Open Office Hours to break barriers

Here’s the thing about our latest book, The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo. Arja was not particularly looking for us, or for anyone. We only found her because we went along to an event in Dublin celebrating the 2014 Davy Byrnes Award. Arja read her story. Then that thing happened - the thing you’re always looking for as a writer, editor, publisher, or as a reader, that shock of recognition, that bit of magic. We sought Arja out and she shaped her story into an exceptional novel, which we published a few weeks ago. It’s going to be huge.

We had been at the event to support Sara Baume. We had signed her a few months before, but her case was similar; she’d hardly thought of sending her novel to publishers. She’d been encouraged to submit Spill Simmer Falter Wither by a friend. Meanwhile, Oona Frawley’s Flight, our first title, was only submitted because poet Anthony Glavin persuaded her to. We published it to rave reviews and some prize nods.

Tramp Press publishes around three books a year. But the overwhelming evidence we have is that women decide that their work isn’t the type to be published - that they’ll only be met with indifference. Our experience is writ large in numbers - we’re all familiar with the stats VIDA compiles every year. We know that books written by men will have distinct advantages. They’re more likely to get reviewed. The novels are more likely to win prizes. Even books about men are more likely to get noticed. We’ve all been socialised to take men more seriously than women; we’ve all, to a greater or lesser extent, internalised this. We all act on our prejudices, every day.

The problem is far worse for women of colour, for the LBGTQ community, for working-class writers. Voices and perspectives from members of under-represented communities are what we need to hear most, but those are the submissions we see fewest of.

We’re all familiar with literary events, with book clubs and courses: these are populated mostly by women. But when it comes to submissions, the gender ratio is inverted. Just 824 of our 2,165 to date have come from women. What is this disconnection? Women aren’t just treated differently after they’ve been published; women face barriers to publication that are different to those that men experience.

Despite the fact that publishing is more and more made up of women, publishers haven’t helped much so far with this issue. We are sexist too after all, accidentally or otherwise. We have given the impressions of exclusivity, and we have been exclusive. Readers are led by publishers, and every leader has a duty to show the way. Finding solutions is never as easy as pointing out the problems, but representation is key: including women on lists is essential. Ireland’s publishing industry hasn’t caught up with formal diversity programmes we see in the UK and especially in the US. But instead of shrugging our shoulders, we need to come up with some ideas. We need to change in order to attract and encourage more female writers. Being open to submissions is not enough.

Here’s what we’re trialling at Tramp. Where possible, we read manuscripts blind, only turning to the cover letter when we’ve formed opinions about the work. We publish women. We work to publish in a non-gendered manner. We make ourselves as available and as visible as possible: we sit on or chair panels, we go to festivals, we give interviews, we get involved. We have opinions on radio, in newspapers and magazines. As every woman knows, having opinions in a public space results in hostile reactions of a particular sort, in emails or sometimes in person. But showing ourselves to be inclusive is important.

We created the Open Office Hours initiative, inviting the public to come and chat to us about almost anything they want in short, private conversations. We hope to further examine and, if possible, break down more female-specific publishing boundaries. Hey, we’re just women in a room, chatting. We didn’t advertise, but we partnered with the Irish Writers Centre, and the initiative booked out right away. As expected, 90% of the people who wanted to sit down with us were women. It offered a fascinating insight. The barriers discussed felt female-specific; from feeling discouraged and not part of a “scene”, to having experienced overt sexism from people in the industry.

We’re keen to find a way to roll it out internationally - partly because our greatest successes have come from chasing brilliant authors, but also because we relish the opportunity to reveal the more fun side of the industry. The side that is a supportive community of book nerds who want to find exciting new work, whether written by men or women - work like Arja’s.

Sarah Davis-Goff co-founded Tramp Press in 2014 with Lisa Coen. The company is named after Irish poet John Millington Synge’s portrayal of “tramps”, referencing the list’s outsider ethos.