Working together to drive change, an interview with Perminder Mann


Perminder Mann is the CEO of Bonnier Books UK, the publisher of bestselling adult and children’s books including international bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, which has sold more than five million copies worldwide. Perminder is one of only seven BAME women to appear in a survey of the UK’s most powerful leaders, conducted by The Guardian and Operation Black Vote, and she features annually in The Bookseller’s top 100 most influential people in publishing. Perminder has recently become Chair of the Publishers Association’s Consumer Publishers Council.

At the beginning of her tenure, we asked Perminder Mann some questions about career paths, publishing and her #MyThreeBooks choices.

You have spoken before about family pressure to pursue a more traditional career, such as in law or medicine. What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts and how have you ended up in publishing?

It wasn’t pressure, so much that it was that my family were just not aware of the different job prospects and pathways in the arts. They knew of ‘traditional’ careers like law and medicine, and so for them that was the frame of reference for success.

I always wanted to pursue a career in film, television and theatre – much to my parent’s trepidation. When I finished university, I started off by applying for internships working in television. I thought I had my lucky break when I was offered an internship at Channel 4’s Big Breakfast show but was extremely disappointed when I realised it didn’t pay. Post-university I was drowning in debt so working for free wasn’t an option for me. I decided to get a job elsewhere and return in a year.

There are plenty of people who love books but don’t know what opportunities exist, or that a career in publishing doesn’t have to revolve solely around the creative process.

Following a meeting with a recruitment consultant I decided to try my hand at sales. What was then considered a ‘non-traditional’ sales role came up at Pan Macmillan. At the time I knew nothing about publishing. I didn’t own any books growing up, but I adored reading and many of my happiest memories were spent in my childhood library. That interview was when I realised there was a whole world I could build my career in.

It’s hard to aspire to a career path that isn’t visible to you – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I am passionate about raising awareness of the careers in our industry. There are plenty of people who love books but don’t know what opportunities exist, or that a career in publishing doesn’t have to revolve solely around the creative process. We need people with all kinds of skills and personalities, and I believe we have a responsibility as publishers to reach as many communities as we can to ensure we are a diverse and inclusive industry.

Your career has been defined by successful innovations, such as the founding of Blink Publishing. As the CEO of a large company, how do you cultivate the spirit of entrepreneurship in your work?

I believe that great innovation comes from putting together talented cross-functional teams who are able to collaborate effectively and bounce around interesting ideas. We want to cultivate brilliant specialised expertise, while empowering our people to think nimbly, creatively and be willing to take risks.

As a leader, it’s essential this attitude starts from the top. Your team needs to have the freedom to be curious and feel they are allowed to question without judgement. At Bonnier Books UK, as we continue to grow larger as a company, it is our challenge to maintain and develop this culture of empowerment. It is very important to me that we continue building an environment that fosters learning and collaboration – it is after all this environment that has led to so many of our successes so far.

Consumer publishing has been particularly hard hit by lockdown measures with some businesses reporting significant declines in projected revenue for Q2. As Chair of the Consumer Publishers Council, what do you think will be key to recovery for this sector?

I think the key for everyone at this stage is to encourage knowledge-sharing and collaboration, not just in our own teams but across the whole publishing ecosystem. If we work together and support each other, we have a chance at coming out of this experience stronger than before.

We need to accept our new world and continue to review our strategies accordingly. Across the industry the pandemic forced us to dramatically change the way that we operate on a day-to-day level – changes that have been brought to the table in the past but never with any particular urgency. Where we stand now, I feel it is important that we think about proactive actions that will improve the way we do business in the long-term. There will always be a demand for stories, education and content, but thoughtfulness in delivery has never been more important. We must ensure we’re accessible to different audiences – meeting readers where they stand and ensuring books are available through a diverse mix of digital and physical channels.

The success of the #AxetheReadingTax campaign and the subsequent removal of VAT on eBooks more affordable will lower the barriers some families face in accessing literature. The next step is to tackle the same for audiobooks. As another crucial avenue for reading for many children and adults, it’s essential we think about how we can make them more accessible.

I’d love to see more collaboration with our colleagues in independent publishing. There is a lot that large publishers can learn from independents about being nimble as businesses, and there is knowledge, resources and support that larger houses can provide in return. Independent publishing plays an important role in providing variety, diversity and choice to readers, it is imperative that as an industry they are able to continue offering that choice and that their businesses are able to remain sustainable on the other side of the crisis.

Ultimately, I think we need to work together – not only to be good publishers but also to create a strong industry. The more we talk and engage with each other, the faster we can share knowledge, adapt, and progress. There is always more to learn and fostering an industry culture that encourages everyone to do this, not just at the executive level but throughout the business, will make us work smarter and be more resilient.

This is an exceptionally difficult time for many in the book trade, whether that’s independent booksellers struggling to keep afloat or small presses facing difficulties accessing government support. What can we take away from this experience and will it change publishing for the better?

It’s very difficult to start drawing conclusions so soon. Although it feels like we’ve had a lifetime in lockdown, the reality is it has only been just over a couple of months. This lockdown has, no doubt, accelerated change in our working practices and the degree to which we rely on digital services. The longer we work like this, the greater it will influence everyone’s future habits.

What we do have is an opportunity to think about how we can connect with people, how we share knowledge and experience, and how we sustain diversity in our publishing and our retail channels to make books accessible to all.

I don’t know if it will change publishing for the better, but it certainly will change. For many people and for businesses, it’s undeniable that the pandemic has presented challenges and hardships that cannot be described as positive experiences. Change is inevitable. What we do have is an opportunity to think about how we can connect with people, how we share knowledge and experience, and how we sustain diversity in our publishing and our retail channels to make books accessible to all. We don’t want a monopoly in either our publishing or retail environment. As an industry we curate books for everyone and it’s important that we continue to provide readers with choice in their stories and the channels through which they reach them.

Ultimately, we are all in this together, so there is no better time to facilitate conversation and sharing of knowledge.

And, finally, we launched the #MyThreeBooks challenge in April. Name one book you loved as a child, a book you love right now, and one you can’t wait to read.

As a child my favourite book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I used to always check the back of my wardrobe in case another world might appear and for a few moments I could escape the real world.

A book I’m loving right now would have to be The Phonebox at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina which our new Manilla Press imprint is publishing this year. Its poetic language does an incredible job of conveying raw human emotion. It manages to be both simple and complex in its delivery – it’s a beautiful book.

I can’t wait to read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo – it’s at the top of my pile and I’m excited to get stuck in.