Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Sentimentalists - Please Buy the REAL Book

(Today's blog post has been paraphrased, in part, from Karen Johnson's blog over at and from Andrew Chung's article at the Toronto Star)

On October 5th a shortlist of five books was announced for this year's Scotia Bank Giller Prize. The Giller Prize is the largest annual literary prize in Canada.

On October 9th Johanna Skibsrud's book "The Sentimentalists" won, and this is where the story gets interesting.

The publisher of this book is Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

Their books are printed and bound on the premises. They use a 1960s offset press, bind them using mechanical sewers and wrap them in covers that are printed on a letterpress cranked by hand. This process, as you can imagine, takes time. They can produce about 1000 books a week. Since winning The Giller Johanna Skibsrud’s "The Sentimentalists" is now in high demand.

At first publisher Andrew Steeves declined an offer from a big publisher to print more copies for him. Critics said that this book should have be on bookshelves as soon as the winner of the Giller was announced. (Geez, would they like fries with that too?)

“It's like lemmings off the cliff that the market subscribes to,” Steeves says. “That is everything that's wrong with our world.”

The publishers have some defenders. “Andrew and Steve are gems,” says retired history professor and author Julian Gwyn, who has had books published by Gaspereau. “They're standing up for art and craftsmanship. I say, ‘To hell with you, Toronto. To hell with you, Montreal. You'll get the books when you get them, and you'll be happy.' ”

But an author has clout. Skibsrud made her angst clear to the media after the win. She finally made it clear to Steeves and Dunfield, too. And so they made an announcement to meet the demand, but in “our way,” Steeves said, hinting they'd try to control the output.

My wife Teresa followed this tug-of-war between mass production verses art and craftsmanship with intense interest. As it turns out "The Sentimentalists" was already on her "To Read" list before the Giller Prize winner was announced. And after reading Andrew Chung's article at the Toronto Star and noticing the parallels between the book publishing business and our custom furniture making business she decided that the only copy she could accept would be one printed by Gaspereau.

And, so, she placed an order with Gaspereau for their version of "The Sentimentalists" and told them she'd wait for delivery until next summer if she had to.

As it turns out her copy arrived in the mail last week, and let me say it is MAGNIFICENT. The quality of the paper and the mechanical binding are the two details that really stand out for me. Seeing this level of quality coming out of enterprises such as Gaspereau is also a reminder to me of how vital it is to keep small entities such as this viable as going concerns.

For years I have watched with despair as the North American market transitioned from a place where we made things to a place where we hand off this responsibility to someone else. Working with your hands, or "blue collar" work, has become shunned as the subcontracting of work became ever more greed driven by the parameter of who could make things the cheapest. Quality became little more than a marketing buzzword as the drive to source the cheapest price has ultimately resulted in sending most of our manufacturing offshore.

What most people fail to realize is that it's the making of things that creates the wealth. This creation of wealth also creates jobs, and it's the wealth and these jobs that ultimately provide the tax base that supports benefits such as our health care and education systems.

Now that Western society has largely succeeded in driving most manufacturing offshore the jobs are disappearing, the tax base is imploding, and our governments are keeping things afloat primarily by means of deficit spending supported by a printing press to crank out more currency. Going deeper into debt has never been the path to prosperity, and today we are painfully learning that lesson the hard way.

If we are to have any hope for a viable economic future in the Western world it is imperative that we get back to our roots and once again honour the making of fine quality goods.

Gaspereau Press has put a smile on my face for their adherence to fine quality craftsmanship, and they've been added to my Christmas card list this year.

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