The power of storytelling: in conversation with Perminder Mann, CEO at Bonnier Books UK

This week, I was reminded of the power of stories during the first meeting of the MBS book club. What started as a discussion of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss ended as an honest reflection between colleagues on friendship, relationships and mental health. One person who knows the importance of stories is Perminder Mann. Perminder is CEO of Bonnier Books UK, one of the country’s leading publishing houses, publishing across adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction. Last week, I had the privilege of catching up with her to discuss the role of publishing in society, how to modernise a business, and her experience of being the only working-class woman of colour to lead a major publisher.

“I had no real aspiration to join the publishing industry,” Perminder told me last Friday when we caught up over Zoom. “In fact, I wasn’t really aware of it as an industry.” The eldest of eight children, Perminder grew up in a strict family in west London. Her parents, first-generation immigrants, were both labourers. “The only time I was allowed out the house alone was to go to the library, so I relished those visits. Our house was so busy and I loved the quietness. I would come home each time carrying my quota of ten books.”

Like countless children before her, Perminder loved fiction and found escapism in reading. “I’d shut the door and open a book to learn about the world or be transported to another place. My favourite was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe… I’d try my luck in my own wardrobe every time!”

“I’d shut the door and open a book to learn about the world or be transported to another place. My favourite was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe… I’d try my luck in my own wardrobe every time!”

Perminder became the first in her family to attend university. “To be honest, the reason I went was because I’d always been told that as soon as I stopped studying I would have to get married,” she reflected. “I grew up in a culture where it wasn’t an option for a woman to be on her own.” And so, applying what she calls ‘delay tactics’, Perminder got a degree in theatre and media, before entering the world of work.

Publishing, media and the arts have historically been considered a difficult industry to crack. Traditionally located in expensive capital cities, and underpinned by unpaid internships and low-salary entry-level jobs, the barriers to entry are high. For many – including Perminder upon leaving university – they can be insurmountable.

“I applied for an internship at Channel 4,” she recalled, “but back then the internships were unpaid so I simply couldn’t afford it. I planned to work for a year, earn some money and then come back. But of course that never happened.” Inspiringly, Perminder has come full circle, and in her role as CEO is dismantling the structures that kept her from entering the industry all those years ago.

It was through a sales role at Macmillan that Perminder began working in publishing. “On my first day I was like a child walking into a sweet factory,” she told me, “I remember gazing at all the books and thinking ‘I can make a career out of selling books… yes please!’” So began a nearly three-decade career in publishing, spanning major trade publishers like Macmillan to independent houses. In 2009, Perminder joined Bonnier Publishing, and was made chief executive of the company, renamed to Bonnier Books UK, in 2018.

The image shows a bookshelf at Bonnier Books' offices.
Perminder was made CEO at Bonnier Books UK in 2018.

In her time as CEO, Perminder has transformed the business, leading it to profitability and lifting it to sit at number seven in the UK. Importantly, she has brought in progressive new policies which reimagine models of working and have had a permanent positive impact on company culture.

“We’ve increased the salaries of our interns, we have a market-leading parental leave policy in place and we’re one of the first companies to have introduced a pregnancy loss policy. One of the first things I did as CEO was introduce flexible hours. And then when the pandemic hit, I used it as a catalyst to bring in proper flexible working.”

Central to Perminder’s leadership style is her role as a mother. “The reason I joined Bonnier in the first place is that I wanted to spend more time with my kids,” she said. “Before I took my first role here, I was doing lots of international travel. I needed a position that offered flexible working. So I’ve never had to give it much thought, these changes feel very instinctive to me.

“We’re a creative industry – so it makes complete sense to give people the freedom to work how and when they like.” 

“We’re a creative industry – so it makes complete sense to give people the freedom to work how and when they like. I believe that if you bring the right people in, who are happy, trusted and empowered, they will deliver.”

The image shows bookshelves showing a variety of fiction and non-fiction books

It is fascinating to hear Perminder speak about the publishing industry today, and the changing customer expectations which have pushed the space to evolve. “I always say we’re a content agency,” Perminder told me, “and a book is just one format. Today, we like to build our authors into brands, and we take a 360-degree view of how we tell their stories. It could be audio, visual, podcasts, events or social media.”

This approach has democratised the publishing space, making reading more accessible and encouraging new demographics to connect with books. I asked Perminder if this phenomenon can be felt internally in the industry. Are teams more diverse?

“First of all,” she said, “I hate the word diversity, which immediately labels people as different. I think the words we should be using are representation and inclusion.

“As for publishing,” she continued, “the industry has come a long way. There used to be a lot of nepotism and very little variety in the ‘types’ of people hired. When I first started my job at Macmillan, there was no one there who looked or sounded like me. I was desperate not to seem different, so I pretended to be someone I wasn’t. I told people I lived in a different area, and even took elocution lessons.”

This urge to conform will feel familiar to many, especially in our consumer sectors where women, people of colour and working-class people are consistently underrepresented in leadership teams. It’s not an easy feeling to shake: even much later in her career, after rising up the ranks to become CEO, Perminder tells me that that she found herself cutting her hair short and wearing different clothes in an effort to meet the industry’s expectations of a leader. “I was the only woman of colour from a working-class background in such a senior position of power in the industry, and I got nervous. But it got to a point where I thought ‘what on earth am I doing… I’m already doing the job!’”

“We’re entering a new era of work in which difference is celebrated – not just in who we are but in how we think, and how we approach problems.”

Today, Perminder considers it her ‘moral duty’ to be herself and to lead with authenticity. “I have a responsibility to be me, so I can give permission for others to be themselves. We’re entering a new era of work in which difference is celebrated – not just in who we are but in how we think, and how we approach problems. It’s the coming together of different perspectives and what comes out of that debate which is the exciting part.”

Across the industry, publishing houses are recognising the power of inclusive teams, and putting in place formal strategies to drive up representation of minority groups. Progress is slow, but we agree that meaningful and sustainable change takes time.

As our conversation comes to a close, I’m reminded how much influence the publishing industry has on our society. “Books play a huge role in people’s lives,” Perminder reflects. “They teach empathy, provide insight into other worlds and show people how they fit into society. Books change lives… they certainly changed mine.”

At a time when our communities have never felt more divided, publishing houses have a serious responsibility: they determine the stories we read, which in turn inform our view of the world. Speaking with Perminder left me hopeful for the future. As a role model – not only for working-class women of colour but to anyone looking to modernise a business – I can’t think of a better person to take on this responsibility.

Quick fire questions 

Where we you born? Southall, West London

Where did you go to school? Featherstone, Southall.

Who is your family? I’m married with two children: an 18 year old son and 16 year old daughter. I’m also the eldest of the seven sisters, and have one brother.

Favourite book? C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Who are your mentors? I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by many different people in my career – in both an official and unofficial capacity and I try to give back as much as possible by mentoring myself. More recently, I’ve developed a mentoring relationship with a woman who I have long respected and who built the most incredible career in the publishing industry: I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn from her.

What would you like your legacy to be? Leading a team that has transformed a small trade publishing house into a modern and sustainable publisher, competing on the World English Language platform and where every book, every reader and every perspective matters.

Liana Osborne | | @TheMBSGroup