We interviewed Alex after he took part in our ‘Triangular Talks’ event. For more on that day, click here.
What do you look for in a manuscript for Oneworld? How does this change when it is a title for translation into English?
The answer is simple enough but rare to find: ideally it’s a unique idea, it’s well-written enough for the genre, and the author is one of the best-positioned to write it. In translation, two of those three questions are harder to answer, whether because I am sadly monolingual or because we have a glut of English-language writers in a given area.
The overall topic of Triangular Talks was ‘trends’. Which trends in the publishing scene interest you in particular?
There are now more and more trends that are pertinent to all of us – whether that’s Thomas Piketty’s ‘r>g’ or the global scale of the refugee crisis. That kind of universality crosses borders.
Politics and political books were among the obvious trends mentioned in all the Triangular Talks panels. Do you think this is a recent trend, since 2016, and has it affected your approach to commissioning?
I think we talked about political books because everyone’s mind was on the instability in our democracies, but it has been a difficult area to commission in because everything is changing so quickly. Is Macron a saviour, as he was just a month ago, or is he a disappointment now that he seems to be tanking in the polls? For me the only option is to get behind the headlines and look at the broader trends.
During the panel discussion you spoke about how the publishing industry can compete with the internet as a platform for non-fiction. Could you say some more about that?
You can go online right now and get a dozen quick takes on this morning’s headline, but a book can promise to give you the full story: not just what is happening but how and why it came about, even if answering that question takes you back twenty or forty years. Frankly no one knows what’s going on between the US and Russia right now but I recently published a book, Who Lost Russia?, charting the highs and lows since the end of the Cold War, and I think that goes a long way towards explaining the tension and suspicion we are living through now.
Could you say a little about your experience of publishing The Panama Papers, and how that project continues to develop?
What an amazing book to have landed with us! It was a tough one to publish – my colleague Alyson Coombes hired four translators to get the translation done in just three weeks, and we had the book out less than a month after that, so it was all-consuming. But the release was really only the start of a bigger story, initiating dozens of tax investigations into people, companies and even governments. In a case like this, the pen drive was mightier than the sword.
In the Crossover Panel, Bill Swainson summarised half-seriously: ‘35- to 55-year olds read about 2–3 books a year; 55- to 75-year olds now also read on e-readers; younger readers prefer short-forms (about 300 words).’ He then called for new forms in publishing in order to engage readers. What do you think about that?
I think forms of storytelling are already broadening out, at least in non-fiction: I read quick, shareable links over lunch, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, save long reads for a long tube journey, and there are books in my bag and by my bed. How do we compete? In my opinion, by doing the thing that we do really, really well.
Which Oneworld titles have you got coming up (autumn and beyond) that you’re particularly excited about?
We’ll soon be releasing the mass-market paperback of The Angry Chef, which has been going from strength to strength, starting a much-needed conversation about the pseudoscientific rubbish floating around in the world of food; The Know It Alls, by New York Times writer Noam Cohen, on ‘the rise of Silicon Valley as a political powerhouse and social wrecking ball’, which is scathing and brilliantly argued; and in the spring, a book by an ex-MI6 operative who was deeply embedded in the global jihad, whose insights and experience are revealing and more than a little scary.
Are there any future plans at Oneworld that you would like to tell us about?
No specific blueprint for world domination, but I’m excited to be at the point where I am commissioning second books from my authors, and building a stable of books that will start important conversations about the world around us.