Change Changes Everything: Rethinking the #GillerPrize Dilemma (via @seancranbury)

Important information can appear in strange places. Such as the door to a bathroom stall in an east Vancouver Roti joint. Written in strong grafscript at about shoulder height on the pea green enamel to my left were the words, “Our contradictions define us.” This was about a week ago.

It was the rare example of interesting bathroom graffiti and I’ve ruminated on it a lot since. It’s interesting to think that what brings a customer back to your restaurant might not be the quality of your jerk chicken recipe but rather the thought-provoking felt-tipped tags on your bathroom stall door.

There might be a marketing opportunity there.

Or not.

In the days since Johanna Skibsrud (a name that I can now spell correctly on the first try) won the Giller Prize and sent the social media networks into a roiling froth of competeing opinions and ideas I have tried to read as much of the commentary as possible and tried to keep an open mind.

I wrote a piece on Book Madam & Associates encouraging Andrew Steeves, publisher of Gaspereau Press, and an articulate spokesman for the independent ethos in book publishing, to stand his ground and continue going to work every day like today was yesterday and every day before that.

Some people read the piece and pushed it forward through the networks. The National Post’s Afterword referenced it along with other articles with other views. Some people sent me emails thanking me for writing the piece and ‘sticking up for’ independents in an increasingly multi-national world.

Some people, like Nathan Maharaj, tried to talk some sense into me.  Others like A.J. Somerset called out my piece for being too ‘feel good’ while emphasizing what Skibsrud has potentially to lose without the distribution necessary to capitalize on the opportunity that the Giller presents to an author.

In the comments to A.J. Somerset’s blog post Jeet Heer weighs in with a simple sketch of what he considers to be the three stakeholders in this situation:

1) Gaspereau, which wants to publish high quality books.

2) Skibsrud, who obviously values the high quality books that Gaspereau makes but also wants to as wide a readership as possible and of course the money that comes from that readership.

3) The readers who are now interested in the book and want to read it or give it as a gift.

But I was still confused by the whole situation. My heart would not allow me to give in on standing the ground for Gaspereau’s right to do what they want to do, how they want to do it. After all, they’d earned that right.  Hadn’t they?

But I was still aware that there was more to this that I hadn’t considered.

The problem, I think for me, was that I only heard the voices that were clamouring for Gaspereau to change its tactics, submit to the will of the ‘marketplace’, embrace the Giller Effect, whatever else it was that people were saying.

I didn’t hear anyone demanding changes to any other part of the process. This was the main point that was sticking with me and I couldn’t articulate it properly.

Then I locked horns with Nathan Whitlock and Brian Joseph Davis on Brian’s Facebook thread and learned a thing or two in the chill Vancouver morning as my coffee percolated.

Here’s a screen capture of the moment where things changed for me:

Two things broke through the circled wagons of my defense of Gaspereau: Nathan saying that it’s ‘not a zero sum game’ and Brian’s excellent quote that I borrowed for the title of this piece.

Everything changes. Everything piece of the Giller Dilemma needs to be examined. It all needs to adapt. The Giller needs to be as inclusive as it can be and open to the works by independent presses like Gaspereau and bigger publishers alike.

I come from small town independent bookselling. I learned almost everything that I know about books while working at Chapman Books in Dundas, Ontario. The only piece of technology that we had in that store was a solar powered calculator and the only reason that we could use that particular device is because it was powered by the sun.

Now I use my blog and radio show, Books on the Radio, to help me stay active with books, writers and publishing. I often write about technology and have penned a few impatient rants about publishers and the industry ‘adapting’ to new ideas and technologies.

And yet I leap to the defense of the hand press, of the old ways that still endure. The independent voice in the stormy marketplace that demands fluidity, adaptability and openmindedness.

It likely won’t be the last time that I write a defense of the independent side of this industry but I think that I’m wiser now than I was yesterday morning and I wanted to thank the people who helped me develop a little bit.

Now, on with today!

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.

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