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Appreciating Smaller Publishers: Oneworld Publications
A once-small publishing house produces award-winning fiction and non-fiction from across the globe
By Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services at ProQuest
Editor’s note: this is the third blog post in a series by Bob Nardini about the critical role of smaller publishers in bringing diverse content to libraries.
Walking Bloomsbury Street on your way to the (reopened!) British Museum, you’ll pass a brick townhouse with arched windows displaying a few books. You’reIn a neighborhood of stationers, cafes and bookshops and might imagine you’re looking at a venerable publisher where inside walls display framed photographs of writers in all the college anthologies.
You’d be wrong. Instead, you will have found the offices of Oneworld Publications.
Oneworld’s founders, Juliet Mabey and Novin Doostdar, are spouses who met in the 1970s as Edinburgh students, moved to Cyprus for work – and then decided in “a moment of madness” at their kitchen table to return home and open a publishing company in Oxford.
As things turned out, it was the right kind of madness. Oneworld brought out its first book in 1986 and proceeded, over 20 years, to carefully build a respected backlist of academic non-fiction meant for audiences broader than the readership usually won by scholars. “No jargon, no footnotes…make it interesting,” was Oneworld’s message to authors.
In 2009 Oneworld aimed for more readers by publishing its first work of fiction. The Book of Night Women, about a girl born into slavery in Jamaica, was written by Marlon James, himself Jamaican, whose next book with Oneworld, A Brief History of Seven Killings, a novel centered around Bob Marley, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. The next year, madness looked more like genius when The Sellout, a darkly comic novel by Paul Beatty, whose protagonist attempts to reinstitute slavery in Los Angeles, won the 2016 Man Booker – a remarkable double achievement for a small publisher, or for any publisher.
By then, Mabey and Doostdar had moved Oneworld to London, close to the city’s network of booksellers, agents, reviewers, publicist, and editors. Today, no longer small but as independent as ever, Oneworld competes with conglomerates for authors, prizes, and sales. The company employs about 20 staff members and publishes around 100 new books each year.
Now, many of those books are fiction: “intelligent, challenging, and distinctive novels that sit at the intersection of the literary and the commercial,” as the Oneworld website puts it. Further, “we’re proud to publish fiction from all over the world,” says the site, showing a world map shaded in blue for countries where Oneworld authors are from or where they’ve set their books. Most of the map is shaded, with every continent represented.
Among hundreds of examples: The First Woman, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, set in a Ugandan village, was on 2020 “best book” lists from Oprah Magazine, to the Irish Independent, to Al Jazeera. Here Comes the Sun, by Nicole Dennis-Benn, another book set in Jamaica, had earlier found its place on a string of 2016 “best” lists, including those from the New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Kirkus. The Baghdad Clock, by Shahad Al Rawi, a novel set in Iraq during the Gulf War, one of many translated works on the Oneworld list, was shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
At the same time, Oneworld has kept up the release of solid, accessible non-fiction. Two recent examples are Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, by longtime BBC and Al Jazeera correspondent Barnaby Phillips, about an episode of nineteenth-century colonialism that “probes the difficult choices facing European – and Nigerian – museums,” as the Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote; and The Colour of God, University of British Columbia professor Ayesha S. Chaudhry’s memoir of growing up in a fundamentalist Muslim household, praised by one reviewer as “a mirror showing us who we are.”
Two series anchor Oneworld’s non-fiction. Beginner’s Guides, written by scholars, are compact introductions covering a span of subjects best illustrated by a few examples: Anti-Capitalism, French Literature, Modern Slavery, Cancer, Shi’I Islam, Oil, Homer, The Small Arms Trade, Populism, Life in the Universe. Another series featuring experts writing for non-experts is Oneworld’s Makers of the Muslim World, edited by scholars at Harvard and Princeton. These short volumes are devoted to men and women across Muslim history whose names will be unfamiliar to most readers, such as Nazira Zeineddine; A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism, or Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom.
“Legalized gambling” is how Doostdar has referred to the business of publishing. Years ago in that Cyprus kitchen, the odds must have seemed long. Thriving in Bloomsbury now, two Bookers in hand, the bet was a winner for Oneworld.
ProQuest proudly offers Oneworld’s print and ebooks to our library customers on Ebook Central, OASIS and Rialto.
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