Steps to re­duce Giller Prize sub­mis­sions may be the most con­tro­ver­sial change in award’s his­tory

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - GLOBE ARTS - MARK MED­LEY

This past Fe­bru­ary, Hazel Mil­lar, co-pub­lisher of the Toronto in­de­pen­dent press BookThug, submitted a novel to be con­sid­ered for this year’s Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize. Not long after­ward, she re­ceived an e-mail from the prize sub­mis­sions man­ager, alert­ing her that this would be BookThug’s sole en­try for the year.

Con­fused, for she’d al­ways en­tered more than one book in past years, she read the prize guide­lines, which con­firmed that the num­ber of en­tries per pub­lisher had in­deed been re­duced, and that BookThug, an un­abashedly ex­per­i­men­tal press that has never placed a ti­tle on the short or long list, was now re­stricted to one sub­mis­sion.

“I just had a mo­ment of dis­be­lief,” says Mil­lar, who as a re­sult of the change de­layed pub­lish­ing a novel she in­tended to sub­mit for this year’s prize so that it will be el­i­gi­ble for next year.

“I’ve had to now go back and look at the books we have sched­uled for the next cou­ple of years and start to think, ‘Oh my gosh, what will that one [en­try] be?’ It’s very tricky, be­cause ev­ery author asks up front, ‘You will sub­mit my book for the Giller, right?’ ”

Since the Giller Prize was es­tab­lished in 1994, there have been sev­eral rule changes, or tweaks, to what has be­come Canada’s most pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary award; 2008, for in­stance, saw the ad­di­tion of the first in­ter­na­tional ju­ror, while in 2015, the jury was ex­panded from three to five peo­ple.

This most re­cent change, how­ever, might prove to be the most im­pact­ful.

It has frus­trated pub­lish­ers, some of whom worry it will mean an un­even play­ing field for presses who have never been nom­i­nated, even if many in the in­dus­try agree with prize or­ga­niz­ers that such a change was nec­es­sary.

“The suc­cess of our books has be­come more prize-de­pen­dent, and what’s why, I think, we’ve be­come much more anx­ious about what is prob­a­bly still a very rea­son­able con­straint, even if not a pop­u­lar one,” says Dan Wells, pub­lisher of Wind­sor’s Bi­b­lioa­sis.

It’s a change that or­ga­niz­ers have been con­sid­er­ing “for a num­ber of years,” says the prize’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Elana Rabi­novitch, ow­ing to a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of sub­mis­sions. In the Giller’s first few years, the num­ber of sub­mis­sions ranged be­tween ap­prox­i­mately 60 and 80 ti­tles. But in the past decade alone, the num­ber of en­tries has al­most dou­bled, from 95 in 2008 to 161 last year. (The high­est num­ber of en­tries is 168 books, which the jury had to read in 2015.)

This was not only prob­lem­atic for the ju­rors, who have roughly six months to read all the en­tries, but off-putting to po­ten­tial ju­rors, as well.

“I was hear­ing from a lot of peo­ple that it was oner­ous, and that they might other­wise have said yes if it wasn’t that many books,” Rabi­novitch says.

Sev­eral steps have been taken to re­duce the over­all num­ber of sub­mis­sions, the most no­table of which was to re­strict the num­ber of sub­mis­sions per im­print, and to re­ward those pub­lish­ers who’ve en­joyed past Giller suc­cess. Each pub­lisher is now al­lowed to sub­mit two ti­tles per im­print – down from three – but only if they’ve had a book reach the long or short list in a pre­vi­ous year.

If a pub­lisher has never had a ti­tle make the lists, such as Book-Thug, they are lim­ited to one en­try. (For com­par­i­son, the Rogers Writ­ers’ Trust Fic­tion Prize al­lows be­tween two and five ti­tles per im­print, de­pend­ing on how many books they pub­lish, whereas the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award al­lows pub­lish­ers to sub­mit all el­i­gi­ble ti­tles.)

Fur­ther­more, pub­lish­ers can no longer create new im­prints in or­der to in­crease the num­ber of books they can sub­mit to the Giller; any im­prints cre­ated af­ter 2016 will now count to­ward the pub­lisher’s to­tal. Fi­nally, books by au­thors who had pre­vi­ously won the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award, which used to be au­to­mat­i­cally en­tered, now count to­ward a pub­lisher’s to­tal, as well. (New books by pre­vi­ous Giller Prize winners are still given a free pass.)

“Ev­ery­thing about the process of cut­ting down on the num­ber of sub­mis­sions was painful,” Rabi­novitch says. “None of it felt good, but all of it was nec­es­sary.”

The rule changes had the de­sired ef­fect on this year’s prize, the long list of which will be an­nounced on Mon­day; the jury con­sid­ered 112 books, 49 fewer ti­tles than last year, yet still the sev­enth-high­est num­ber of ti­tles in prize his­tory.

Rabi­novitch ac­knowl­edges that, when the rule changes were posted to the Giller web­site, she “did hear from pub­lish­ers who were, un­der­stand­ably, a lit­tle con­cerned.”

“I un­der­stand judges feel­ing over­whelmed by the num­ber of sub­mis­sions, but I think that al­low­ing only one or two sub­mis­sions per pub­lisher is in­suf­fi­cient,” says Brian Lam, pub­lisher of Van­cou­ver’s Arse­nal Pulp Press. “I’m sure a lot of wor­thy ti­tles won’t get a shot as a re­sult.”

“We pub­lish only four or five fic­tion ti­tles per year, so it’s very dif­fi­cult to nar­row that down, know­ing how dev­as­tated au­thors will be if they’re not submitted,” says Alana Wil­cox, ed­i­tor of Toronto’s Coach House Books, which pub­lished An­dré Alexis’s Giller-win­ning novel Fif­teen Dogs in 2015. “It means we have to ex­clude, say, our trans­lated ti­tles be­cause they prob­a­bly have less of a chance.”

“It’s very frus­trat­ing,” says Si­mon Dardick, co-pub­lisher of Mon­treal’s Véhicule Press.

“We could live with choos­ing two, but choos­ing one is dif­fi­cult and un­com­fort­able. What do you tell the author? I think it is a re­gret­table de­ci­sion be­cause now, bot­tom line, it means that the Giller Prize does not rep­re­sent the best of Cana­dian fic­tion, just the best of the re­duced num­ber they are will­ing to con­sider. And that dis­ap­points me.”

The new rules don’t just af­fect smaller pub­lish­ers; multi­na­tion­als such as Pen­guin Ran­dom House and Harper-Collins saw their sub­mis­sions re­duced, as well. For ex­am­ple, Si­mon & Schus­ter Canada, which only launched its Cana­dian fic­tion program two years ago, is lim­ited to just one en­try.

“Does it af­fect us and our num­ber of sub­mis­sions? Yeah, it does, ab­so­lutely,” says the pub­lisher’s editorial di­rec­tor, Nita Pronovost. “But that just means we have to strate­gize very care­fully about which books we send.”

Pub­lish­ers have al­ways strate­gized be­fore sub­mit­ting; while the spot­light is on the long and short lists, for a book to even ap­pear on a ju­ror’s doorstep is an ac­com­plish­ment in and of it­self.

In some re­spects, there’s a Giller Prize be­fore the Giller Prize ever be­gins, with shadow ju­ries com­prised of ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers look­ing at the books they’ve pub­lished over the past year in or­der to iden­tify those that have the best shot at the $100,000 prize.

Strate­gies dif­fer de­pend­ing on who you talk to; some hand­i­cap the jury, sub­mit­ting books they think will ap­peal to a ju­ror’s par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ties; some play with the cal­en­dar, pre­fer­ring to pub­lish cer­tain books ear­lier in the year so that the jury has more time to read and con­sider them; some avoid sub­mit­ting books that are sim­i­lar, in style, theme or sub­stance, to re­cent winners. It re­mains to be seen if and how the rule changes will change the makeup of the long and short lists.

“I would be con­cerned that, over time, it might re­sult in a cer­tain con­ser­vatism to the books that are submitted for con­sid­er­a­tion,” says Su­sanne Alexan­der, pub­lisher of Fred­er­ic­ton’s Goose Lane Edi­tions.

“The Giller ac­tu­ally has been no­table for hav­ing out­liers on the list. It in­ter­ests me to know whether in fact pub­lish­ers will take the chance of ac­tu­ally sub­mit­ting the out­liers or whether they will just, be­cause they’re so lim­ited in their choices, make much more con­ser­va­tive se­lec­tions.”

Rabi­novitch, for her part, doesn’t think it will have that kind of an af­fect; af­ter all, she says, the jury is still al­lowed to call in any book not submitted by its pub­lisher.

“We’re pretty on top of what’s be­ing pub­lished,” she says. “We like to think that we won’t miss any­thing.”

Ev­ery­thing about the process of cut­ting down on the num­ber of sub­mis­sions was painful. None of it felt good, but all of it was nec­es­sary. Elana Rabi­novitch Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Giller Prize


A change to the Giller Prize rules dic­tates that each pub­lisher may sub­mit two ti­tles per im­print – down from three – but only if they’ve had a book reach the long or short list in a pre­vi­ous year.

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