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Small press, big community

Santa gave Gaspereau an early present when Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists won the Giller, causing a frenzy of media debate.


Gaspereau Press got an early Christmas gift this year when one of the Kentville publisher's books, Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, was awarded The Giller Prize on November 9. The award normally translates to a huge increase in sales for a press, but high volume isn't the small press's specialty. Using old-fashioned letterpress equipment, a typical print run is 600 to 1,000 books---the business started up in the late 1990s out of publishers Andrew Steeves' and Gary Dunfield's love of letterpress. Unable to meet publishing demands, after much debate Gaspereau sublicensed publishing rights for a trade paperback to Douglas & McIntyre, which hit stores last week, as well as releasing a digital version when the award shortlist was announced.

Satirical news site joked about a Gemini award going to "a small, artisanal production company in Nova Scotia that distributes its programs individually on Betamax tape," and Globe and Mail critic John Doyle called the win a sign the Gillers were "elitist and rewarding obscurity." But Gaspereau has few aspirations of grandeur: It still sees itself as a business deeply rooted in the local community, trying to maintain relationships with its regular clients, authors and employees.

"This was an unusual situation where we had a demand beyond what we were interested in dealing with," says Steeves, "which baffles some minds. But I'm not religious about making 30- to 40,000 copies of a book...that's not what I get out of bed in the mornings for." The sublicense was the first one they'd done, where Gaspereau receives royalties from Douglas & McIntyre, which are split between the press and the author.

The Sentimentalists was the first digital edition Gaspereau published, and they plan to do more in the future: profit margins are higher, and Steeves says "it's gravy" compared to producing physical books. "There's this whole segment of the population who are starting to pick up these devices because they like the convenience, they like gadgets generally, and why wouldn't you want to sell to those people?"

The books aren't printed entirely using letterpress---only the covers. "The letterpress process isn't really slowing things down. A lot of what's slow is just the bindery, actually sewing the books," he says. Interior pages are typeset digitally, and printed on an offset press using plates with raised lettering that give a similar indent effect to metal type.

Steeves isn't so excited about big bucks and attention---he's excited about paying off debts from Gaspereau's startup years, and how the community has come together to help out. He refers to Gaspereau as a "community print shop," and the win brought out the community to volunteer. "Suddenly we had all these phone calls from people in the community...mostly saying things like, 'I can come in on Thursday afternoons, do you need help?' It's been very helpful, and very heartwarming, to have people stand beside us and say, 'You're our literary press.'"

Volunteers have helped with slipping jackets on books, packing boxes and repairing machinery. Steeves talks about how gratifying it was to see other people excited about a Wolfville business being recognized nationally. He refers to some of the nationwide press as "silliness" and remarks on camera crews from CBC and CTV coming in: "They were taken aback by some of the volunteers...It was just this strange paradigm shift for them, that people would volunteer their time to help out a business."

Ultimately, Gaspereau's concern is with commitment to its books and community. Steeves could print high volumes, but, "I don't want to burn my staff out on a single book. I don't want them to hate this book!"

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