Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Awards and Jurors/Judges

There has been a big kerfuffle in the last few weeks over the winner for the Giller prize.  The Giller is one of Canada's biggies in the book world... the winner gets $50,000!

This year's winner is Johanna Skibsrud for her book The Sentamentalists.  More on the kerfuffle in a moment, but some background is necessary first...

There are many different book awards out there, for literature in general (Man Booker, Trillium, Governor General's, etc.) and several for specific genres (like the Nebula award for Sci-Fi, or the Edgar, the Dagger, or the Arthur Ellis for crime fiction).  In 2006 (or was it 2005?), I was a judge for the "Best Novel" category for the Arthur Ellis awards.

The instructions to the three judges (for some reason they (we) were actually called jurors, not judges, whatever...) were pretty simple and straightforward.  For our category, we were to choose the best book overall (from the ~50 books entered that year).  Criteria for best book included quality of writing, plot, dialogue, etc.  Everything to do with judging was related to the book itself, to what was between the pages.  We were not told to consider any external factors in choosing the shortlist (of five books) or in balancing nominees between male and female, or by region (east coast/west coast) or anything like this.

Johanna Skibsrud's publisher is a small Canadian publisher called Gaspereau Press.  They produce the books the old fashioned way, using a hand press or something, and apparently the books are beautifully bound hardcovers.  Quality takes time, and Gaspereau can only crank out a few hundred a week or so. 

Well, naturally, when Skibsrud won the Giller prize, demand for the book shot through the roof!  Everone wanted it, but no one could get it.  All sorts of comments and articles were written up in newspapers and other media about this unknown small publisher and this great new book that no one could read anytime soon.

I saw a few articles that claimed it was irresponsible of the judges to choose a book that was so limited in demand.  This is the real point of my post.  Although I understand the frustration of a hot new book getting this prestigious award and all the attendant publicity... and then not being able to go out and buy it, but still, it seemed ludicrous to me that judges should take heat for choosing a book from a small, independent publisher, and I certainly wouldn't have considered it irresponsible.  As well, I don't think judges should have to do research on who the publishers are of the books that have been entered in the Giller or other awards.  When I was judging the Arthus Ellis awards, I can't recall checking up on any of the publishers, even those publishers with whom I was not familiar.  That wasn't the point in choosing the best book

By the way, Gaspereau has since signed an agreement with a larger publisher to produce paperback copies of The Sentimentalists, and it's now readily available in stores.


  1. If a book is chosen as "best" it should not matter if it is readily available or just one copy exists, it was chosen best written, not fastest to the bookstore, or from biggest publisher! Hooray for a book from a small publisher winning!
    Thanks for sharing this...