Interview with Tamryn Spruill, Founder/Editor-In-Chief
How did Robocup Press start?
I dropped a robot in a teacup. That’s the abbreviated version, at least.
Here’s the full story. In early 2012, I was enjoying a cup of tea in my condo, and in a moment of ethereal creative intensity, I decided that I wanted to publish beautiful books. So, I enlisted the expertise of a little robot windup toy to help me create a logo. I dropped the robot in an empty teacup, placed the teacup on top of my piano, took a photo, and Robocup Press was born.
Initially, Robocup Press was a way for me to publish a book of my own poetry and artwork that I had compiled while completing my MFA thesis, a novel, at Goddard College. It really was an eclectic mishmash—a “literary misfit”—so I assumed it wouldn’t stand a chance with other presses.
After I published and began selling my book, I started to wonder if other writers whose work veers out of the margins of genre would consider Robocup Press a fitting literary home, too. I felt strongly that Robocup could provide a happy home to manuscripts similar to mine. Fast-forward to 2017, five years later, and we’ve published 11 titles and two anthologies. We’ve also added some cool Robocup-themed merchandise to our offerings—notebooks, thank-you cards, pens—with other fun stuff coming soon!
Tell us a bit about Robocup. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Influences make me experience an emotion and/or think deeply—preferably both at the same time. Influences tend to haunt me and linger for days, weeks or months. My influences may make me cry, want to fuck, or make me fantasize about taking a baseball bat to the windshields of all the cars on the street. All rock me to my core in some way.
Some of my personal influences that immediately come to mind are Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano and Beloved by Toni Morrison. With Red, it’s Carson’s unique approach to story that mesmerizes me. She mixes modern with mythological, poetry with prose. Bolano’s Detectives brings readers into the story as spectators, and the way he mixes prose novel with odd storytelling tools, like geometric shapes, invites so many questions and stirs so many butterflies. With Beloved, and all of Morrison’s works (such as the The Bluest Eye), it’s the beauty of language that strikes me. I can read certain sentences over and over because they are filled with so much beauty, and I just don’t want to let them go. Because Morrison’s subject matter is so painful and dark, the gorgeousness of the way she turns a phrase makes her work palatable. Another writer whose use of language is breathtakingly beautiful in this vein is Gabriel García Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera).
This isn’t to say Robocup Press is looking to publish novels like Morrison’s or Bolano’s or García Marquez’s. Rather, we strive to publish shorter works, such as poetry collections, eclectic prose and true hybrid manuscripts. We define “hybrid” as a combination of something with something else, e.g. text with image, poetry with prose, etc.
I am very drawn to writers who blend text with image in a fluid, organic way, making it so the words and images intermingle to form a common language. The best example of a manuscript we have published like this is Dustin Luke Nelson’s in the office hours of the polar vortex.
I am also drawn to unique interpretations of genre. For example, J. Bradley’s Pick How You Will Revise A Memory features an assortment of what can best be described as “poetic” Yelp reviews. A forthcoming poetry collection by Jackie Wang is made up entirely of her mind-blowing tweets. Zeke Jarvis’s So Anyway… is also a great example of short story prose that takes the genre in an inventive direction.
The bottom line is, I’m most interested in publishing work that shakes my senses. Does the writing and/or art make me want to punch something, fuck someone, cry, riot in the streets, and/or wish I could fly?
If not, it’s probably not for Robocup Press. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. We receive many beautiful manuscripts that we reject because they either do not push the genre and/or do not induce the kinds of urgent human emotions as described above. Of course, an editor at another press may feel differently or use an entirely different barometer for selecting manuscripts. But we are confident in our aesthetic, and we are certain that we are fulfilling our mission to publish books that challenge and inspire a wide audience of readers.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
The following titles are forthcoming from Robocup Press in 2017:
Collection of poems, prose, hybrid/cross-genre works and images by various writers and artists
Edited by Tamryn Spruill
Cover art by Joel Tesch
Meditations of the Nameless Infinite
Written by Matthew Burnside
Currently untitled “word scraps” Twitter poetry project
Written by Jackie Wang
Curated by Tamryn Spruill
in the office hours of the polar vortex
Limited-edition, full-color hardback art book
Written and collaged by Dustin Luke Nelson
Dustin’s book was originally released in early 2016 as a black-and-white paperback, and made available for digital download. But because it is as much an art book as it is a poetry collection, we are printing a limited-edition, full-color hardback. Each book will cost around $70 and only 10-25 copies will be made!
Robocup Press’s Fall 2016 releases include:
Kettle Whistles the Blues
Prose and images
Written by Kayla Pongrac
Illustrated by J.P. Baroni
Pick How You Will Revise A Memory
Written by J. Bradley
Written by Liz Wells
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
Here’s what excites me: the intriguing manuscripts I get to read, the talented writers and artists I get to work with, and the imaginative projects by other small presses I come across. Here’s what needs to change: the same thing that needs to change in society at-large, which is basic respect for the arts. To me, respect for the arts is the same as a basic respect for humanity. Where else is humanity more present than in works by true artists and writers? I don’t mean to totally discount Hollywood, or, say, the mainstream music industry. But true art is fully authentic; it doesn’t get sanded away by the corporate machines that grind and grind until a song sounds like every other song, or until a movie has the same bullshit feel-good ending as every other movie.
Robocup Press is all about the DIY ethos and being the change we wish to see in the world. When I browse through a bookstore, I want to see the kinds of books Robocup Press publishes. We are thankful for online retail outlets where our books are sold, such as Amazon and Etsy. We are also thankful for independent booksellers, like Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, which carries all of our titles, and various indie bookstores across the country that stock books by authors who are local to those particular areas. But it is very difficult—or, to put it more bluntly, impossible—to get our books into bigger distribution channels. We don’t sell hundreds of thousands of books per year, so we are shut out by major distribution channels, corporate booksellers, and large independent bookstores.
The literary world would benefit tremendously if indie booksellers did not have such a corporatized business model. We had an experience recently in which a large independent bookstore was totally dismissive of our efforts to get a poetry collection by an author residing in that city onto their shelves. They were not amenable to a conversation about setting up a reading/signing unless the book was already in their inventory. For a press the size of Robocup, they were asking the impossible; their inventory is stocked by major distributors. Although this was personally very frustrating, I was most disheartened that the author—who has a following in this city, whose friends keep asking if the book will be available at this store, who would have a packed reading/signing, whose book is gorgeous and endorsed by a New York Times bestselling author—was not given a chance to share her work with a city that would love it.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Robocup Press?
I cope very poorly. Anxiety and stress-induced stomachaches and heart palpitations are semi-regular occurrences, especially if I experience setbacks relating to the production or release of a title. I am a perfectionist who feels it is my duty to make books that visually represent the authors as well as they possibly can. These authors have entrusted me with their work, and I want to do right by them. But there are so many variables beyond my control and, five years in, I am finally accepting that perfection is an unrealistic expectation. While I have accepted that errors will happen, they never sit right with me and I never quite get over them. As a publisher, it’s difficult not to put a lot of pressure on myself.
Financially, we cope poorly as well, which contributes to the kind of stress described above. But this is something I do not expect to change, short of a wealthy benefactor coming along to bankroll the operation. When I started the press, I wanted to release beautiful, unique work out into the world. That was—and remains—the press’s first and foremost goal. I knew going in that operating a small press would be a money-losing endeavor, but I was okay with that. I, however, had no idea just how big of a money pit the press would be, or how much I’d feel it in my day-to-day life. Despite the challenges that come with printing—and even shipping our titles—I’m glad to be in the business of running a small press because, money issues aside, we are changing the literary landscape one unique voice at a time. We’re truly in it for the love of it, and I think readers can sense that for themselves when they purchase one or more of our titles.
It’s also worth noting that Robocup Press operates on the strong belief that writers should be paid for their work—even if it is only a small amount. All Robocup authors are paid a small percentage for each of their books that sells, and this is not dependent upon whether the press breaks even or if the title turns a profit. Authors write things, and writing is work. Therefore, authors should be compensated for their labor. We pay authors on principle, and we feel great about conducting business in a way that aligns with our personal ethics.
In addition to a percentage of sales, Robocup Press is happy to offer authors two free copies of their books, plus a sizeable discount that can be used to purchase additional copies. We find that authors are grateful for these bonuses and perks because, although the press works hard to publish and promote the books, the authors worked hard to bring their manuscripts to fruition in the first place. This must be recognized, cherished and honored.
Also, we do not charge reading fees—at least not yet. It is not something we have given much consideration. But if the cost of doing business becomes so outrageous that we must choose between closing shop and charging reading fees—we’d charge reading fees. In hopes that it doesn’t come to that, we’re pursuing other revenue-generating approaches, such as our “become a robofriend” fundraiser. We extend an open invitation to anyone who values art in the truest sense of the word, but especially those wealthy, art-loving benefactors!
My parting words for anyone interested in publishing books: always trust your gut; prepare to spend a lot of money and make none in return; assume that you will experience some major setbacks; accept that you will disappoint others despite your best efforts to please everyone. If you still want to publish books after taking all of this into consideration, you are doing it for the right reasons, and you’ll likely be thrilled, just as we are, to publish titles that deserve to be distributed the world over.