does or does not believe philosophically about book selling. I know they’re going to get the book out and that a plan is in the works to do so in a way that’s beneficial to the book and all involved. See interview this morning on Q.

    Part of my (not Gaspereau’s) stance in this post is that it does cheapen the work to produce a book badly and unethically. That is not the same as saying it cheapens the work to distribute it widely. There’s a difference. I’m not arguing it’s a conflict between craft and commerce. You should visit the press in Nova Scotia and see if that intellectual elitist crap thing you said is actually accurate.

  15. It’s unethical to produce a book in a sweatshop. It’s not “unethical” to produce a mass-market paperback. Gaspereau’s website, full of talk of what a “real book” is and so forth, is smug and hubristic. The talk of “creamy, sensual” paper certainly sounds like fetishizing. Steeves assured Jian on Q that he had a plan, but didn’t reveal what it was. All we know is what his plan is not—he refused mass-market publishers because “I don’t like any of those companies.”

    It’s about about him and his principles, the “integrity of the object.” I don’t know him, so I don’t know if he’s full of himself, but it sure sounds like it. (He’s changed his tone slightly though, saying it would be in bad faith to not meet Christmas demand. I hope he means it.)

    I think what Gaspereau do is great, theoretically. But their derisive attitude towards the larger publishing world is an enormous turn-off. Cultural consumption has always been faddish and capricious, from the ancients to today. It’s too bad, but it’s the way it works. “The Giller effect” is the same thing, and it’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the reality.

  16. This is my nickel’s worth of thoughts, that’s all this post is, and it’s based on my experience. I’m speaking for myself (not for Andrew or Gary) about what I believe about books and what bugs me in this discussion. I consider it unethical to publish a poorly made book full of inherent vice (i.e., one that’s unsound chemically and structurally). I’ll freely admit that it’s my work as book conservator, and the code of ethics to which I adhere under that shingle, which is shaping this belief.

  17. What is up with the rush to only buy what books Oprah suggests, or what books win presitgious prizes, is there not something a bit questionaable about that

  18. Oprah could very well recommend Johanna’s book. What then? Her picks are pretty amazing. Have you ever read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth? It’s one of my all-time favorites that I might not have bought had it not been so easily accessible at Wal-Mart – not my favorite or even most frequent place to shop. It happened to be an impulse purchase, reinforced by the Oprah Pick sticker. And I loved the paper choice the publisher made for the book – nice cream shade, light to hold given the number of pages. I’m betting based on the review of The Sentimentalist that I just read in the National Post, that Johanna herself would love Follett’s book. His latest one will certainly be on my Christmas list.
    What a shame that we’re all talking about the supposed conflict between art and commerce and not the content of the book itself. It sounds very interesting. Once Gaspereau has resolved the supply issue, I’ll be looking for a copy myself. For now, here’s my two cents worth on the subject. Actually, I’ll see your nickels worth and raise it by ten cents worth as a marketing professional and in my experience as a former employee Scholastic (larger publisher based in Toronto providing easy access to children’s books by promoting and selling them through school book clubs – you may have read one or two of their books as a child) as well as being a current employee of Webcom Inc (a book printer based in Toronto). Webcom is not a particularly large company but we do provide services to a large community of small, medium and large publishers based in provinces all across the country as well as the U.S. and even the U.K. for those who distribute titles in Canada.
    Does this background make me a big bad national out to poison the world with commercialism? Commerce is a good thing that can complement art (of good literature) by making it more accessible to large numbers of people and communities. In particular, commerce is good for books and the tens of thousands across the country who love to read good literature like Johanna Skibsrud. She’s fresh and new to the publishing scene, a Giller prize-winner. Who wouldn’t love that?
    The urgency of supply is real. It’s grounded in known facts of historic rates of sale. The average number of Giller books sold in the first three months is 39,000 according to BookNet Canada data. Sales for each one of the past three winners increased by at least ten times what they had sold in the six months leading up to the awards ceremony. Linden MacIntyre’s 2009 Giller book sales far exceed a ten-fold growth that may have been associated with his high profile as co-host of CBC’s The Fifth Estate or it may be due to the marketing efforts of his publisher. Johanna may only be starting with a base of 400 books that a ten-fold increase could easily be accommodated by four weeks of handcrafted books. I’d bet more than ten cents though that she achieves more and could even rival Linden given the novelty of her age and newness to the scene. Popular opinion says she deserves it. The CanLit community alone will fuel high sales.
    Urgent sales or “fast books” are not even remotely similar to “fast food” as was described in The Toronto Star article “Don’t be pressing this publisher” yesterday about Gaspereau’s position. “Something of worth” as you describe in your blog is not defined by how easy or quickly it is distributed to the market place. That would suggest the Harry Potter books were the “chicken nuggets” of publishing with the pipelines of the big retail stores well-filled to accommodate a midnight madness event. The book is hardly worthless or diminished in its wonder due to its commercial success, it is just more accessible. How many young writers have been inspired by the Harry Potter books they bought through big retail stores, or children inspired to reading by exposure to the literary works of JK Rowling.
    It could be there are also some well-crafted, specially preserved editions of Harry Potter books in existence as a form of art but it’s a niche audience who buy them. The distinction is that the art of the book and the art of the literature are not mutually exclusive from healthy profits of commerce. The conflict in this public debate is not between art and commerce but in the brand that the publisher had defined for themselves. There is an inherent contradiction in promoting a Giller prize title as a publisher versus producing low volume handcrafted book product for the love of art as a printer.
    Any company committed to their brand value should rightfully defend their brand as Gaspereau has done. The Giller award brings its own brand definition and audience demanding easy access to books. The publisher needs to make a business decision with the author and end-consumer in mind while respecting the Giller brand. If the decisions are too much of a compromise on their brand then the right decision might be to defer to a different publisher with a more compatible brand. It is more likely that Gaspereau will choose to keep the profit and use the money to grow their brand, for example, by investing in another Vandercook press. The notion of a virtually bespoke book cottage industry thriving in Nova Scotia is a wonderful thing for the publishing community, and it can coexist with the commercial success of the Giller book. There are likely many Maritimer born and raised types like me who would love to get their hands on a first edition, handcrafted Giller prize winner from a Nova Scotian publisher. As a marketer, I contend that the handcrafted story should only be the first chapter in the lifelong success of Johanna Skibsrud.
    Okay, let’s talk about paper! One would hope anyone reading your blog will know enough about the paper of books to know that mass production does not equate to the “use of paper that’s barely a half step over newsprint”. It’s simply not true. Selection of paper varies widely depending on the intended audience and the lifecycle stage of a title from 1) norms for hardcover editions, 2) to the need to bulk-up the size of a low page count of a book, 3) a cream shade for quality appearance, 4) smooth surface ones for appealing touch and feel, 5) to a groundwood choice for the latter stages of a books life or 6) an environmentally friendly recycled option of any of the above. Any printer can provide these options.
    Environmental considerations are another important subject that I’ll confess is directed at Gaspereau as much as it is to the publishing community as a whole. On Friday, Webcom presented an offer to Andrew and Gary about a new program, just now being launched by our company, which addresses the issue of risk of returns. It means that publisher will be able to manage inventory in a way that they do not have to throw away thousands of copies as suggested in the Toronto Star to be the current industry norm. The quote from Gary Dunfield published in the article claiming “You must make books as cheaply as possible, with the lowest quality of paper, to make that model work.” is a fallacy with our new model. Our recent press release explains how we achieve this with investments in new technology and highly efficient presses and binders that produce a quality book on quality paper including recycled options in controlled volumes to match market demand. Given that Webcom is the only printer in the country with this technology, it would be a newsworthy-first for the Giller book to be the first novel to be printed on our new press as a complement to the handcrafted first editions. For those interested, here’s a link to the press release
    For the sake of transparency, I’ll be posting this comment to others including the Gaspereau blog. My comments are not an official statement from Webcom and should not be construed in that way. Like you, I share a passion for the brand of the company that I’m affiliated with combined with a passion for as many people as possible to have easy access to good literature, especially a Giller prize. I’ll finish with one comment about e-books. While e-books are a fast growing (still minority) segment, no one will be more pleased by the short print supply of The Sentimentalist than the retailer who has since reportedly increased the price and making a healthy profit on it as we speak. Good business decision for them.

  19. Beth, that’s one heck of a long comment. It might be better as a blog post than a comment on people’s blogs.

    1) Nickel vs. fifteen cents or what have you. Wasn’t a ranking system.

    2) I’m not saying all paper in mass market books are a half-step above newsprint. I’m saying specific publishers in Canada use paper of that quality. I can show you the pH tests. Those parameters you mention with regards to paper choice is not what I’m talking about at all.

    3) I think lots of people are talking about the content of the book and how good it is.

    4. Think Wendy’s point was more to do with questioning why consumers are led by prizes/recommendations, rather than trashing the idea of Oprah’s picks.

    5. Such as it is, these are my my opinions.

    6. I don’t think it’s an issue of craft vs. commerce. As I’ve said before. I’m talking about effort, consideration, thought. Purposeful attention. Engagement with all the potentialities of the book.

    7. Nope, didn’t call anyone evil.

  20. Also, couldn’t check your press release as the link doesn’t seem to work, but it’s The Sentimentalists not The Sentimentalist.

  21. I stand corrected on the title. The site is blocked until 9.00 a.m. tomorrow due to a security publication being printed today. If you copy & paste the url into a google search, it should come up on a different site. Not sure how or why but it worked for me in that way.

    You’re right, a blog would be a better way for a lengthy message. Since I don’t have one, I hope you found some points of interest given with much effort, consideration, thought and an element passion.

  22. Passion’s good Beth — big fan of passion, cheers.

  23. PRESS RELEASE from Gaspereau, the Giller Plan. Deal w/ Douglas and McIntyre, 30,000 books ready to ship by Friday.

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