Tramp Press on 10 years of publishing – The Irish Times

In the front room of a terraced house in Dublin’s Inchicore, I hold a baby while Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen pose for photos. Coen is technically on maternity leave, but she’s driven across town, 11-week-old in tow, for this special occasion. Shelves full of books flank the fireplace, children’s toys are swept into corners, a copy of The Stinging Fly rests on the coffee table and an Irish Book Award takes pride of place near the chimney. This is Davis-Goff’s home, which she shares with her husband (author Dave Rudden), three-year old son and marmalade cat, Mils. It’s also the space from which she runs her half of Tramp Press, the independent publishing company she and Coen founded 10 years ago.

In the short space of a decade, Coen and Davis-Goff have blazed a trail in Irish publishing, produced some of the country’s most groundbreaking work, and ruffled more than a few feathers – “I think it’s important to get on the record that Sarah is constantly looking for fights,” Coen jokes. But what have 10 years taught them, and what’s in store for the next 10?

We sit around the coffee table, baby bouncing on Coen’s lap as they recall their early days as disrupters in the industry.

“It’s amazing how much has changed in publishing in 10 years, but [from the start] we saw some things that we wanted to try, as separate from what the publishing establishment was doing,” says Davis-Goff. “Publishing has long had a problem with putting out a rake of books, throwing them against the wall, hoping something will stick. We wanted to see if we could turn that on its head and only publish work that we felt really passionate about.”

It was a simple goal, and not entirely different from that of other indies on this island. Long before Tramp, outfits such as New Island, Mercier Press, The Lilliput Press and many more had been finding and nurturing literary talent. (In fact, Coen and Davis-Goff had met working for Lilliput). But as two feisty young women, the Tramps stood out.

“It’s funny, we’re thought of as a feminist press – I mean, we are obviously feminist but that was just one strand in our approach,” says Coen. “We never made any sort of declaration: let’s be feminists. It didn’t occur to us not to be the way we are.”

They didn’t think much of it when they drew up their submissions policy, declaring they wouldn’t accept work addressed “Dear Sirs”. But when Coen tweeted this fact, the keyboard warriors of the internet had many thoughts.

“I said something like ‘sexists need not apply’ and then we got a barrage of messages,” says Coen. “One person said: you should really think about the language that you use, because I find this discouraging, as a man. I’m like: we didn’t say men can’t apply. We said sexists can’t apply.”

Coen and Davis-Goff tell me things have calmed down since then, though there’s still often “the assumption we have a boss”, they laugh.

But does it mean something different to be a feminist publisher in 2024 than it did in 2014?

“Things have changed so much in 10 years,” Coen says. In 2014, “we were stepping into a niche that was underserved. If you were a woman, you could not publish a work of fiction as easily as you can today.”

In the early 2010s, a tide of feminism captured the public imagination and lifted many boats (including, perhaps, Tramp’s). But it was a simplistic, internet-charged feminism, and things have evolved a lot.

“Now it’s much more about being intersectional and a lot more nuanced,” says Coen.

“It’s about white women shutting the f**k up sometimes, which is probably a good thing,” Davis-Goff adds.

Feminist or otherwise, Tramp has consistently championed women’s work. Its Recovered Voices series (which reissues older work), has given new life to names such as Charlotte Riddell (“like Jane Austen in that she’s hilarious,” Coen says), Juanita Casey (“bridging a link between Kavanagh and Kevin Barry”), Dorothy Macardle (“her work just flies out”) and many more.

They’ve also given a home to work that might have fallen by the wayside, were it not for their bold approach.

Mike McCormack’s story is practically parable at this stage. Having been dropped by his UK publishing house when his second novel, Notes from a Coma, failed to sell, he received myriad rejections for his third. Most deemed the manuscript too experimental, too much of a risk. But when he sent it to Tramp, it was love at first read.

“Everything that everyone else thought was awkward, they saw as positive,” he tells me, over the phone. “The whole experiment, they thought was great. The quiet domesticity. This is a book about a middle-aged white guy who’s happily married in a secure job. It’s difficult to pitch that. But they saw straight away that there was an audience for it.”

Solar Bones went on to win the Goldsmiths Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Readers flocked to the novel everyone said wouldn’t sell.

“One of the things I always think [about Tramp Press] is they’re so counterintuitive,” says McCormack. “When everyone else was cutting back on production values, they threw money at production values. They brought back French flaps, beautiful heavy paper. They made really beautiful books you could covet as things to hold. With Solar Bones, everyone was pissing and moaning and whining about the experimental nature of it, and they said: we can go with this.”

“Our driving ethos was: readers want weird, difficult books,” says Coen, giving the example of Eimear McBride’s innovative 2013 novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, published by UK indie, Galley Beggar Press. “What the readers showed everyone was that they wanted that, and they bought it in their droves.”

Guided by this ethos, Tramp has published works such as Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s bilingual prose debut, A Ghost in the Throat, Emilie Pine’s confessional essay collection, Notes to Self, Sophie White’s Shirley Jackson Award-winning horror, Where I End, and much more.

Sara Baume, who has published four books with Tramp, found her way to the publisher through the slush pile. (Although a mutual friend had told the Tramps to keep an eye out for her).

Davis-Goff has form finding gold among slush – it was she who discovered Donal Ryan through the slush pile at Lilliput. To this day, she is the reader of everything that comes to Tramp’s inbox.

“Some publishers will have interns read the slush, but what is a publisher if not a distillation of its taste? Usually, we read and respond really quickly. In many cases, it’s within a month.”

Baume says that publishing with Tramp has given her freedom she might not get elsewhere.

“I’ve always felt free to write about whatever subject is most compelling and important to me at any given moment in time without worrying about the market or the zeitgeist, and that is a wonderful thing for any artist,” she says.

Letting artists be artists might seem an obvious way for any publisher to conduct itself, but for many of the larger outfits, the bottom line prevails above everything. Find what sells and repeat it is the generally agreed-upon tactic.

Support from bodies such as the Arts Council means that an indie like Tramp can place the emphasis elsewhere.

“I think there’s an idea that the Arts Council is some sort of VC investor or something. But the idea is that they’re supporting work that wouldn’t easily find its way [in the market],” says Coen.

Tramp titles generally reach a healthy number of sales, but for Coen, a book’s success has little to do with the market.

We want to be the small publisher that finds the great work and keeps it, and has that big publishing effect where you make it an international success

“Isn’t the success of the enterprise the discovery of the work and putting it out there? On a really basic level, can somebody get it in the library? Does a book now exist that wouldn’t have existed otherwise? If we were a certain type of larger company, we might say, listen, I can’t guarantee that’s going to do X sales, so no. And it puts way too much pressure on the work.”

Solar Bones went on to be longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, which might have been a coup for Tramp, had they been the ones to submit it. But at that point they weren’t eligible to do so. They’d sold rights to UK publisher, Canongate, who were the ones to put it forward.

“Despite the fact that Irish writers win the Booker all the God damn time, Irish publishers putting Irish work forward was ineligible. Which Lisa has pointed out is sort of cultural colonialism,” Davis-Goff says.

“I think if Jonathan Swift were alive today, he would be putting out pamphlets about it,” says Coen. “When you think about it, why is another country allowed to publish our authors, but our publishers can’t make money out of it? I think it’s pretty scandalous.”

In the spirit of “not selling off the family silverware”, Coen and Davis-Goff went to London to meet the Booker committee. Soon after, the rules were changed to allow Irish publishers submit to the prize.

“Say we have 25 good working years left, I want a really strong submission from Tramp every year going forward,” says Davis-Goff. “You never know what the judges are going to pick, but it would be really nice if we were the first independent Irish press to get that.”

Either way, they’ve moved the goalposts in Irish publishing. And they’re also going against the grain with their publishing model. For many indie houses in Ireland, it makes most sense to discover and publish work for the Irish market, then sell on rights when UK publishers come knocking. But Tramp wants, as much as they can, to hold on to their rights.

“There’s long been a perception in publishing that it’s the smaller publishers that find the weird stuff and show that there’s a market for it, and then a big publisher will swoop in. But we want to be the small publisher that finds the great work and keeps it, and has that big publishing effect where you make it an international success,” says Davis-Goff.

In 2018, Tramp appointed publisher and writer Laura Waddell as UK publishing director. For the most part, it now retains UK rights to its books.

“The funny thing is when we set up a sales infrastructure in the UK, we found we had great sales,” says Davis-Goff. “It’s a huge part of our revenue stream. We find British booksellers to be fabulous, receptive, interesting people.”

Tramp has never had a fixed premises, nor do Coen and Davis-Goff intend to invest in one.

“When we started out, we used to say, Tramp by name, Tramp by nature,” says Coen.

McCormack says that after he won the Dublin Literary Award, he expected they might invest in office space.

“They said: you’re thinking like a man. You want to demarcate your own space and put your name on the door. I suppose the implication is that they’re thinking as women: they would be much more adaptable and fluid and flexible.”

Tramp’s ambitions in many areas are different to what might be expected.

“I think when people ask us about ambitions, they’re envisioning that we’re going to grow up and become, you know, a 30-person company,” says Davis-Goff. “That’s really not where our ambitions lie. When we talk about growth, we talk more about spread and sales. I think we should question the whole notion of growth in business, to be honest. Growth is not usually sustainable.”

Of course, regardless of the business model, no publishing house is immune to the difficulties of the current climate.

“Our bills are astronomical compared to what they were 10 years ago,” says Coen. “The price has really shot up. And at the same time, book prices have not gone up.”

Davis-Goff predicts this will soon change. In the next five years, the price of a book will likely go up by four or five euro, she says.

“As a buyer, that will impede what I buy a little bit. But I think like most big readers, my purchases just seem so essential that it’s not going to put me off.”

This country only offers six months’ statutory maternity, but the company can support me through this. […] I think that’s real feminism in action

In an industry like publishing, weathering the next crisis is part and parcel of the endeavour. As Davis-Goff puts it, “It’s publishing, it’s always doomed.”

Most recently, work by a number of Tramp authors was used illegally to train artificial intelligence.

“That particular outfit is gone, but the harm is done,” says Coen. “I think when people think of AI, they think of convenient writing being generated by a computer, no harm, no foul. But actually it’s been built on hard work, and the work of authors who were paid. We paid our authors. We paid them advances. And to think that tech companies are benefiting from that work for free is galling to me, because they have so much money.”

Reflecting more generally on the challenges of 10 years in publishing, Coen says, “It’s a tough industry and we’re not making a lot of money, but we were expecting that. I think for me, the hardest thing has been trying to run a company on the margins of motherhood.”

Before me on the couch, she breastfeeds her second child, as she tells me about the difficulties she went through after she had her first.

“I had postnatal depression. I had a really hard time with that for a good long time. It was a huge struggle. And I wonder what it would have been like if I’d been in a more conventional job.”

Something she’d like to “shout from the rooftops” is how supportive Davis-Goff was.

“She was calling me all the time worrying about me, saying: take your time coming back. And when I did come back, I struggled. Concentration was very difficult, I had a bit of memory loss, lots of things were very challenging.”

Had she worked elsewhere, she doesn’t know if she’d have managed.

“I think it would have been a disaster. And instead, we adjusted and worked around that until I was able to get better, and get help and treatment. I think that’s incredible. The company has continued, and I’ve been able to have this intellectually rewarding career, and I’m not worried that I’ve been spat out and can’t come back, or that people think less of me.”

This time around, Davis-Goff has encouraged her to take a year of maternity leave.

“I really think it’s radical for a company to be able to offer flexibility. I think it’s almost more powerful than money,” says Coen. “This country only offers six months’ statutory maternity, but the company can support me through this. I think that’s real feminism in action.”



To top