Word-o-Mat – Addictive literature from a cigarette vending machine

I was wandering the net when I found them and suddendly I fell in love with Word-o-Mat. Yes I fell in love, because their idea of literature, prose, poetry and written things is really addictive. How can I say it? Well, try to sell poems and short stories in a cigarette box coming from a vintage cigarette selling machine and then try to tell me something different. So I wanted to know more. So I bothered Charlotte Ormston, the mind behind the project, and this is what she told me.

Tell us more about when this idea was born and, in the meanwhile, can I have a cigarette, please?

No cigarettes in this cigarette machine! Actually, we get asked this question a lot when we’re at festivals selling Word-o-Mat Editions dressed up like cigarette girls (and boys)…

Word-o-Mat was conceived out of a love affair between short stories, zines and clunky machinery. I’m half Canadian with ties in Montréal and had been totally enchanted by the Distroboto, which has been running there for years. I wanted to make something that was this cool but which produced my favourite things: real, physical, beautiful books of slamming short writing.

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I’d had experience with writers, publishers and the literature industry in general, having spent years working at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, running my own nights of music and readings and conducting research about literature and publishing in Scotland. I knew that writers found it hard to get short stories and poems published. And that, frankly, they didn’t seem to relate to their publishers very much. So I wanted to make a friendly publisher where both writer and publisher had the same goals: Get the good stuff read. By all the people. Don’t exploit anyone in the process.

I had recently read James Kelman’s Greyhound for Breakfast and realised how life-affirming it is to read something that’s written in something close to your voice, about a world you recognise. Publishing seemed to be full of people called things like Beatrice, Minty and Oscar. I thought to myself: how am I going to make sure that there is writing in the world that represents the life, style, humour and voices of the myriad of other people? The mainstream UK media was (and remains) largely toxic and out to demonise large swathes of people. I thought: now is the time for the multiplicity of voices to be allowed to speak and Word-o-Mat will be the mouthpiece.

As for the design, well, I wanted it to be fun and real. It’s easy to get your stuff published on the internet but who manages to read a short story to the end online when there’s a universe of GIFs and articles vying for your attention?! Word-o-Mat was going to be offline-only and analogue ahoy. Writers are good at writing. They’re not necessarily good at showing off their writing. I love showing off people’s writing – I’d been doing it for years. Choosing books for people is one of my favourite things to do. Now I wanted to do it through amazing product and user-experience design.

This is where Cris Argüelles came in. She’s the bomb. By this point, we were doing an EU-funded residency in Malmö, Sweden together and she brought her mad design skills to the project. She’s an architect, visual communicator, mastermind and general badass, based in Madrid.

Together, based in the maker’s space Fabriken in the South of Sweden, one Scot, one Spaniard and one old cigarette machine became Word-o-Mat.

Let’s meet the folk! The main feature of Word-o-Mat is the meeting with people. How they generally react to the cigarette machine and the little creations hidden in the box?

People love it. All sorts of people feel excited by the project. We’ve been flooded with messages from all over the world from people contributing ideas or wanting Word-o-Mat to get involved with their projects.

The machine and the format of the books themselves attracts all sorts of people, for different reasons. Young people like the design, kids like the element of play with the machine and the tininess of the books, old people like the retro factor, some people really notice the hand-made element… When we launched Edition #1 in Istanbul, we sold our entire stock, which surprised us because not everyone read English. People really want to get their hands on these tiny books and see what this machine is all about. The format of Word-o-Mat means that non-reading, non-book-buyers buy books and read them.

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You have no borders, infact you publish authors from all over the world. What are the main aspects you generally search in submitted lit-works?

Word-o-Mat aims to continue providing a wordy gateway between Scotland and the rest of the world: a kind of portal through which people can speak to each other through books.

We love international submissions, seeing how people from other places think and write. First and foremost, we publish writers who take pleasure in language and sharing a cracking story. We want to be entertained and love to laugh but are happy for that to be a slightly twisted laugh if you get what I mean. We publish a variety of different types of work but recurring themes that seem to be emerging are: a fascination with metamorphosis; sci-fi spaciness; an interest in politics; an appreciation for the absurd; writers who look outside of themselves and truly into other people…

Let’s go, for a second, in the backstage. Can you tell us more about the crafting process?

It’s long. And finicky as we would say in Scotland. Each page is hand-cut with a scalpel, folded into a tiny zine (5 x 7cm) and then sewn to the cover with a couple of old Singer sewing machines. Six of these little books go inside each Word-o-Mat box. The boxes themselves are die-cut in Scotland and then assembled by hand by the Word-o-Mat Maker Team. The whole process is very origami and is a real labour of love. We drink a lot of tea throughout and listen to a lot of music. If anyone would like to send us a playlist to make tiny books to, we’d love that.

As for the machine, it’s an old German Wurlitzer cigarette vending machine that we picked up in a second hand shop in Malmö. (Wurlitzer are really famous for making jukeboxes and organs but it turns out they also make beautiful cigarette machines). It’s been renovated using Arduino technology and the lovely lads at Glasgow MAKLab are now the main Word-o-Mat mechanics team.

Ok, now a personal question for Charlotte as a reader and not as an editor. For you, what is the meaning of reading today and what kind of books or art book do you prefer?

I believe that art is an Empathy Machine. Through reading in particular, you imagine what it is like to be someone (or something or somewhere or sometime) else. Something other than your normal. If ever there was a time for increased empathy, this is it. We need to learn more about each other. Quick.

Reading literature has always been how I learn about the world: history, science, geography, philosophy and most of all, people.

My favourite books are many: John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for its humanity, humour, structure and world-building. Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping for its underwater, fluid femininity. Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus for its raging, funny femininity. Edna O’Brien’s Night because ageing is crazy and lovers are great. Tim Dee’s Four Fields for its fascination with nature and how we fit into it (this book is like W. G. Sebald without the trauma of the holocaust). Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things for its Scottish, sci-fi, joyous postmodernity (and great illustrations). The masters of short story: Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield, Kevin Barry (hilarious Irishman), Tom Barbash (terrifying, Freudian mess of an American)… Short stories are the best. If you can write a good short story, you’re the best.

Straight to the future. When and where we can find you again?

Glasgow. Soon. We’re currently working on Word-o-Mat Edition #2, sifting through the masses of amazing submissions we’ve received. We’ll shortly be having a welcome party when the Word-o-Mat machine is in its new Glasgow home and launching Edition #2.

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We’re also working with Glasgow MAKLab to make more Word-o-Mat machines…. *exciting*

Other plans include going from publishing tiny books to publishing giant books. We’ll be making a series of book-tents to take to festivals throughout the summer.

If you’re in Scotland, you can catch me speaking at Magfest 2017 in Edinburgh.

If you want to keep in touch with the project, just holla. We’ve got a newsletter that’s sexy to look at so email words@word-o-mat.com and we can put you on the list to receive it. Submissions for Edition #3 are open so if you’re a writer of words, we’d love to read them.

Mendes Biondo

If you want to know more about the Word-o-Mat you can visit their website at http://word-o-mat.com/

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