We try not to think in terms of markets at all because we are absolutely convinced that all readers want is exceptional literature. The question for us is only ever 'Is this book exceptional?'
Sarah and Lisa founded Tramp Press to ‘find, nurture and publish exceptional literary talent’. Their committment to publishing ‘only the best and most deserving books’ sets them apart from other publishing houses. They publish 3 books a year, all fiction and all of which they believe in, wholeheartedly.
Siún: Whilst researching Tramp Press, I found a quote from you saying you ‘love the slush’, how much slush do you get?
Sarah: To date, 1,500 manuscripts, averaging at about 1.5 per day. We are getting slightly more now, as we become better known. We always believe the most important thing for us is to pick exceptional books, if you don’t have time to read the slush pile, it will prove massively problematic. We wouldn’t like to distill our own tastes through the tastes of an intern or an office junior. Luckily, It’s not something we’ve had to tackle, yet.
Siún: How do you approach each manuscript?
Sarah: When the manuscript comes in I like to acknowledge it, almost immediately. I file it away, I try not to look too closely at it, because I don’t want to attach a manuscript to a particular name or gender or anything really. I put aside time to read manuscripts, usually on a Friday. I don’t like to read the plot synopsis, I just dive right in. If I’m interested, I’ll go back and read the plot synopsis.
Siún: Obviously you can’t read all of every manuscript that comes in. How much of the manuscript do you read, generally?
Sarah: I read until I’m sure. Saying that, I can usually tell in the first few pages. When I get excited about a manuscript, I send it to Lisa, sometimes prematurely, throwing more work on Lisa..
Lisa: I get the filtered stuff, the best of it. I find it’s very easy to say what isn’t working but it’s much harder to say what is really good. There’s a lot of work on a fault line and we need to talk about it, we can intervene and make a script better but sometimes even that intervention won’t be enough.
Siún: When you find a great book, do you consider the market? To see if there’s space for the type of book..
Sarah: We try not to think in terms of markets at all because we are absolutely convinced that all readers want is exceptional literature. I think the market is kind of a fabrication made up by publishers to put books in particular slots for readers, I’m not sure if that’s helpful. The questions for us are only ever ‘Is this book exceptional?’ ‘Are we not going to sleep until we find this person?’ Our approach can be hard for authors, there are so many talented writers out there but there aren’t that many that we’ll lose sleep over and those are the ones we’re after.
Siún: You touched on it earlier Sarah, how important is a review in The Irish Times, particularly with reference to the piece Eileen Battersby wrote on the challenges of reviewing Irish books in Ireland. Is the pond too small to be critical?
Sarah: It’s a tough question and I’m not sure how well we can speak to it because so far, we have been incredibly lucky. We ask The Irish Times, The Irish Independent and other places for attention 3 times a year, some publishing houses could be asking for that attention 20 times a year. I think they’re giving us a break because we’re new. So far, when it comes to critical attention, we’ve been spectacularly lucky, Martin Doyle from The Irish Times and Madeleine Keane in the Independent have been incredible.
Lisa: The biggest challenge is getting a review at all. Getting any kind of attention is difficult because of the sheer volume of books coming out and diminishing space in newspapers for reviews. Newspapers are much more interested in running an interview with a well-known crime fiction author than a literary fiction title.
Sarah: In fact, if you go through the book review pages of any national newspaper, you’ll see most of the books featured are from UK publishers. I realise they have a job to do; reviewing the books making a big splash but it is a bit sad. Books editors are hugely passionate about books and wish they could talk more about them but the diminishing space in papers is reflective of what is happening in the industry. There’s pressure on the book editors to do a synopsis and then a very short review or throw a few stars on it.
Siún: I have to admit, a lot of what I read I find via Twitter recommendations or blogs, rarely in newspapers anymore. For example, I discovered Solar Bones online on Twitter. I’ve even gone so far as to swap book recommendations with someone on Snapchat, how millenial of me!
Lisa: Word of mouth is so much more powerful than a review. We look to good bloggers whose work will compliment the mainstream press. There are some fantastic bloggers writing long, detailed reviews where they can get stuck into more engaged reviewing. Obviously, there can be some issues with quality control but readers are smart, they pick out who they can trust. Bloggers are more upfront about why they’re reviewing something. It’s about getting the book read as far and as wide as possible.
Sarah: That’s it, trying to get a book to be a commerical success, it’s about pushing to get it into the papers, pushing it into the hands of bloggers, even people on Instagram. I feel like the writer is the spark, getting it out there is the wood, everything else is about which way the wind is blowing to catch fire.
Siún: Is good cover design becoming more and more important, specifically with reference to Instagram etc?
Sarah: I think it is. It’s great to see print books are having a bit of a resurgence and we need the cover to really appeal and stand out, in order to be picked up.
Lisa: We get a lot of feedback on the covers, which is nice. We had a lovely man come up to us at the launch of A Kind of Compass and talk at length about how much he liked the typesetting. He was just a really interesting guy who loved beautiful things. We both love that interaction.
Siún: How much of an input to do you have into cover design?
Sarah: A good bit. We send a synopsis of the book to the artists we work with, we’ll tell them what it feels like, they’ll go off and think of a variety of ideas and we’ll go from there. It’s great to be part of the design.
Siún: I enjoyed your article on the gender imbalance in the publishing world, does Tramp Press consciously publish more female authors than other publishing houses might?
Sarah: As I said earlier, I try not to read anything about the author before I read a manuscript. It happens that our tastes in literature veer towards female authors mean we have published a good amount of women, which is why it’s important to have women in decision-making roles in publishing, and in other spheres. I believe there are more women out there who are struggling to have their voices heard, which is why we’ve come across them.
Lisa: We’ve both worked in lots of different jobs in publishing and we’ve experienced the treatment a manuscript receives when it has a woman’s name on it. It is a hurdle in its way and by us not looking at names or genders we’re looking at it with fresh unprejudiced eyes, no matter who the person behind the text is.
Sarah: On the plus side, there is a lovely sisterhood of feminists out there who recognise the value of this work and want to help us, getting to tap into that is wonderful.
A huge, heartfelt thank you to Sarah and Lisa who gave their time so generously to a fellow booknerd.