Sunday 22 October 2017

Publish or perish - meet the Irish duo bringing a fresh approach to publishing

It's taken "confidence and massive balls" to establish Tramp Press, a publishing house that champions diversity and refuses to dumb down. Now, its founders have used those traits to bring about their biggest success - a Man Booker contender - as our reporter discovers

Publishing pair: Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen. Photo Colin O'Riordan
Publishing pair: Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen. Photo Colin O'Riordan
The Iron Age published by Tramp Press
A Line Made by Walking published by Tramp Press
Orange Horses published by Tramp Press
Solar Bones, published by Tramp Press

Meadhbh McGrath

For most people, July 27 was just another Thursday, but for Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, it's a day that will likely be marked in their memories as the moment their publishing house entered the major leagues. They are the editors behind Tramp Press, responsible for publishing Mike McCormack's Solar Bones, a remarkable novel which tells the story of a civil engineer in Mayo, his wife and their two grown-up children - in a single sentence without any full stops.

It may sound daunting, but Solar Bones is a surprisingly accessible read, offering a relatable and compulsively page-turning portrait of an ordinary man's life in the rural West of Ireland. It won the Goldsmiths Prize, was named Novel of the Year by the Irish Book Awards, and last month nabbed a coveted spot on the longlist for that most prestigious UK literary award, the Man Booker Prize.

"We were sweating spinal fluid trying to get posters and Man Booker stickers to booksellers and making sure everybody had copies of the book, because all the orders have gone through the roof," Lisa says of the days following the announcement.

The morning after, she was up early to drive Mike down to visit the bookshops in his native Galway.

"He signed every copy in Galway. We were at it all day, and these strangers were coming up to congratulate him and saying, 'I always thought you deserved this.' For total strangers to come up and say that, it was so nice. That kind of rock-star moment doesn't really happen for the majority of writers," Lisa says.

Earning a place on the Booker longlist is a spectacular achievement for any publisher, let alone one the size of Tramp Press - that is, just Sarah and Lisa, who launched the company in 2014. But it's a success that's come at a cost to their business too, more of which later.

We meet a few weeks after the longlist has been announced, and the pair are buoyant, although they've been so busy running around trying to meet the renewed demand for the novel that they haven't had much time to contemplate or toast to their big news. "We haven't actually celebrated yet - we must do that soon!" Sarah points out with a warm laugh.

The two met while working at another small publisher, the Dublin-based Lilliput Press. Sarah was covering a sabbatical as office manager when Lisa joined as an intern. They bonded almost immediately over a shared love of Stephen King and are effusive about each other.

"My first impression of Lisa? Fear!" Sarah grins. "Before I was office manager, I had such a bee in my bonnet about being the best intern they'd ever had. I made sure to get in every day before the boss, I left every day after the boss, I read the slush pile, I was on my game - and then Lisa comes along and blows me out of the water immediately."

"I didn't realise Sarah was covering somebody, and I remember my heart sinking when I thought, 'Does this mean she'll be in circulation looking for jobs too?' I can't go and compete with this woman!" Lisa recalls.

As they were reaching the end of their tenure, they started to give serious thought to a running joke about starting up their own publishing house. "We had no jobs and we thought, 'What will we do next?'" Lisa says, noting that initially they planned to try it for a year before pursuing "real jobs". As the idea for the company began to crystallise, they brought their then boss and mentor, Antony Farrell, out for lunch to discuss it.

"Antony was such a great teacher. He was really interested in sitting you down and telling you how things run. That's really rare," says Sarah. "Imagine taking your boss out to lunch and saying, 'Hey, we're going to start a competing brand.' Instead of firing us, he said, 'Let's get wine and talk about this!' He gave us great advice."

They spent the next year setting up Tramp Press, and published their first title, a novel called Flight by Oona Frawley, in 2014. The company takes its name from John Millington Synge's 'tramp' figures, most notable in The Playboy of the Western World and In the Shadow of the Glen, who are "on the outside of respectable society, who step in and provide a different viewpoint". They also liked the idea of reclaiming a pejorative term, in the style of Virago, the international publisher of books by women writers, and Jezebel.com, the popular feminist blog.

"When we set up the company, we were very frustrated by what we perceived to be very conservative judgements in publishing," Lisa explains. "The bigger publishers, the ones with more money, they do kind of want you to fit into a certain mould," she adds, citing Mike McCormack as an example of an author who is difficult to pigeonhole.

"Mike's work has always been very accessible. He is very creative and experimental, but he always represents very recognisable Irish people in very normal circumstances. It's always relatable and down to earth, but there's something so extraordinary about the art behind it that it's very hard to talk about without making it sound like homework.

"Sales for books like that don't tend to be Colm Tóibín-level, let's say, because you don't have that confidence behind it, the publishers will just say, 'Here's a worthy book.'" Sarah jumps in: "We have the confidence - confidence and massive balls.

"People really love great work, and the moment that publishers start talking down to readers and thinking, 'Ah, they only want commercial stuff,' that's the moment you've lost. People just want exceptional reading experiences and readers are smart," Sarah adds.

They've since built an impressive roster of talent, including Arja Kajermo, a Dublin- based Finnish writer and cartoonist, and Sara Baume, the young Cork author whose novels Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made By Walking have garnered rhapsodic recognition. Tramp Press also strives to rediscover neglected works with the Recovered Series, which so far has brought three forgotten Irish literary treasures back into print.

Sarah and Lisa are clearly great friends, although they admit they spend most of their time discussing the business. "My theory is that we're such good friends because we have the business in common," says Sarah. "I really like having a small amount of close friends, but I need to have a lot in common with those people, and having this huge project we're doing together defines the friendship."

"What do you talk to your friends about, if not budgets, spreadsheets, strategy?" Lisa quips.

The two come from quite different backgrounds. Sarah (35) is from Donabate, Co Dublin, and studied for her undergraduate degree at a liberal arts college in New Mexico. There, she fell in love with editing while proofreading student papers, before heading to Oxford Brookes University in the UK to pursue a postgraduate degree in publishing.

Lisa (36), meanwhile, grew up in Cross, Co Mayo, which she describes as "a tiny village between two lakes". After completing her BA in NUI Galway, she spent a few years working for Hot Press magazine, then returned to college for a PhD in Irish theatre from Trinity.

Now they both live in central Dublin, Sarah in Smithfield and Lisa in Spencer Dock - although the latter admits she won't be sticking around too much longer as rents are pushing her and her fiancé, Ed, out of the city.

They work from home and joke that Lisa takes the early shift while Sarah is more of a night owl. "It's fun, energising work; it's not work-y work," Lisa says.

"We both have similar work ethics: we like to work hard to get things done, and we have similar instincts and similar tastes," adds Sarah.

She does most of her reading and proofing in the evenings, and dedicates Fridays to tackling the 'slush pile' of manuscripts. To date, they've received 2,302 submissions. Sarah reads them first, blind, without a glance at the cover letter or even the author's name, and passes on particularly interesting works to Lisa, which they discuss at an editorial meeting. "We always agree; we tend to have very similar taste," says Lisa.
They are both long-time fans of McCormack, who hadn't published a novel in 11 years (his last one, Notes from a Coma, was met with critical praise yet modest sales). The pair had been eager to work with him as soon as they set up the company, and Sarah describes pestering his agents at regular intervals to keep them in mind when submitting any new work.

"The manuscript went out to publishers who turned it down, and there were some publishers who liked it but thought it would be a hard sell, so there were people sitting on it for a year," Lisa explains.

"We hadn't published anything at that point and maybe we weren't an obvious choice, so we weren't in that initial submission pile, but we kept chasing and chasing. We asked for it, read it overnight and got back the very next day and said we loved it."

Sarah beams as she recalls first reading the manuscript. "I fell in love. I started shaking. This is the kind of book where we were losing sleep over whether we'd be able to acquire it and over whether we'd be able to afford Mike. It was extremely exciting."

But getting their book into the hands of the Man Booker jury wasn't easy - the prize's eligibility requirements state that books have to be published in the UK, which meant they had to sell the rights for Solar Bones to a British publisher, Canongate. It was a decision they didn't hesitate over, given their enthusiasm for this "exceptional" work, but it means they can no longer sell the Tramp Press edition of the book in the UK, which cuts their market dramatically.

"It's a disgrace. We're operating in the same market: it's not like America - the UK and Ireland generally aren't distinguished - but we have to keep selling off our backlist, so we have nothing to base the future on. It's cultural colonialism," Sarah argues.

"Canongate are a good example - they made a lot of money off Yann Martel's The Life of Pi (which won the Man Booker in 2002) and the royalties from that are hugely important. When you have a big hit like that, it provides you with funding and with room to take a risk," Lisa explains.

"If we could retain our backlist, it helps an Irish publisher to build. It gives them more financial security, but also the idea of selling on your best work to the Brits is like a Jonathan Swiftian scenario."

There is a further risk that Irish authors might 'leapfrog' over to a British publisher in order to be eligible for the Man Booker and other UK-based prizes, putting Irish publishers in danger of losing talent. For the writers that do go, they may find their work being Anglicised by a British editor if certain idioms or phrases aren't commonly understood in the UK, so the art of the language can be lost too.

"It implies that here is the training ground, and the money is made across the pond. But disproportionately, the talent is coming out of Ireland - the likes of Mike, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney..." says Lisa.

In spite of the hoops they had to jump through to be considered for prizes, both women are enthusiastic about publishing in Ireland. "The talent here is extraordinary, and there are great people taking risks with us, like booksellers, for example. To have that feeling of support is just amazing," says Sarah.

They are now looking to diversify their offering and include more work from writers in communities that have been under-represented. "If you're a person of colour or from a community that's not been well represented, we would love to hear from you - but it's not enough for us to just sit there and say, 'Hey, we're open to it.' We do actively seek those voices out and chase down connections," says Lisa, explaining that they run an open-hours initiative in the Irish Writers Centre once a month, where anyone can come in and have a chat about publishing. "We're hoping to reach a better range of cultural expressions and let writers know we're a safe place for them."

They insist that they are "not genre snobs" and are eager to track down sci-fi, horror and young-adult fiction. Nurturing female talent is also high on the agenda. "Women are not as encouraged to write as men are, to be as bolshy and push themselves as men are. Broadly speaking, they tend to assume they're wasting people's time. There is a kind of cultural idea of the Irish writer and he's male," says Lisa.

They note that the recent shock over the award-winning - and Booker shortlisted - Tipperary writer Donal Ryan's decision to return to his day job in the civil service didn't come as much of a surprise to them. "To probably anyone working in the industry, even if you're doing exceptionally well like Donal, and deservedly so, it's really difficult to make a living, especially if you've got kids. You don't have much in the way of job security, and it's tough," says Sarah.

"This idea that a writer makes a living off writing books has never been accurate. When WB Yeats won the Nobel Prize, the first thing he said was, 'How much?' The next thing he did was tell his wife and they wanted to celebrate with a glass of wine, but all they had was some sausages that they cooked up. He was skint. It's not that the publishing industry has fallen so far that people can't make a living anymore, they sort of never did," Lisa explains.

Many writers supplement their income with teaching or grants from the Arts Council. Sarah and Lisa emphasise that Tramp Press couldn't get by without the support of the Arts Council and lament the Government's dwindling investment in the arts.

"Everybody views the arts as discretionary, until some fancy American politician comes over and then they're presenting them with a nice copy of Yeats," says Lisa.

"It's really aggravating that our Government will trade on our cultural heritage and talk about it when they go abroad and then sell us down the river when they get home," says Sarah. "But [Finance Minister] Paschal Donohoe is a big book lover and seems to really see the value in the arts."

Lisa adds, "Paschal is the only politician I've ever met who reads books, and who reads them all the way through. He has great taste. Most politicians you meet will say, 'Oh, books, great! I'm going to write a memoir.' But you can talk to him about a book, he keeps his eye on new fiction and on small publishers like ourselves. A lot of us are looking to him as the first time since Michael D [Higgins] was in office that someone has given a s*** about the arts. You'll see people turning up at high-profile events, but you'll see Paschal at little readings and things, and I really admire that."

For now, they are counting down the days until the Man Booker shortlist is announced on Wednesday.

"We're nervous and excited," says Sarah. "Being longlisted has been incredible for Mike and his wonderful novel, and of course we want to see it continue to soar! Mayo abú!"

tramppress.com

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