The awarding of this year's Man Booker Prize to DBC Pierre for Vernon God Little puts the small, quirky Scottish publisher Canongate on a bona-fide winning streak. And just as debut novelist Pierre triumphed over established literary heavyweights, including Margaret Atwood, to win the prize, Canongate, the U.S. publisher of Vernon God Little (Faber & Faber owns the U.K. rights) is proving more adept than its much larger rivals at choosing titles worthy of the U.K.'s most coveted book prize. Just one year ago, Canongate struck Booker gold with Life of Pi by Yann Martel, for which it held the U.K. rights.
"The impact of the prize [on Pi] was enormous," said Canongate managing director David Graham. "I think prior to it being shortlisted we had sold 7,000 or 8,000 copies." The company expects sales of that book to pass the one-million mark this month.
While Life of Pi was a big bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, Vernon God Little may be harder for American readers to embrace. A darkly comic novel set in Texas in the aftermath of a gory school shooting, the book was described as "reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with modern America" by John Carey, chairman of the Booker judges.
"It's a much more controversial winner," admitted Graham. "While Pi was universally loved, there are some who love Vernon, as I do, while there are some who feel quite strongly against the book." In August, PW gave the book a mixed review, saying, "Pierre's wild energy offers entertaining satire," but complaining of its main character, "Vernon's voice grows tiresome... his excesses make him rather unlikable."
The novel is off to a strong start in the U.S., ranking number 14 on Amazon.com two days after the prize was announced. Canongate published Vernon God Little on October 13, one day before the committee anointed Pierre. After a first printing of 20,000 copies, Canongate has gone back to press for another 30,000 copies in the U.S.
Canongate was formed in 1994 in a management buyout. It publishes about 50 new titles a year worldwide, including about 20 in the U.S. The company has a small office in New York City and has been publishing a U.S. list for the past three years. Thanks to Pi, its sales have soared from £4.5 million ($7.6 million) in 2002 to a projected £7 million to £7.5 million this year. Graham said he isn't counting on a similar boost from Vernon. "I am well anticipating some people taking offense at someone from the outside seeming to criticize the United States." Still, he said, "We wait with interest. The trade demand has been terrific. We have post-Booker orders of 25,000 copies."