Irish publishing has long been an influence on the wider literary landscape. While the UK is quick to celebrate the likes of Sally Rooney, Donal Ryan, Dermot Bolger, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry (the list goes on), people often forget the hard work of the Irish publishing industry in getting these names out there.
To shed light on the influence of Irish publishing, I got the chance to sit down with Sarah Davis Goff and Lisa Coen of Tramp Press. Together, we talk all things indie publishing, setting up their own press, and how the literary scene has changed over the last ten years.
Tramp Press is a small Dublin-based company that made waves when it launched in 2014. Specialising in womens voices and republishing lost voices, they broke new ground by offering platforms to and taking chances on fresh new forms of exceptional literary talent. Reading a Tramp title is an experience like no other, with a tremendous amount of care and detail going into each word on the page. They have published the likes of Sara Baume, Emilie Pine, Mike McCormack, Sophie White, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and their list only continues to broaden and challenge the greater publishing horizon.
Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity.
Sinéad: Please talk us through your inception. What inspired it and what was the process like?
Sarah: Lisa and I had both worked in publishing under various guises for a little while, and we agreed that there was room for improvement. We wondered if we could take the usual publishing method of throwing a lot against a wall and seeing if it would stick, and turn it on its head: to focus on publishing a few titles of outstanding literary quality a year to ensure they are getting the best possible press, there are no missed opportunities with regards to their promotion, and we’ve enough time for great editorial and design. Doing little and doing better was the idea we started out with.
We met up with the Arts Council and talked about putting in a small application, and things went from there. We opened our submissions pile and, because Dublin is such a small place, word immediately started getting around. Before we even had a name, we were getting submissions.
Lisa: It’s wonderful in a way how small the industry is because you can get to know people and get advice.
In 2012, when we first talked about setting up the company, there was a lot of conservatism around certain types of fiction, fiction by women, and we felt there was a niche that was under-served. We suspected that if we got into that, we could do something interesting.
We also talked about how there were many incredibly important books that had already been published that people just don’t know about. We said, “if we do three titles a year, then we’d dedicate a space to republishing a book that should be better known.” For instance, I took a seminar in university where we talked about Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly, which is a brilliant short story collection. When we were studying it, there were only two copies in the university library, and we couldn’t buy a copy in a bookshop. If someone is setting up an Irish literature course for undergrads, and if they’re going to put Dubliners by James Joyce on it, Maeve Kelly should be there too. Particularly that collection; it’s excellent, it’s well written, it’s a good depiction of marginalised women, or women in the economic context that shaped their lives. It’s experimental, fresh, and vibrant. That book should be a household name — everyone should know about it.
We said we’d take titles like that and republish them. We’d get someone to write an essay to contextualise it for a contemporary reader — they may not have heard of the book or the author, but it might have sold well at the time. Short women’s fiction did very well in the ’80s. Something might have had a short print run and then dropped off. There are loads of reasons why titles can fall off the radar. We wanted to look at how we might rebuild the canon. Why, if you buy a commemorative tea towel with Irish writers, shouldn’t someone like Dorothy Macardle, or any woman for that matter, be on it?
That was a big part of it for us — to challenge ideas around the canon, and we were very lucky as well because at the time Irish Twitter was only kicking off, so if you couldn’t get your book reviewed in traditional media, you could at least create a platform on Twitter. It was a good moment to be a little bit informal, a little bit argumentative, whilst reaching people. We were also very well supported by the media, all that said. We put a lot of work into it. We gave everyone a long lead-in time. We had press releases and proofs, which weren’t always standard for the industry here in Ireland, so I think that gave us a bit of an advantage.
People were hungry for the kind of stuff we were publishing, stuff that’s usually dismissed for being great and award-winning, but maybe not sellable. There were a lot of places chasing the market at the time, and I think we got the slight edge on people by bringing out the likes of Sara Baume.
Sarah: Publish fewer, publish better, be a little more thoughtful about what we’re putting out, maybe publish some women (just putting that out there). The scene has changed so much since we started up ten years ago. Now, it’s more likely that a woman will get a review in the paper, and that a woman will write a review in the paper. The change has been enormous.
Lisa: It’s wild how much the scene has changed. We’ve got a long way to go, but since 2012? It’s no longer a given that a company can Tweet that they’re offering an unpaid internship without getting dragged to hell, for instance. It’s no longer the case that a reviewer can be casually sexist or dismissive of work because the writer happens to be a woman. That’s changed an awful lot, which is fantastic. I think a lot of publishers probably looked around and realised they were missing a trick by not expanding their range of cultural expression. But I also think we’ve a long way to go on it.
Sinéad: Describe what a day in Tramp looked like when you launched in 2014 compared to how it looks now.
Sarah: There’s less ambient stress, because we know that we’re here to stay now, whereas that wasn’t always a given. We knew we were going to put a few books out, we hoped that it would last, while now we are sure that it’s going to last. There’s less management now; we don’t have to spend as long introducing ourselves to whoever we’re talking to.
I think the most important thing is the thing that’s stayed the same, and that’s how much we read. We take the slush pile seriously. We’re keen on keeping up to date with what’s going on in Irish literary culture, which is an awful lot of things all at once. I think how much we read shows the success that we’ve been able to make.
We share tasks for the most part. Lisa takes the lead in editorial, because she is just one of the best literary editors working in the world today. We both take charge of most things that go on: we each have a hand in marketing and promotion, we both do a good deal of management. I’m more inclined to read the slush pile because I enjoy it and I like managing it. We have areas that we’ve staked a bit of a claim over, but then we do feel like we both need to do everything for practical reasons as well as anything else.
Lisa: Different things come more easily to each of us. When it comes to the slush pile, I’m painfully slow at reading stuff that comes in. I’ll look at something and initially think, “this is not for us,” but then I wonder if I’m wrong and I should read a bit more. I’ll have this argument in my head about what it could be doing. Sarah can be more decisive and smarter about it without agonising or dragging it out. The fact that we can respond to authors quickly is a huge strength of ours, so I can’t be dragging that down. I’ll start thinking, “if you fix that, then maybe…” I can’t change that gear in my brain, unfortunately.
Really, every day in Tramp is different. There’ll be a check-in in the morning; we’ll attend to what’s urgent, then we’ll move to what’s important. Publishing is very much a pendulum; you’ll have quiet times, and then you’ll have a week where three authors have given their manuscripts back in one go, or you’re proofreading something and you’re down to the wire, or something’s not ready and you’re waiting on it so you can finally do the newsletter. Sometimes there’s lots of talking about design briefs, which is really fun, and sometimes it’s all marketing based. The day will be whatever the pendulum allows.
Sinéad: Tell me, what’s your proudest publishing moment so far?
Sarah: I like imagining how we’ve changed the industry. One example of this is when I got very up in arms about the Booker not allowing Irish publishers to apply even though Irish writers have won it almost as much as English writers in its history. Lisa and I had a campaign and wrote articles for newspapers and things like that. Eventually, we got to meet with Gabby Wood, who runs the prize. We went to London, had a chat with her, and got the rules changed.
Lisa: That changes everything for us, but for other Irish publishers too. We can now say to the author that we can put their book forward for the Booker, which gives us a huge amount of clout when bidding for an author.
Sarah: Especially when you’re a small publisher like us, where you might only be publishing one or two novels a year. It’s nice when that work doesn’t have to be in competition with itself. You can put forward your fiction titles for the fiction prizes, your nonfiction for the nonfiction prizes, without worrying which one to pick. I like that it’s set a path for other prizes to follow.
Sinéad: Following on from that, how do you interact with the UK literary scene and what would you like to see done differently?
Lisa: We are lucky to have good relationships with UK booksellers, and Turnaround is a big part of that when it comes to helping us make connections. The staff at Turnaround will tell us if we’d like a certain buyer in a particular shop. We don’t make it over to the UK since lockdown with having children and everything, but we have good relationships with buyers over there and they’re very similar to the bookselling scene in Ireland: lovely nerds who love stories and want to sell them. It’s great to meet more of them all the time. It’s important to have good reps going around.
In the bigger scene, Sarah’s already talked about how instrumental she was in having the Booker prize change their rules. There are a few things like that that we’d like to see improve. There could be better consideration for how good the Irish market is, how distinctive the writers are, and that it is a different entity — to be more respectful of the fact that we are a separate country. Because UK publishing benefits a lot from Irish cultural output! We have a fraught history as well, so for greater respect to exist at large, and it’s the bigger institutions who fail on that, not our fellow indies. Our fellow indies, by the way, are incredibly supportive and generous when it comes to sharing notes and advice. As with anything, it’s the bigger outfits that might lack nuance and we hope to be a positive influence on that.
Sarah: I think some of the mechanisms of the UK industry can feel a little hostile to an Irish independent, but when you get talking to the actual individuals, the individuals are always leftie book nerds like ourselves. If there’s ever a point where you can get in touch with an actual individual and make your case for something, they’re like, “oh yeah, of course! That makes sense!” But, as ever, it’s the system that needs to change. The individuals are fabulous.
Sinéad: Thank you so much for speaking with me Sarah and Lisa. I’m sure fellow publishers and book nerds will find a lot of insight in your words!