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Giller Prize's reduced submissions may be the most controversial change in award’s history

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.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

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.

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"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.

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"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 BookThug, 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.

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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 HarperCollins saw their submissions reduced, as well. For example, Simon & Schuster Canada, which only launched its Canadian fiction program four 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."

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated Simon & Schuster’s fiction program is two years old; it was actually established four years ago.
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