The Giller Kerfuffle & the Challenges of the Small Press & Carmine Starnino

There’s nothing wrong with making money, not a bit, but if you’re looking for a fat profit, the literary world, and the world of the small press, is the wrong place to be looking. So let me begin by acknowledging all the brave hearts who put their all into publishing necessary books in beautiful editions for very little, if any, monetary reward. [Yes indeed my colleagues at Tupelo Press among them.]

So it’s especially gratifying when books and authors published by small presses receive big prizes, as Paul Harding and Bellevue Literary Press did by winning the Pulitzer for his novel Tinkers. It was hard to find a copy for a while thereafter, but eventually stock caught up with demand. Cash flow is a continual trial for the small press, and coming up with the wherewithal to publish tens of thousands of copies of a book can be a real struggle. And that’s just if you’re a traditional publisher who farms out the actual printing.

But some publishers are printers, too. And fine printers at that. I’m specifically thinking of Gaspereau Press, in Nova Scotia. Sewn bindings, hand-printed letterpress covers, thick cream-colored pages. This sort of labor-intensive printing makes for beautiful books. But not a fast turnaround rate if one of your titles, say, wins the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Which The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, 2009), did last week.

The Sentimentalists is Skibsrud’s first novel, but she’s published two collections of poetry as well, both with Gaspereau Press.

I mention this as a reminder that small presses are loyal to their authors; it’s not about the profit margin but the quality of the work.

Gaspereau Press invested its time, effort, skills, and yes, money, in three books by Skibsrud. Because that’s what they do. As Jack Illingworth says at the National Post here, “While publishing is usually discussed as a business, or an industry, all of the finest small press publishers practice it as an art form. The books that they choose to publish aren’t chosen to fill out a season with a handful of products that stand a reasonable chance of selling. Their lists are cultural projects, embodying a few individuals’ ideas of what literature can be.”

When The Sentimentalists won the Giller last week, it should have been a boon for both Skibsrud and Gaspereau Press, and for the holistic book-as-art from text to type view. But almost immediately the brouhaha began. Because at the uppermost limit of 1000 books a week, there was no way that Gaspereau Press could keep up with the I-want-it-now-and-by-now-I-mean-last-week demand, and pressure came down on them from all sides to get help fulfilling that demand.

As they reported on their blog today, that’s exactly what they’ve done in contracting with the Canadian publishers Douglas & McIntyre, who’ll produce a $19.95 trade paperback, with first shipments going out at the end of the week, while Gaspereau Press will continue with their fine $27.95 edition. It’s a neat solution, and I commend them for it.

I only wish they’d been allowed to find it without all the accompanying ballyhoo accusing Gaspereau of robbing its author of beaucoup sales through arrogance and pride.

I’m all for writers getting paid for their work, no question. And the prospect of losing sales because an impatient and amnesiac reading public can’t wait, well, it just sucks, we can all agree. But may I please interject that the author’s getting a tidy $50,000 prize, so she’s not exactly getting skunked here. And if  Skibsrud  goes to a large publisher offering a large advance, maybe even Douglas & McIntyre, with her next novel, that’s the way of the world, and congratulations to her.

But  after all this, I’m more interested in her poetry titles from Gaspereau Press. I know from personal experience how beautiful their books are. Gaspereau is the publisher of two poetry collections by Carmine Starnino, and back in the winter after I wrote a post on my fandom of Carmine Starnino, Gaspereau sent me those books. I am shamefully overdue in mentioning this, but it’s been that kind of year — I am overdue mentioning too many books I’ve read & loved.

And I love these books. Starnino writes poems at once accessible and rich with sound and sense. These poems think and feel with equal weight, in form and without. And they’re fun. In With English Subtitles, he writes a series of “Worst-Case Scenario” poems, with titles like “How To Escape From a Car Hanging Over the Edge of a Cliff” (“The thing to avoid is a front-row view”) and “How To Survive a Sandstorm” (“your flesh more grist for the gust”). In the same book, “Six Riddles” is a numbered sequence difficult enough to give your mind pause, written with great invention and wit. Even in these short pieces the poems pay delightful care to sonics:


I hatch, wind-spanked, and grow effervescently.
….I’m wet but do not dry in the sun.
I froth on sand. Sailors use “yaw”
….to remember me by.

He doesn’t provide the answers either, because the answers aren’t the point, and besides, if you let the images do their work the answers are obvious. But I still had a wonderful time reading them out loud to my husband.

This Way Out uses language just as inventive and lyrical, but with titles like “Heavenography,” “Tale of the Wedding Ring,” and “Four Months Pregnant,” it’s clear his concerns have shifted. “Ducks Asleep on Grass,” a prose poem in the book’s second section, captures both some of the tone and control of this with “heartbeats like clocks set ten minutes ahead.”

These are both wonder-full collections, and, as Gaspereau Press titles, they’re pieces of book art as well, with pages that are a pleasure between my fingers. Having been introduced to Gaspereau Press and seen the fruits of its labor, I give them what is the aim of every small press: my trust. A Gaspereau Press book is a treasure worth seeking out and waiting for.

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