Oneworld, One Household: A Husband and Wife and a Life in Publishing

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How do you negotiate a publishing career and a marriage when they are one in the same?

Editorial by Juliet Mabey

Novin and Juliet, Oneword

LONDON: In 1986, my husband, Novin Doostdar, and I founded a publishing house called Oneworld Publications, with a focus on bold, intelligent non-fiction across the humanities.

Now, 25 years later, despite the recent downturn in the global economy and book sales, Oneworld Publications joins a select number of publishers who have seen a strong increase in revenue over the last few years. We have recently expanded our trade list to include fiction, embarked on the digitization of our complete backlist, and are in the midst of hiring. It’s a good time for us.

But what many people want to know is how do a husband and wife not only live together but also work together.  Does our being married help our business?  Are there lessons to be learned from what we do together?  Does the fact that the business is almost a family business mean that the decisions we make are more personal?

Oneworld Publications

Novin was born and raised in Iran and I grew up in the South of England.  We met and married in college in Edinburgh. We launched Oneworld to fill what we saw as a gap in the marketplace for books that were very content-oriented and written by authors who could make the information accessible to people like us: both academic and general audiences.

At the time, starting out without any previous experience in publishing was very daunting, but we adopted the old fashioned model of commissioning our books from scratch –- coming up with ideas for books we wanted to publish and researching suitable authors -– and carefully reinvested the money in the business as we went. From the outset we published simultaneously in the US, UK and rest of the English-speaking world, and religiously attended Frankfurt, where we built up a brilliant range of agents and publishers who bought foreign language rights from us. And from the outset, we shared an office and shared the workload.

One of the most potentially challenging aspects of building a business with your husband or wife is not just learning how to work together, but how to divide up the work between you! That’s an issue that tends to raise its head on numerous occasions as the business grows and expands into new areas. In our case, there has been a certain fluidity to the allocation of “chores.” At the beginning, we played to our strengths: I focused on editorial, design and publicity, and Novin on production, marketing and sales, though there have always been areas we have worked on together, and each of us in addition had a list we built up that reflected our particular interests. As departments expanded and the nature of publishing changed, responsibilities were gladly delegated, and new tasks assigned, and the division of labor between us was redrawn accordingly.

One of the many benefits of running a company with a spouse is the support it can offer. Owner-managers can often be heard bemoaning the isolation associated with running their own business, which can deprive them of the camaraderie available to other staff. As a couple, of course, we have had the benefit of sharing the stresses and strains, but the inevitable downside is that evenings find both of us on our laptops, with no partner to chide us or drag us out to the movies. Holidays can be sacrificed to catching up with paperwork, and now it is our children who tend to nag us to take a break. But one of the greatest benefits we have experienced running our company together is having a valuable sounding board constantly to hand –- we trust each other’s judgment and know each other’s tastes, and this has definitely given us the strength and courage you need to run a company in such a volatile industry, one my husband has fondly dubbed “legalized gambling.”

As far as lessons learned, I would say that one thing you need above all else when running a business with your spouse is respect for each other –- regardless of the mistakes you may make along the way! We have always tried to ensure consultation is the bedrock of our decision-making in the company, as the best decisions are the ones that draw on the full contribution of the group, and this applies to couples too. If you leave your ego at the door, your business will benefit, and so will your marriage.

The joy of a family-run publishing company is that you can keep things personal –- above all, you have the extraordinary luxury of being able to follow your own interests in curating your lists. In 2007 we launched Oneworld Classics, a jointly owned venture with fellow husband-and-wife team Allesandro Gallenzi and Elisabetta Minervini, and soon after had the wonderful opportunity of acquiring the venerable Calder Books. We now find ourselves running a new company with another couple, which must be a rather unusual situation, but a very rewarding one, as we are all used to the peculiarities of working closely with our partners, and bring a personal commitment to the development of the list. We are very fortunate to publish classics we love, and to lavish on them the high editorial and production values that customers so appreciate. While this is a very personal decision, we firmly believe it also makes good business sense.

Today, Oneworld publishes around sixty books a year, with a 75-25% split between trade and academic titles. And while we are ambitious about the next stage of our growth, and would not rule out acquiring another like-minded list, we are not planning a Perseus-style expansion. At the core of our company we keep things personal, but perhaps because of the international nature of our family, we have always brought an international approach to our publishing.

The key question is, would we recommend such an arrangement to others? For us it has been an amazing twenty-five-year journey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, but it hasn’t been without its stresses and strains. My advice? If your marriage has stress lines in it, there is the likelihood working together could make them worse. But at the end of the day, at least when you go home after a day’s work, you have something to talk about!

Juliet Mabey is the co-publisher of Oneworld Publications, a publishing company she founded and owns with her husband, Novin Doostdar. They split their time between their Oxford and London offices. Learn more about Oneworld Publications.

DISCUSS: Two Writers or Two Publishers, Are Literary Households Better at Their Jobs?

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.