Meet the Publisher: Juliet Mabey on Oneworld’s Roots and the Business of Publishing Translations

When you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems...

Oneworld was founded in 1986 by Juliet Mabey and her husband Novin Doostdar. The press is now based in London and publishes over 100 books a year. Most of these continue to be non-fiction titles across a broad range of subject areas. In 2009, Oneworld launched their fiction list, and shortly thereafter began releasing novels in translation. To date, the press has published authors from 40 countries and works originally written in 26 languages. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to Juliet Mabey over Skype to discuss the importance of reading fiction from across the globe and Oneworld’s commitment to diversity in publishing literature in translation.

Sarah Moses: Can you tell me a bit about how Oneworld came to be?

Juliet Mabey: My husband Novin Doostdar and I had always been interested in books and bookshops. We were in university in Edinburgh together, where we met and got married, and we decided that we wanted to set up a company ourselves. It was really a choice between setting up a bookshop or a publishing company. In fact, originally we wanted to set up both, but we never really had time to do the bookshop. We set up Oneworld in 1986, very much with a view of publishing accessible, authoritative narrative non-fiction across quite a broad range of subjects.

At that time there was no Internet. If you wanted to learn a bit more about psychology, and you went into a bookshop, all you could find were say, the complete works of Freud or an A-level textbook of an introductory nature. So we felt there was a big gap in the market for books that were written by experts or academics but in an accessible style. That was very much what we intended to do, across philosophy, psychology, history, popular science. In fact, it’s still very much the core of our non-fiction list. The first year in 1986 I think we published four books. We then built it up very slowly. Neither my husband nor I came from a publishing background so we learned as we went along and talked to booksellers and that sort of thing.

SM: How did you decide to make the move into fiction?

JM: That’s a really interesting question. There were certain factors that came to a head around the same time. On the one hand, I kept reading novels that I felt were very sympathetic to our kind of ethos in our non-fiction list; that if we had a fiction list, we would be interested in publishing ourselves. But of course we didn’t. That went on for a few years before we took the plunge.

For example, novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus offered a very interesting way of learning all about Nigerian culture, its history, and that part of the world. They’re fantastic novels in their own right. They weren’t a worthy introduction to Nigeria at all, but they took you there. That seemed to be very much the sort of thing I would have loved to publish if we’d had a fiction list. By this point we’d been in publishing for just over twenty years. Finally I just thought, you know what, I’m going to tell everybody that I’m interested in starting a fiction list, and we’ll see what happens. So we went to Frankfurt in 2008 and I started telling people, “By the way, we’re hoping to start up a fiction list.”

One of the first novels that was suggested to me was Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, which we went on to publish the following September, in 2009. That was the start of our fiction list. So we were just incredibly lucky. You know, sometimes it happens. And when you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems that are sitting there, which (in the case of James’s novel) everybody had turned down already because it was written entirely in Jamaican pidgin English. Then his next novel—the second novel we published of his—went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015. So it was truly a very propitious start to our fiction list.

SM: It seems as if the move to publishing fiction in translation was a natural one based on the kinds of novels you’re interested in.

JM: That’s absolutely right. I’ve always read a lot of fiction in translation. At university, when I wanted a break from my studies—I studied social anthropology, which is obviously a global subject—I’d go in to the local university bookshop and they had a Picador spinner. My recollection of that spinner was that it was full of translated fiction from all over the world. And I would just literally pick a book knowing it was going to be interesting, unusual. The subjects were all wide-ranging; the cultures were all wide-ranging. So that was very much my reading diet when I was at university.

I suppose I always really wanted to set up a very broadly based fiction list. Mankind has this huge cultural diversity. If you limit yourself to the English language and cultures based in the English language, you’re missing out on so much. To me that just seemed crazy. I think there are a lot of sales and marketing reasons why you would want the author to speak the language and live in your own country. But for me, my ideal fiction list would literally showcase books from—if I could—every culture, every language. That in fact to me would be perfect. I mean that would definitely be my dream. That’s very much where I’m going in terms of the books I’d like to publish.

We published our first translated novel the year after launching Oneworld’s fiction list. In 2010, we published The Unit, by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist. By the end of this year, we’ll have novels in 26 languages and our writers come from 40 countries, so we’re slowly building a more diverse list, but we’ve got a long way to go.

SM: How do you go about discovering books in languages you can’t read? How do you decide which ones to publish?

JM: On one level, we’ve been recommended books from other publishers who tell us about, for example, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud, the Algerian author. Also, I’ll meet the rights director of, say, Riverhead, from whom we’ve just recently bought an Argentinian novel. So there’s that side of it, which is an extension of what we’re already doing meeting publishers and agents. Some of the novels are recommended by agents, both here, who might be sending on behalf of other publishers and other agents, or agents based say in Barcelona or other parts of the world—Finland, Sweden, Denmark, what have you.

Our staff can be helpful. If you look back five years ago, between fifteen of us at the time, we probably spoke about three languages, whereas now our staff speak Persian, Arabic, Russian, Italian, Serbian, Dutch, French, German; there’s probably another one or two on top of that. So they can help.

In terms of choosing books, our primary interest is literary fiction: either up-and-coming writers in a country or perhaps a classic that’s been overlooked. Those are the two main areas of interest. We sometimes also buy slightly quirky, more commercial novels.

The difficulty we have in choosing them is the language. Usually, if we’re very lucky, a proposal will come with a synopsis of the story and the original manuscript plus maybe one or two chapters in English. If at that point we really like the sound of it, we’ll commission a reader’s report on the whole thing. For us, the difficulty is really building up a network of readers and translators who understand the kind of books we’re looking for and who we in turn can trust. There are risks involved, but so far we’ve picked some interesting novels.

SM: In addition to the language and risks involved, what other challenges are there to publishing translations?

JM: One of the biggest challenges, which I think is the same for everybody, is the translations and just the sheer amount of work and time involved at every stage in the process. Translation subsidies very rarely cover the extra costs involved either—you could get anything from ten per cent of the cost up to about seventy-five per cent, but it’s very lucky if you can get that much; grants are not normally more than fifty per cent. When you consider that it’s rare for translated novels to sell better than English-language novels—though it does happen—there are obviously financial risks involved.

I think one of the biggest challenges is on the marketing and sales side. Your author often lives far away and they may have no profile in your country and they may not speak English. We have a Chinese author, for example, A Yi—we published his novel, A Perfect Crime, in 2015—and he did come to the UK on tour. He was supported by a PEN Promotes grant, which was really helpful, but he didn’t speak English. We had to have a translator meet him off the plane and stay in his hotel and accompany him everywhere. That gets very expensive. It’s not something we would do without a grant, to be honest.

So those are all challenges. I do think the market for translated fiction is changing in both Britain and America. There’s more interest in translated fiction among booksellers, for example. I think what has always put them off is that they have a sense that a lot of reviewers will first pick an English-language novel by a famous author—obviously that’s always going to be somebody’s first choice. Translated fiction might come low down the pecking order if they’re looking for what to review. If booksellers think there’s going to be review coverage, then they expect that to reflect the number of people who will buy a book. But there are hugely successful translated novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think that’s all helped to make translated fiction feel more accessible and more sellable, and that in turn has helped booksellers look at it in a more positive light. I think the new Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction, which is very well endowed and supported by a high-profile marketing campaign, has already had a very positive effect on the profile of this sector, and booksellers are really getting behind it, so I think that’s going to help significantly.

On our part, we are starting a national promotion this year—well actually an international promotion, but particularly in America and Britain—called One World: Many Voices, which we’re going to scale out across the book trade and especially the big chains, although we’re also offering it to independent bookshops as well. It will include in-store displays and will be linked in to a lot of author events and readings, and we’re going to support it with a strong publicity campaign. I don’t know how successful it will be at this stage, but it’s something we’re really excited about. I think just over half our fiction list is actually translations for the first time, so it’s obviously something we’re very committed to building up.

SM: Can you share a few titles you’re excited about or that have been successful?

JM: I think without a doubt our translated fiction bestseller is a novel that sits on the quirkier, more charming end of our list. It is called The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, by bestselling Korean author Sun-mi Hwang, which we published in 2014. It coincided with the Korean market focus at The London Book Fair so they paid to bring her over, and we did some events with her. I think we sold about 40,000 copies in six months, which for translated fiction that hasn’t won a prize is extremely good going. It was a Waterstones Book Club pick, which meant that it got a lot of attention in store and that all helped a lot. It’s a very sweet story about a battery hen whose eggs are taken away every morning and who dreams of raising a chick of her own. So it has that very positive, emotive sort of message that books like The Little Prince have. It was originally published as a children’s book in Korea and then became a favourite with adults, so it sold to both markets there, as well.

Last year we published Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, a Russian author who just won three big awards, the biggest of which is the Big Book Prize in Russia, and also the Polyana Award, which is very prestigious. We pitched it very much as a Russian The Name of the Rose. It’s set in medieval Russia and it’s about this village herbalist whose girlfriend dies partly through his negligence and he feels this tremendous burden, and decides to spend the rest of his life in a state of penance, of living very much in her memory and for her. He travels around medieval Europe on his way to Jerusalem. It’s a very unusual story, fabulously written. The translation is by Lisa Hayden, who’s based in the U.S. It’s one of the first books she accepted to translate and actually the second one that came out. She did a fantastic job coping with the different language styles; it has medieval Russian, biblical Russian, and some modern Russian slang. I think she made it all seem incredibly easy when you read the English. She’s translating another three Russian novels for us now, and we’re very pleased with her work.

SM: What translations are new or forthcoming from Oneworld?

JM: This year, one of our first translations is Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, who’s an Argentinian author. We bought both her debut novel and her collection of stories, which is currently called Birds in the Mouth. We’ve actually had booksellers around the country who’ve heard of Fever Dream contact us asking for reading copies. Word of mouth is getting out already. To me, it’s one of the most astonishing novels. You have to read it to really appreciate the craftsmanship involved. It’s got this brooding, haunting voice all the way through. It’s not achieved through the actions or the plot, but through the language. It’s absolutely fantastic; I can’t praise it enough. She’s definitely a star of the future. We’re really excited about that. It’s coming out in March this year, and came out in January in the U.S.

We’re also publishing a really funky book next year called Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won the Arabic Booker a couple of years ago. That’s by Ahmed Saadawi. So again a really different book. It’s very much a comment on war-torn Baghdad, using the frame of the Frankenstein story to paint a very dark picture of what happened to Baghdad and what is still happening to Baghdad. So you can see how diverse our books are!

Sarah Moses is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in chapbook form, as well as in various journals, including Brick and TNTR. Sarah divides her time between Toronto and Buenos Aires.


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