It is by any measure extraordinary: an independent publishing company, founded by a young married couple in a kitchen in Cyprus some 30 years ago, which began releasing fiction only in 2009, has won the past two Man Booker Prizes. “It’s a bit freaky,” conceded Juliet Mabey, Oneworld’s editorial director and cofounder. “The [fiction] list was very young and considered quite experimental. It’s just really lucky to have judges that have similar tastes to one’s own, twice running.”
Luck is always a factor—publishing is inevitably a gamble—but so is conviction. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (which took the 2015 Man Booker) and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (the 2016 winner) might not have been in contention at all for the Booker but for Mabey’s passionate desire to acquire fiction that “not only opened windows on other cultures but tackled some really rather serious issues.” She did so as the world economy was crashing and the tendency of the conglomerates was to play safe while retrenching.
At the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, the mood was dark and uncertain. Claire Roberts of Trident Media had found no one to take on James’s The Book of Night Women, his second novel, set on a slave plantation and written in Jamaican patois. Riverhead had U.S. rights, but “everyone [in Britain] had turned it down,” recalled Mabey. “I fell in love with it.”
Oneworld published the novel the following year as James’s U.K. debut. Beautifully packaged and supported by a buyer at the WHSmith chain, it sold 12,000 copies, setting the stage for Seven Killings, which has now sold 400,000 copies in the U.K.
It and Beatty’s The Sellout deal with uncomfortable issues, tackling subjects with which Oneworld’s nonfiction list has always engaged. “We’ve published books on racism before, but they’re bought by somebody already interested in the subject, whereas The Sellout will be bought by someone who just wants a good read,” Mabey said. “But it will take them into the heart of American race segregation and the psychology and history of slavery that African-Americans carry with them.”
Fiction, she observed, offered “the opportunity to tell the story in a different way,” first to adults and then to kids. Rock the Boat, Oneworld’s newish YA list, aims to open young eyes. In eight years of publishing fiction, Oneworld has released works from 40 countries by authors writing in 26 languages.
Oneworld: the name is a clue about the company’s approach. Mabey and her husband, Novin Doostdar, managing director, have looked outward from the beginning, buying world rights—often from American authors—and cultivating the American market, attending what was then ABA and using NBN for distribution (and now PGW/Ingram). For its first 15 years, the U.S. was Oneworld’s biggest market. It now represents about 20% of overall sales, but Mabey expects that to grow as the publisher acquires world English rights to more titles that will permit it to increase the number of books it releases in the U.S. Mabey also noted that Oneworld is taking a serious look at acquiring an independent American publisher, which would allow it to consolidate it position in the U.S. and grow its brand.
Mabey and Doostdar met as students at Edinburgh University. Both had grown up in southern England, Doostdar coming to the country at 15 when his Baha’i family fled Iran. They married straight out of college, remaining in Edinburgh. When he qualified as an accountant, they relocated to Cyprus, “which I thought would be anthropologically interesting,” Mabey said. But with no childcare and no family support system, she felt isolated. Thoughts turned to publishing, which had been a shared student ambition.
There aim was to publish books that explained the world to the general reader, “to make knowledge look more attractive,” said Mabey. By the time the first titles—poetry and drawings by Bernard Leach, a modern take on Adlerian psychology that would lead to new translations of all Alfred Adler’s work, a book on peace—appeared in 1986–1987, the family had returned to Britain. For many years, the couple worked shifts, one parent looking after their four children, the other the business. Drawing on their own areas of interest and expertise, Mabey and Doostdar began commissioning across the humanities and social sciences, approaching academics and (unusually for the market at that time) offering advances and royalties.
An early author was theologian Keith Ward: “Novin spotted that one of his big books was out of print and offered to reissue it, and after that Keith gave Novin all his books, which meant a lot of people on the liberal side of Christianity came to us,” Mabey said. They added Islamic authors long before 9/11 made that a fashionable area of publishing.
Gradually series evolved: the Beginner’s Guides, featuring big subjects in small books—almost 150 today, now a fixture on many first-year college students’ reading lists, particularly in the U.S.—and Makers of the Muslim World. A new series, Radical Histories of the Middle East, launches in 2018. “It’s all part of the same thing: taking a subject you didn’t get on with at school and trying to find funky ways of making it accessible,” Mabey explained. Mainstream publishers have followed suit, and Oneworld now finds itself competing in a market for brief, authoritative, appealing works that it helped create.
Growth has been slow but sure; the couple used only their own money, reinvesting profits as they continued to create books from scratch. Only recently have they begun to work closely with agents. As output increased, so did personnel numbers. Today, around 24 staff work in a Bloomsbury townhouse with a boardroom in which authors gather for lunch, its shelves displaying a range of publishing awards (in 2015 alone Oneworld’s books won or were nominated for 15 prizes) and the books that won them.
Success has given Oneworld visibility and confidence: it is everywhere in contention, beating out competitors to buy The Panama Papers (translated, published, and on sale within seven weeks) and Justin Trudeau’s Common Ground, and snapping up Gloria Steinem’s memoirs. Revenue is now around £4.5 million per year, generated by some 120 titles annually, roughly two-thirds of them new.
Retirement and exit are not in Doostdar and Mabey’s lexicon, and while they would like Oneworld to grow, perhaps by judicious acquisition, the preference is for bigger books rather than a larger company. “We might be regretful that we didn’t build the company quicker, but the journey itself was great fun and we tremendously enjoyed it,” Mabey said.