When Johanna Skibsrud’s novel The Sentimentalists was named 2010 winner of the prestigious Giller Prize in November, the book-buying public was quickly introduced to one of the realities of Canadian publishing – supply and demand don’t necessarily mesh. Before winning the Giller, which comes with a $50,000 cheque and an exponential sales boost, the novel had sold about 400 copies. The previous year’s winner, The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre ended up with sales of about 75,000 as a result of the publicity surrounding the award.
Wesley Bates, who produced the cover illustration for the book, an etching-style drawing of a Vietnam-era soldier, heard about Skibsrud’s win the following morning at his studio/home in Clifford, Ontario. His first reaction was elation for the author.
“I was absolutely thrilled for her,” states Bates, who concedes his thoughts later turned to what would happen next.
The Sentimentalists was published by Gaspereau Press, a small Nova Scotia company which produces art-quality books through a laborious process which includes hand-binding of high quality paper and covers produced on a hand-operated letterpress. Gaspereau could do about a 1,000 copies a week. Major book retailers wanted thirty times that by the weekend.
Although Canadian publishing giants like Random House offered to step in and mass produce the book Gaspereau publishers Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield initially stuck to their guns.
“We’re going to keep doing what we always do,” Steeves told Bates. However, recognizing the unique opportunity the Giller win represented for the author, Gaspereau eventually relented and struck a deal with British Columbia publisher Douglas and McIntyre, to create books in the required quantities. In published statements, Steeves and Dunfield noted they chose to form an alliance with the Vancouver company because they shared the same commitment to quality, albeit on a larger scale, as Gaspereau.
Bates says he was proud of the Gaspereau publishers’ decision, noting they not only stood up for Gaspereau, “but for all the other small publishers,” who do the industry heavy lifting by publishing works of lesser-known authors.
“The reality is, Johanna’s novel would not have been published,” by major presses which, “don’t accept text that arrives without an agent.”
The need to quickly get copies of The Sentimentalists into stores also turned into an opportunity for Bates, who has worked with Gaspereau for a number of years. Generally, he explains, when a book is republished, the cover is totally redesigned for the new printing. In this case, there wasn’t time, so Douglas and McIntyre negotiated a deal with Bates to use his illustration for the re-issue, which included an initial run of 30,000 copies.
“One hopes it’s because it was such a great cover, though, obviously, they had a time factor,” quipped Bates.
A small craft publisher himself, Bates has been producing small runs of books and other material on his own letterpress set-up at his main street studio in Clifford. Through his connections with Gaspereau, Bates had found himself at an open house event at their Nova Scotia operation, promoting his own book, In Black and White; A Wood Engraver’s Odyssey, an autobiographical account of his years as freelance illustrator in the publishing industry. Skibsrud was also there, reading from her current book of poetry.
“You knew right away that she had something special,” said Bates, who jumped at the opportunity when he was later asked to illustrate the cover of The Sentimentalists.
Long road to Clifford
Born in the Yukon, the son of an RCMP officer and an artist, Bates spent his early youth in Saskatchewan after his father’s law enforcement work took him to the Canadian prairies. He spent his teenage years in British Columbia before attending the art program at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia. He lived in Hamilton for 25 years, until, after splitting up with his wife, he decided a change of scenery was in order.
“I was talking to one of my clients in New York and I realized, he doesn’t know where I am, and he doesn’t care,” said Bates, who realized at that point his career needn’t tie him to a major urban centre.
Through his volunteer work with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, he had met area residents Carol and Glenn Leibold, who had allowed him to use a trailer in the woods near their Normanby Township home as a base for sketching. Once familiar with the area, he decided to “vote with my feet,” and move to the countryside. After checking out a former one-room schoolhouse near Mount Forest, he found himself in Clifford on his way home and noticed the building which became his studio in 1999, was for sale.
Bates feels it may have been more than chance that led him to his current base. Shortly after moving in to what had once been a Five-to-a-Dollar store in Clifford, he walked out his front door and viewed the street from just the right angle to bring back memories of having been in that very spot before, during a trip to the area about 15 years prior.
“I remember saying to myself, could I eventually live in a place like this? And now, here I am.”