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Anansi's hopes ride high at the Booker party

House of Anansi author Patrick deWitt is up for the 2001 Man Booker Prize


Ten times disappointed by the results of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, House of Anansi publisher Sarah MacLachlan feels nothing but delight as she prepares to attend the ceremony to award the 2011 Man Booker Prize in London's ancient Guildhall. Her high hopes are riding on the dark horse of novelist Patrick deWitt, whose Anansi-published second novel, The Sisters Brothers, is one of six finalists competing for the high-profile prize.

With a "fantastic new dress" in her carry-on and one of the season's hottest authors performing miracles in her stable, MacLachlan is taking her place on Tuesday at a ceremony to which few Canadians have ever been admitted, let alone one representing a small literary press with no corporate connections to the publishing capitals of London and New York. The win's already in hand.

But Anansi's good fortune – shared by Thomas Allen Publishers, the Toronto-based independent that brought out Esi Edugyan's Booker-nominated Half-Blood Blues – represents more than a Canadian success story. With four of the six finalists competing for tomorrow's Booker also the product of independent presses (two Canadian and two British), this year's contest has become a showcase for emerging writers overlooked by the handful of global corporations that dominate English-language publishing.

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Small is beautiful in publishing this season – and taking a bigger bite of the market than ever. "The whole independent publishing movement goes beyond our borders," MacLachlan said in an interview from the Frankfurt Book Fair last week. "And all of those independent publishers are friends of mine, so I'm really happy to go and be with those guys."

According to her, the really hot ticket Tuesday will be the Booker after-party at Quo Vadis, a posh club located in the former Soho home of Karl Marx, hosted by the Independent Alliance of unaffiliated British publishers and their partners. As much as it represents a national accomplishment, the Canadian success is also the product of a vital international network of like-minded outsiders who have somehow managed to disrupt the corporate logic of global publishing.

As a book that almost died before birth with the bankruptcy of Key Porter Books last spring, Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues seemed fated to serve only as an example of the weakness of independent Canadian publishing. But it survived thanks to Serpent's Tail, a small but influential British publisher that agreed to take it on, followed soon after by independent Canadian publisher Thomas Allen, which revived plans for a Canadian edition.

By contrast, the publication of deWitt's second novel followed a deliberate strategy designed in part to exploit the power of the Canadian independents.

"I didn't even think about the fact that Pat was Canadian when we did the first book," his U.S.-based agent, Peter McGuigan, said in an interview from Frankfurt. But once he got to know the author, McGuigan said, he went looking for a Canadian publisher.

The agent found Anansi on the recommendation of British independent Granta Books, which had published deWitt's first novel and was first to buy rights to the manuscript that became The Sisters Brothers. He then took the unusual step of selling rights to publish the book in Canada before auctioning it in New York.

"I didn't make any friends with the American publishers by breaking off Canada beforehand," he said. "But I wanted to get that established and just take it off the table."

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With that, he hoped, "the way the book would be presented to the Canadian market would be serious, rather than just having a few boxes mailed to Canadian bookstores." Although lacking scale, Canadian independents enjoy government support, ready access to national media and the potentially game-changing publicity bonanza promised by domestic literary prizes, in three of which deWitt is now competing as a finalist.

"I'm coming from a culture that is just caked with corporate publishing," McGuigan said. "These are people who know what they're doing, but when you get a chance to work with a savvy independent, you jump at it."

In interviews, deWitt has noted that his first novel, The Ablutions, was never published in Canada. But that's only partly true, according to Anansi's MacLachlan. "It wasn't published, but it certainly was available," she said. "It's just that nobody paid attention."

The strong showing made by independent publishers at this year's Booker does not show they are publishing better fiction than the "corporates," according to Granta Books publisher Philip Gwyn Jones. "That would be a nonsense claim," he said. "But perhaps the corporates aren't buying or publishing quite as many interesting, newer, younger writers as they once did."

For Anansi, finding exciting new writers is almost old hat. Recent examples are current Giller nominee Lynn Coady ( The Antagonist), Governor-General's Award-winner Peter Behrens, two-time Giller Prize nominee Lisa Moore, multiple prize nominee Kathleen Winter and author Rawi Hage, winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

"I think we have been able consistently over the years to pick books that strike a chord with readers and prize judges," MacLachlan said. "But I don't think I could tell you what the formula is. If I knew I'd be rich."

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And that would be a true first for Canadian publishing.

Note to readers This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The Canadian publisher Thomas Allen decided to publish Esi Edugyan's novel Half-Blood Blues before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Incorrect information appeared on Monday.

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