Owners return to hand publishing Giller-winning book
Published Thursday, November 18, 2010 4:10PM EST
KENTVILLE, N.S. - The smell of warm ink fills the air as Andrew Steeves carefully hand cranks copies of the jacket of the "The Sentimentalists" one cream-coloured sheet at a time.
The co-owner of Gaspereau Press is happy to return to a more leisurely pace after a flurry of attention created a pressure-cooker atmosphere at his small office in Kentville, N.S., when it appeared there would be a shortage of copies of the Giller Prize-winning novel.
A few strides from the computer where he edits and chooses typefaces, the 40-year-old publisher relishes pressing raised typeface into paper.
"You start doing those first few sheets and there are the words you've edited and typeset and designed. There are few joys like it, actually," he said, laying another cover of Johanna Skibsrud's novel on a stack.
Steeves and his partner Gary Dunfield came under scrutiny after Skibsrud's novel won the $50,000 prize on Nov. 16 and they didn't have a large number of copies available or a completed licensing arrangement with a larger publisher.
The problem was resolved recently after a deal was cut with Vancouver-based Douglas & McIntyre to produce 70,000 copies. The paperbacks are expected to start appearing in bookstores by Monday.
The initial fuss -- prompting a media debate over the virtues of idealistic patience versus the ineptitude of squandered sales -- might even be good for business, said Steeves.
"I think people are still talking about the book, and I think that will help sales."
Meanwhile, Steeves and Dunfield are relieved to be back making their own copies of Skibsrud's tale of a daughter's quest to uncover her father's Vietnam War memories.
Each one of the books made by Gaspereau will retail for $27.95, a premium over the $19.95 paperwork produced for Douglas & McIntyre. Gaspereau has orders for 4,000 copies, keeping the small staff bustling.
Portions of the Gaspereau version of the book, such as the inside pages, are done on a conventional offset press. But the shop maintains its practice of stitching together folded groups of pages, rather than using glue alone for binding.
"It makes a book where the spines won't crack, whatever you do with them," said Dunfield, as he fed paper into the stitcher.
In the next step, Laura MacDonald hand cuts the books after their bindings are squeezed in a press.
Basma Kavanaugh, sitting nearby, folds the covers individually after slapping on the Giller prize stickers.
Last week, Kavanaugh said, a group of volunteers came in as orders started piling up. "They just wanted to help," she said.
In Steeves's office, the covers of the novel are made on the hand press with raised type in two stages: once for the text and again for the pencil sketch of a soldier.
Between considering typefaces and answering a telephone that ceaselessly rings, Steeves said he relishes the breaks when he pounds off "the nice sweet indent" of a hand printed cover.
It's a mix of the physical and cerebral that balances a publisher's life, he said.
"Gary and I grew up one generation off the farm in New Brunswick and we still have that kind of hankering to do physical work and get dirty once in a while," he said.
He contends that while automated offset printing technology is superior for colour prints, raised type remains the superior method for ink on paper.
"If I were able to, if it were economically viable, I would print everything we did here on some form of letter press for the simple reason that it's the best technology we've ever developed for putting black print on paper," he said.
Skibsrud was travelling in Turkey this week on holiday, but she has said she was pleased with the deal struck by Gaspereau.
"This win throws Johanna into a whole different world of how culture works," said Steeves when asked if the author will stay with his firm.
"We don't really specialize in selling books in the kinds of volumes that her agent sees her selling."
Still, perhaps the deal with McIntyre & Douglas will set up a precedent that Skibsrud likes, said Steeves, or maybe the author will choose to continue sending her poetry to Gaspereau.
Whatever unfolds, don't expect radical changes at his shop.
"We're kind of stubborn, independent people," he said.
"Maybe there's another writer out there who needs that Gaspereau kick start."