Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 12, 2010

Canada Reads 2010 Wrap-Up

I’ve put the finishing touches on an order to Random House and with that, we here in bookseller land are prepared to administer Canada’s latest future bestseller (right?  Right??!?) to an anxious public.  It’s already all over Twitter, so I won’t pretend I’d be the one to spoil it for you:  Nikolski has been crowned the winner of CBC’s Canada Reads 2010!

I guess I’d better pry my foot out of my mouth!  I really didn’t see Nikolski pulling through but I am THRILLED about it!  Michel Vezina, to whom this win is entirely owed, managed to turn my mind right around on this book and, apparently, did the same for the other panelists.

I have a theory about Canada Reads and why it will never really be truly disappointing:

By appointing a panel of pseudo-celebrities who are at least desirous of being of the intelligentsia you set up a situation where as much as anything, the panelists don’t want to be seen as populist, mainstream or ignorant.  We saw this in the first two days:  “Oprah” is a dirty word in this world where the panelists feel they are being called upon to provide literary guidance, to educate as much as to entertain.  So a smart panelist who appeals to Greater Literary Values will shame, to some extent, these panelists out of voting against his or her title because they don’t want to be seen as pedestrian.  A smart book defended by a not-especially-literate panelist may not make it, but a smart-enough book by a very literate panelist will.  A smart book defended by a literate panelist is a guarantee.  Knock on wood.

Back in the real world, will this translate into sales? Book of Negroes certainly did, but this was a book that was mounting momentum before it won.  I remember Rockbound by Frank Day flying off the shelves. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews was selling well before the Canada Reads nod.  King Leary was a bit of a wiff at our store, but then it wasn’t a very good book (and I say this as a die-hard Paul Quarrington acolyte) as was Lullaby for Little Criminals for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  My boss, who has been selling books for over 35 years, said the following when I told her who won: (and I quote)

“F. U. C. K.  Who on earth is going to come crawling in looking for that?”

She had been rooting for Jade Peony, a tried and tested novel around these here parts that we thought would translate into reliable sales.  Nikolski‘s an unknown quantity, I’ll be honest.  A somewhat unconventional book, a translation at that, by an unknown first novelist.  Those are qualities I find exciting, but I’m undecided as to what my fairly conservative clients will do.  I’ll certainly let you know!

This has been fun, though.  Thanks to everyone who blogged the debates this year: I read about six blogs a day and still managed to find something fresh and interesting voiced by each one.  Enough discussion sparks my interest in even the dullest of books!  We should do this again some time, maybe next year, same time?

ETA:  Wayson Choy just walked into my store!  I’d kill to know what’s going through his mind today.  Must… be… discreet..

7 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2010 Wrap-Up”

  1. Kerry C says:

    Definitely, let’s do it again. Once again, your commentary was one of the best bits of the whole affair.

  2. I really hope copies of Nikolski do fly out of your shop and into eager readers’ hands. The sales aspect seems so unpredictable to me…I wasn’t especially fond of Rockbound myself (although I thought its defense was passionate and it was fun to have an OP book be “rediscovered” like that) so I’m surprised to hear of it having sold so well, whereas it did take me awhile to get up the nerve to read Heather O’Neill’s novel, but I did think it was remarkable…

    1. Charlotte says:

      I think the thing about Rockbound was that everyone wanted to know about this little book they’d never heard of. I was also slow coming to Lullabye; child prostitutes on heroin wasn’t my idea of a good time, but it turned out to be remarkably funny and sympathetic!

  3. Steph says:

    Shut up. Wayson Choy walks into your store right after you post this? Shut up!!

    Wow. What did he buy? Was he surreptitiously checking out if people were clamouring for his book? 🙂

    Up until now have Nikolski sales not done well? I’m surprised. I have been attracted to that book (both by cover and story) since it first came out in our stores here. And when I read it I was even more enamoured! Maybe word of mouth is the best way to go. I did tell a few people about it and they went out and bought it (and enjoyed it!). I used to be a bookseller, and I found the best way to sell a book is to gush about how much you loved it. When I worked at the library, it worked too!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Heheh, I had to remind myself that the shows were taped a while ago and he’s probably been aware that Jade Peony didn’t win for a while now, so I wasn’t likely to find him crying in the aisles or anything. 😉 I think he was just in town for the announcement publicity. He bought Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf (a very good book on the evolution of human capacity to read) and The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun. 😀

      But no, we didn’t sell any Nikolski before this. We’re not much of a “popular” bookstore; we do sell new frontlist literature but not much in the way of “I’m just looking for a good read…” Nikolski didn’t sell in hardcover so we didn’t bother getting it in paperback…. until now. So I guess in that respect it’ll get more sales – at least now we’ll stock it!

  4. rpriske says:

    I have a (somewhat dubious) familialy relation to Wayson Choy so I was really pulling for him.

    (My sister married a… cousin, I think.)

  5. Steph says:

    I always find it interesting what authors buy to read.

    I hope the Nikolski sales are going well by now! Ah, you make me miss bookselling…

    (PS. I couldn’t really like Lullabies.) 🙁

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