On the 21st November, hundreds braved the frosty morning to assemble at the glass monolith of the John Henry Brookes building in Oxford. After the energy and insights from last year’s Society of Young Publisher‘s conference hosted in London, I had been looking forward to the Oxford conference with great anticipation.
We all gathered in the main lecture theatre, heads huddled in eager chatter as we rummaged through our goody bags and flicked through the brochure to plan which streams we were going to attend.
This year’s keynote address was delivered by Juliet Mabey, founder and editor of Oneworld Publications. This independent publisher has been in the news a lot recently with their authors Marlon James and Martin Ford winning the Man Booker Prize and FT & Mckinsey Business Book of the Year, respectively – so it was an honour to have her deliver her wisdom.
In 1986 Juliet Mabey and her husband, Novin Doostdar, founded Oneworld Publications with no previous publishing experience but a determination to build a global company: hence the name.
They started by attending the London Book Fair where they found Element Books who were looking to expand their reach by distributing other publishers books and a partnership started that helped launch Oneworld as a nonfiction publisher. They originally set up in Oxford and started their first fiction in 2009, set up to mirror the values of their nonfiction and they have a high focus on translation. In 2010 they made the decision to move their offices to London for a better trade representation – putting their publicity teams where the reviewers are and the editors where the agents are.
Oneworld initially found authors in universities and coached them in their writing but now more than 80% (particularly fiction) comes through agents and buying from other publishers.
Mabey told the audience that the hardest thing about starting a publishing company is building your profile. You can’t get a big project without showing what you can do, and can’t show who what you’re capable of without a big project. One of the biggest challenges is to leverage the business against large corporations like Amazon but Mabey was keen to point out that they have no intention of becoming a large publisher, only to focus on each title and doing it well.
And they really are doing it well as this year Oneworld titles have been shortlisted for or won seven awards!
They’ve even set up new imprints: Rock the Boat, a children’s imprint whose title Illuminae has just had its film rights sold to Brad Pitt; and a ‘Literary Crime’ imprint to be launched in February.
Some other interesting insights Mabey shared with us were:
- The Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Prize are the only prizes that significantly affect sales. She championed the importance of the Bailey’s Prize in giving women a space -statistically there are more male reviewers and more men being reviewed and although the majority of books are bought by women, the 3 main buyers at Waterstones are men.
- Europe are ahead of us in having bookshops full of translations – it gives such a diverse range of perspectives and styles and stories. That is the way it should be and we should translate more contemporary fiction, not just classics. If you publish it well there’s no reason you can’t sell it competitively.
- Discoverability is harder with fiction – particularly if your author is unknown. Status of author can be more important than content so you may be starting at a disadvantage when publishing translation titles.
- Waterstones are trying to buy in smaller quantities and then restocking as required. They are also buying more high end products such as nonfiction hardbacks and coffee table books to combat online/digital sales and get more value out of expensive shop space.
We then separated into our separate streams for the day which I will cover in subsequent posts!
Freedom to write, freedom to read
The closing panel was extremely appropriate given the keynote focus on translation publishing as we heard from Hannah Trevarthen, English PEN; Saphia Crowther, Amnesty International; and Anne Beech from publisher Pluto Press.
‘Literature knows no frontiers’ is English PENs motto and this panel was all about the fantastic campaigns they, and Amnesty International, run to affect change and defend the rights of people all over the world to read and express themselves. The panel also emphasised the importance of publishing the voices that need to be heard, even if that means taking on government bodies.
I thoroughly recommend you look into these organisations and the fantastic work they do but here are some key messages from the talk:
- Translation can open up new perspectives so it’s important to stop censoring.
- As a publisher, it’s worth taking risks. It’s an illegitimate use of the law to restrict speech but we have to trust our own judgement on how far we can go.
- The libel laws have changed to make it more difficult to silence publishers. It’s important to hear the voice of those who give their life for truth.