Taking home the UK’s biggest literary prize for the second year in a row—the first time an independent publisher has managed the feat since Faber & Faber did so in 1988 and 1989—was a pretty good way for Oneworld to mark its 30th anniversary; that both of its Man Booker Prize winners are black men may also be a signal of the industry’s growing willingness to interrogate issues of race and diversity.
According to Oneworld publisher Juliet Mabey pictured, this year’s winning book The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s satire which tackles the “entrenched” issue of racism in modern society, is “especially timely in post-Brexit Britain [and with] the upcoming American presidential election, as racism has raised its head in ways we haven’t seen for decades”.
Mabey, who founded Oneworld in 1986 alongside husband Novin Doostdar, told The Bookseller that the prize win would help propel the book’s “strong message” to a wider readership. She added: “[Also,] satires—just like comic films—are not often picked up for prizes, but they can bring important issues, like racism in this case, to a broader audience through humour and an intelligent but light touch.”
Oneworld’s fiction list launched in its 23rd year (2009) with The Book of Night Women, the first book by 2015 Booker Prize-winner Marlon James. Since its first foray into fiction, it has had three titles nominated for the Booker, two of which have claimed the award. Beatty triumphed last month; James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings won the prize last year; and Oneworld was longlisted in 2011 with A Cupboard Full of Coats by British BAME author Yvvette Edwards. Mabey said the achievement was “fantastic” for the publisher, adding: “[Winning the prize] not only helps build our profile in what is a very competitive industry, but its positive effect touches all our authors and titles, which is especially gratifying.”
Winning the Booker is an accomplishment for any publisher, but Oneworld’s double, coupled with the fact that members of the Independent Publishers Guild have published more than half (19) of the 36 titles shortlisted for the prize in the past six years, highlights the increasing strength of the indie sector. “[This year’s] longlist [which featured five titles from indie publishers] has highlighted just how many exciting novels are coming from independent publishers, and we’re really proud to be one of them”, Mabey said.
She added: “I think the independent publishing sector is very vibrant. New publishers seem to be sprouting up all the time, many of which are publishing some fantastic books, both here and around the world. I think there is definitely room for nimble, ambitious independents in a world where the bigger publishers have increasingly high overheads, which to some extent dictate what they can and can’t publish. Smaller publishers are
obviously in danger of having the début authors they discover poached, but one has to be realistic and focus on doing your job well, offer brilliant author care, of course, and hope that agents and authors recognise that size isn’t everything!”
Winning the Booker last year and a host of other prizes—including the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year with The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, and the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize with Serhii Plokhii’s The Last Empire—saw sales “shoot up” 50% on the previous year (to £3.63m), making it the company’s most profitable to date. This calendar year, Oneworld’s turnover is 30% up on the comparable period in 2015, so the publisher “expects to finish on a high”, Mabey said.
She ascribes the success of the company to “publishing good books and publishing them well”, adding: “I think that for our size, we have an incredibly diverse list. But in addition we are fleet-footed in the way that we publish and we offer fantastic author care. We have an incredibly talented team of editors and being independent means we can follow our publishing vision and carefully curate a list that reflects the integrity of this company. We are unapologetically serious about everything we do, and our strengths lie not only in offering great support to our authors; we have followed that up by investing substantial publicity and marketing energy into all our campaigns.”
In 2011—a “pivotal” year for the company— Oneworld moved offices from Oxford to central London in order to facilitate better access to agents and to enable publicists and sales staff to more freely meet more booksellers, reviewers and journalists, all of whom are critical to the staff’s work. Mabey added that move also ensured the company could “attract the best staff and expand our workforce more rapidly”. The intervening five years have seen Oneworld double in size: it now employs 22 full or part- time staff. Since its London move, additions to the staff roster span across departments, with appointments including: Mark Rusher, former group marketing director of Orion; rights director Ilona Chavasse, who was previously acting rights director at Atlantic; and art director James Jones, a former Bookseller Rising Star who earned his stripes at Penguin and Orion.
Of the move to London, Mabey commented: “I don’t think it should have made such a difference, but of course it has, both in terms of our visibility within the book trade and our access to top-quality staff. Both the size of our company and our revenue have increased substantially in every year since [the move]”.
Mabey added that the company is “certainly interested” in acquiring other firms. “I think strategically it would make sense for us to look at some of the independents in the US, but we have not made any overtures in that direction yet”, she said.