scotiabank giller

The Scotiabank Giller Prize is one of the most well-loved and also heavily criticized literary awards in Canada. Started in 1994 by Jack Rabinovich in memorial of his late wife Doris Giller, the award has been described as “refreshing” by publisher Patrick Crean (Carter 2013), compared to the “very stuffy” Governor General’s Literary Awards. This sentiment has been echoed across the Canadian literary landscape, however over the years the award has also garnered a fair amount of criticism for favouring authors published by houses belonging to major media conglomerates (Nurwisah 2007, Jones 2007). Indeed, historically, small and independent publishers have been underrepresented on the Giller nominee list.

With this criticism in mind, this paper will examine the last ten years of Giller Prize nominees and winners. It will speculate reasons as to why the Giller Prize is seemingly incompatible with independent publishers and consider the role that submission guidelines may play. Finally, it will explore two case studies of small presses that have won the Giller Prize in the last 10 years.

A note about publishing house consolidation and mergers: During the ten years (2008-2017) under consideration in this paper, a number of relevant publishing houses merged or were absorbed by larger conglomerates, including Random House acquiring McClelland & Stewart in 2011, and Random House merging with Penguin Group to form Penguin Random House in 2013. Therefore, each party is represented separately and jointly in the data where appropriate.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize 2008-2017

In the ten years spanning 2008 to 2017, 131 books have been nominated by juries of three (this number was increased to five, starting in 2015 (Keeler 2015)) readers. Of these 131, seventy-six were published by only four publishing houses (Random House, Penguin Group, Penguin Random House, and HarperCollins.) The other most-represented publishing houses were House of Anansi (at fifteen titles), Biblioasis (nine titles) and McClelland & Stewart (prior to acquisition by Random House, five titles.) The remaining titles were published by seventeen other publishing houses.

In these ten years, Penguin Random House produced three of the winning titles (with Penguin Group and Random House producing one and two winners prior to the merger, respectively.) Winning titles were also produced by Gaspereau Press, Thomas Allen Publishers, House of Anansi, and Coach House Books.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize began publicizing the number of submitted entries as well as the number of publishing imprints who submitted in 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, an average of 67 publishing imprints submitted titles for consideration each year. Therefore, another way to look at this data is that 58% of books that made it to the longlist and beyond were published by (roughly, on average) only 5.9% of publishing houses who submitted titles. Clearly, regardless of how you interpret the data, larger publishing companies are overrepresented in these lists, but why is that the case?

Submission Guidelines

The submission criteria for the Scotiabank Giller Prize have been constantly evolving over the course of the prize’s lifetime. Relevant to the topic at hand, in 2016 it was announced that the number of submissions per publisher would now be capped (Medley 2017); imprints who historically had longlisted/shortlisted titles could submit two titles each year, and imprints who had yet to achieve this could submit only one title. Furthermore, new imprints created after 2016 would now count toward the parent publisher’s quota. It’s important to note that imprints acquired or created prior to 2016 do not count toward the parent publisher’s quota. A quick glance at the 2017 longlist proves this fact: five of the titles belong to Penguin Random House, under the imprints Alfred A. Knopf (acquired in 1960), Doubleday (acquired by Knopf in 2009 and Random House in 1960), McClelland & Stewart (acquired in 2011), and Hamish Hamilton (acquired by Penguin Group in 1986).

The implication of this sort of rule is that historically large publishing conglomerates who have always been powerful forces in the market because of their size now also get “bonus entries”, one could say, because they have been so big for so long. Furthermore, publishers are able to submit new work by past Giller Prize winners outside of their total quota. This was not what happened in the case in the 2017 longlist, but one can see how this rule also compounds the advantage bestowed upon large publishing conglomerates; as demonstrated above, the companies that today form the mega-power Penguin Random House was responsible for six out of ten Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning titles between 2008 and 2017.

In addition to the submission caps which indirectly give larger publishing conglomerates an advantage, there are a number of conditions that potentially constitute a direct disadvantage or unreasonable burden for presses of smaller means. Among these are a $1,500 contribution to “shortlist advertising and promotion” for shortlisted titles (Scotiabank Giller Prize 2018); a commitment that the shorlisted author will attend a number of national and international promotional events as well as the awards gala; and that all copies and subsequent reprints of the shortlisted and winning title will be stickered with the Scotiabank Giller Prize seal. These requirements on part of the publisher constitute significant financial commitments as well as demands in terms of manpower, and could perhaps be real obstacles for smaller publishing houses. When contacted regarding the impact that these requirements—specifically the promotional tours—could have on small publishing houses, Michelle Kadarusman (Submissions and Marketing Manager for the Scotiabank Giller Prize) commented that they do “all possible to assist in these circumstances,” but that because of confidentiality agreements she was unable to provide details.

While there is nothing that explicitly bars smaller publishing houses from winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize, it is hard to believe that they have an equal chance at winning, given the submission caps and grandfathered imprint exceptions. Furthermore, the subsequent commitments that are expected of publishers seem out of reach for smaller companies, although it appears possible that assistance might be available to publishing houses unable to meet these demands. Given all of these obstacles, however, independent publishers do still manage to win the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Below are brief case studies of two such publishers.

Case Study: Gaspereau Press

In 2010 the Gaspereau Press title The Sentimentalists won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which prompted what has now become a legendary production and distribution crisis. Gaspereau Press, located in Nova Scotia, defines a core part of its mandate as “(reinstating) the importance of the book as a physical object, (and) reuniting publishing and the book arts” (Gaspereau Press 2018). What this means in practice is that their books are printed using a letterpress, the binding is often hand-sewn, and they use high-quality (and sometimes even handmade) artisan paper.

This is all well and good, except when one considers the production demands that occur when a book is shortlisted for—and wins—the Giller Prize. For instance, BookNet Canada reported sales for the 2012 winner 419 (Viking/Penguin Group) as having increased by 900% following the award announcement (Carter 2013), inspiring the term “the Giller effect.” In an article for The National, journalist Mark Medley recorded the sales of the 2009 Giller winner, The Bishop’s Man, at 75,000 in hardcover alone (Medley 2010). Contrast this with an initial print run at Gasperau of 600-1,500 (Taylor 2010) and a weekly maximum weekly output of 1,000 (Medley 2010), and it’s unsurprising that The Sentimentalists sold out everywhere. Eventually Gaspereau Press capitulated and enlisted the help of Douglas & McIntyre to meet printing demands, but not before shelves across the country sat empty for two weeks after the Scotiabank Giller Prize win.

The example of Gaspereau Press and The Sentimentalists brings into clear focus the challenges that a Scotiabank Giller Prize win poses for publishers and distributors. While it is every author’s dream to be awarded such a highly regarded prize—and to have their book so widely read, it also puts the publisher in “great peril”, in the words of Andrew Steeves, publisher at Gaspereau Press. For a larger publishing house, however, where the economies of scale are established and high-volume production is the norm, these challenges would pose a much smaller—indeed likely negligible–hurdle.

Case Study: Coach House Books

When Coach House Books won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for their title Fifteen Dogs, Heidi Waechtler says that they were determined not to “Gaspereau it”. Employed by Coach House at the time, Waechtler says they were a shoestring staff of four-and-a-half, and that the Giller effort for Coach House amounted to every staff member spending time every day sorting out inventory issues, or handling publicity, or solving distribution problems, in addition to countless hours stickering books—and in addition to the daily tasks associated with their other titles and general operation.

According to Waechtler, like Gasperau, Coach House’s central issue was that their entire supply chain had to scale up almost overnight to properly respond to the Giller demand. Because of the Gaspereau debacle, and because Coach House also prints all of their own titles in house, they were asked to make arrangements with other printers ahead of time to ensure that they could keep Fifteen Dogs stocked through the award season. Indeed, according to BookNet Canada, the sales of Fifteen Dogs grew more than six times over following the Scotiabank Giller Prize announcement (Yau 2016), proving that the Giller effect is as real as ever. With the printing problem solved, however, Waechtler said they still had to contend with scaling up their warehousing, inventory, and distribution. In essence, they were a small publishing house with a modest output that suddenly had to act like a big publishing house capable of producing and coordinating a massive number of books.


There is no simple answer as to why major publishing conglomerates have historically dominated the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Likely, it comes down to a numbers game—large publishing houses control more imprints and as a result are often able to submit more titles on the whole than a small publisher. Furthermore, this advantage begets more advantages, as publishers with past longlisted titles are allowed extra submissions, and new work by past prize winners get a “free” entry. Additionally, the submission criteria that require publishers to contribute financially to the prize promotion, tour their authors internationally, and sticker thousands of books would be much more easily met by large publishing companies with extensive financial and manpower resources at their disposal.

Even given all of this, however, small presses like Gaspereau and Coach House do manage to have winning titles, and with greater or lesser degrees of ease, they do find a way to rise to the occasion.


Reference List

Carter, Sue. 2013. “The Giller Prize Story: An Oral History, Part One.” Quill & Quire, October 8,



——. “The Giller Prize Story: An Oral History, Part Four.” Quill & Quire, November 4, 2013.


Gaspereau Press Ltd. 2018. “Meet the Press.” Last updated November 8, 2018.


Jones, Alison. 2007. “Secrets of the Canadian Literary Cabal.” Quill & Quire, January 23, 2007.


Keeler, Emily M. 2015. “André Alexis’s Giller-Winning Novel Throws Philosophy to the Dogs.”

National Post, November 13, 2015.


Medley, Mark. 2010. “Gaspereau Press Teams up With Douglas & McIntyre for The

Sentimentalists.” National Post, November 15, 2010.


——. “Giller Prize’s Reduced Submissions May Be the Most Controversial Change in Award’s

History.” The Globe and Mail, September 15, 2017.


Nurwisah, Ron. 2007. “Are The Gillers Rigged?” Torontoist, January 23, 2007.


Scotiabank Giller Prize. 2018. “Submissions.” About. Accessed November 5, 2018.


Taylor, Kate. 2010. “Gaspereau Press and the Peril of the Giller.” The Globe and Mail, October

25, 2018. Last updated April 28, 2018.


Yau, Kitty. 2016. “The Giller: Alive and Kicking.” BookNet Canada. September 22, 2016.