Sep 12, 2011
Johanna Skibsrud's debut novel The Sentimentalists won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2009 Alcuin Award for best designed work of prose fiction, the first book ever to achieve this double win.
The Sentimentalists was first published by Gaspereau Press, a highly regarded small press based in Kentiville Nova Scotia, in a print run of 800 copies. The firm had difficulty filling demand for the book after it won the Giller. Chapters-Indigo, Canada's dominant bookstore chain, claimed not to have any of the books in stock anywhere in Canada during the week the Giller was announced. One result was a significant increase in ebook sales; the novel quickly became the top-selling title in the Kobo ebookstore. Within about two weeks Gaspereau announced that it had sold trade paperback rights to Douglas & McIntyre; at the same time it continued to print small runs of the novel in its original format.
As if this weren't enough, Giller juror Ali Smith, a British writer, spoke to literary agent and friend Tracy Bohan about the book before it was long-listed. Just days before the long-list was announced, Bohan secured a deal for the rights to distribute the book internationally. She subsequently sold the book to her boyfriend, Jason Arthur, a director of Random House UK imprint William Heinemann.
According to The National Post, Andrew Steeves, co-owner of Gaspereau Press, says he received an email from Skibsrud in which “She told me that Tracy Bohan had contacted her and that an author, Ali Smith, had recommended that Tracy read The Sentimentalists.” Before the long-list was revealed in September, “Tracy was very interested in making a deal with me that morning.” After the long-list was revealed, Steeves admitted, “it looked a little funny to me.”
I met with Skibsrud in Ottawa. We talked about all of the events surrounding publication of The Sentimentalists (surly already, despite its short life, one of the most storied books in Canadian publishing history) and about the book itself as object.
Skibsrud has also published two books of poetry, including Late Nights with Wild Cowboys in 2008. The Sentimentalists was written for her Master's thesis at Concordia University. She lives in Tuscon Arizona.