THE VERY FIRST GILLER PRIZE…..A STORY OF TERROR

The contribution made by The Giller Prize to Canada’s writers, publishers and readers is well-known. The impact on sales for the winning novel (even for books on the short list) is so dramatic that it has its own term: “The Giller Effect”.
Yet that might not have happened, without an outrageous gamble 25 years ago.
I was there. To be precise, I was in the room with Avie Bennett, the Chairman of McClelland & Stewart, where I was the Publisher, when we had a very, very tough decision to take.
It was the first year of Jack Rabinovitch’s interesting new prize. We were glad that he had decided to launch the Prize, and we looked forward to the fine evening Dinner.
Avie and I were both going to be there, since several of our books were among the five finalists. But we had no idea if the Giller was going to be just a pleasant Toronto social event. Or if, possibly, it might prove to be a very effective way of selling books.
(It’s fair to say here that neither Avie nor I would have predicted even half of the impact that the Giller Prize has proved to have on sales in our bookstores.)
Our problem revolved around one of the finalists, M.G. Vassanji’s novel THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
Unlike the other M&S contenders for the Prize, we did not have a good supply of copies. In fact, if the book were to win the Prize, we would not be able to meet any demand for it that rose in the bookstores. Even worse,if we delayed a reprint, while the book was being re-printed, which would take weeks, the book would be “out of stock”, and any surge of popular interest would be flattened. “Come back in two weeks” is not a good line for a bookseller.
So we had a major problem with THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
To make matters worse, the book had come out in the Spring. So in the bookselling world it was an “old” book. It had had its day. And as a Spring title, by the November Giller Prize Dinner it was being returned to our warehouse.
So, in these circumstances, Avie and I knew that if the book did NOT win, it would not lead to any further sales from our warehouse. At best, the fact that the book had been short-listed might slow down the rate of returns, a little.
So for us to reprint in these circumstances, before we knew if it had won, was a horrendous commercial risk. In effect, we knew that WE WOULD NOT SELL A SINGLE COPY OF THE REPRINT.
On the other hand, IF THE BOOK WON, AND WE WERE OUT OF STOCK FOR WEEKS we would be dealing a death blow to the hopes that The Giller Prize might lead to dramatic sales of the winning book.
So, after anguished debate, Avie took the bold decision to reprint (I believe 7,500 copies). We both knew that every single copy we printed would moulder in the warehouse if the Giller Prize went to one of the other four contenders.
So, that year, Avie and I were sweating blood through our fancy dinner jackets as the evening culminated with the words, “And the winner is……..M.G. Vassanji’s THE BOOK OF SECRETS!”
Afterwards , Avie and I were asked what we felt when this M&S book won the Prize, and we both said” Relief!”

And indeed the reprinted books flew out of the warehouse, so that we had to reprint again and again. And we helped to establish “The Giller Effect”.

On the 25th anniversary, it’s a very proud memory. Well done, Jack! Well done,Avie.!

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OPTIONS FOR MY NEW SHOW

First, of course, an affectionate word about AVIE BENNETT, who passed away four days ago. Jane and I were in Vancouver when the Toronto Star tracked me down for a phone interview about Avie in Stanley Park.  It was strangely appropriate for a man who took the M&S description, “The Canadian Publishers”, so seriously.

I was glad that The Star devoted a front-page story to Avie’s life and death. My own recollections of working daily with him as the Publisher of McClelland & Stewart when he was the Chairman , from 1988 till 2000, are vivid and proud. The Star story ended with my recollection of my May 23 show at the Lieutenant Governor’s Chambers in Queen’s Park. I had  begun by thanking everyone for coming, recognising my 10 year-old nephew Alistair (who leapt to his feet with unrestrained enthusiasm), and then noting the presence of 89-year old Avie, who was there on a walker , with the help of his friend Bill Ross. It had taken him a great deal of trouble and determination to come to my show, to support me, and I spoke briefly about his role in supporting Canadian writers.

Without prompting, the audience burst into warm applause. Avie was delighted.

He died ten days later, after this final triumphant public appearance.

I’ll be writing a fuller appreciation later.

 

Now that I’ve given my Sesquicentennial shows celebrating ” CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS / LES PLUS GRANDS RACONTEURS CANADIENS  1867 — 2017″  in various places, a few options have emerged.

OPTION ONE: The full show, with an Intermission when we reach 1967. This is the show I have given in Ottawa on April 29,  and (in more polished form) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on May 31. This is also the form chosen by a number of Literary Festivals across the country for the next few months.

The next such event, running almost two hours, including the Intermission, will be on the roof of Ontario, where so many rivers start, at FLESHERTON on JUNE 9, at 7pm.  Tickets are still available. Contact museum@greyhighlands  for details about the show in the Kineplex.

OPTION TWO: A condensed 50-minute version of the show, concentrating on the modern era, from 1967 to the present. This is the version that I gave at The Lieutenant Governor’s Queen’s Park Chambers. Susan Swan the novelist was in the audience, and kindly called it ” a witty historical medley of Canadian writerly talent…How fortunate Canada is that you are doing your show across the country. If only there were more Doug Gibsons going out in the world to tell it about our great literary tradition, our wonderful history of writers and writing.”

OPTION THREE: The first 100 Years, from 1867 to 1967.  This version, running one hour, has already been chosen by some Ontario groups. In every case, of course, I deal with our major writers in English and in French, and the show is enlivened by bursts of Canadian music, and the work of other Canadian artists from the time. And always, of course, I speak about the author against the background caricature by the brilliant Anthony Jenkins.

I’m still building a National Tour. Please let any interested group (Library/Bookstore/Museum/ Community) know about the shows we can bring to them. Contact me at doug1929@rogers.com