Q&A with Publisher of BlueBird Imprint Carole Tonkinson

By   John Bond 5 min read

We spoke to Carole Tonkinson, Founder and Publisher of Pan Macmillan’s Bluebird: Books for Life imprint, which focuses on self-improvement books. Before this, Carole was Publisher for Harper Nonfiction. She gave us a little insight on what she wished she’d known when she started, the massive success of Joe Wicks’ Lean in 15, and how magazine publishing affected her approach to book publishing.

Image result for Carole Tonkinson1. You started off your career in magazine publishing. How do you think this background has influenced your career in non-fiction book publishing?

 I think starting off in magazines helped me be more responsive to trends, which is very helpful in non-fiction book publishing. The trends now are faster and more furious than ever so it’s helpful to jump on them on the upswing since they have a relatively short life.

Magazines also prepared me to work to quick turn-around times and deadlines. Being first to market can be a great advantage, and the pace of magazines really helped me have a can-do approach to even the tightest of deadlines.

We had a lot of reader feedback in magazines aas well, which I think was helpful in terms of thinking of developing books for specific audiences and markets—and knowing how important it is to get everything just right. One of my myriad jobs at American ELLE was translating recipes cards from the French and I shall never forget the one time I made a small error that meant a chocolate cake did not come out quite right. I learned then and there that a recipe can never be proofread too many times!

Working in magazines was also helpful for appreciating the power of design. A good cover is priceless and I am so incredibly grateful for the creative designers and photographers I’ve been able to work with from Martin Topping in my previous job to being happily reunited with the immensely talented James Annal at Pan Mac.

2. Tell about your role running the new Bluebird imprint at Macmillan.

Running Bluebird in my dream job. In my two decades of publishing,  I’ve picked up valuable skills by working with wonderful and talented people and now in creating this list I can bring all of those skills (and relationships) to bear in a carefully curated collection of titles united by an emotional thread. Bluebird books aim to make the world happier, healthier, more informed, more compassionate and more delicious. It’s amazing to find that in this subject area (united almost by an intention: a desire to help people in their ordinary lives) there is a real sweet spot, a genuine resonance between the books, the authors and the audience–whether it is Eleanor Morgan offering  vivid language and imagery to describe anxiety to fellow sufferers who don’t have that descriptive skill, or Joe Wicks creating accessible and delicious recipes to help people feel more energetic and lean. I am finding that authors are recommending their friends, or know each other. And with our newsletter, readers of one Bluebird book seem to have an interest in most of the rest of the list.

My daytoday role involves a lot of hands-on editing, going to photo shoots, working with authors, photographers and designers. I also work closely with the Bluebird Communications Director Jodie Mullish. In this area of commissioning marketing and editorial are especially aligned and so it’s a really creative and collaborative vision from pitch meeting to publicity campaign. I’m also receiving a lot of submissions from our scout, and sister companies, foreign publishers and agents so there is always a lot to read and think about, which is fun—if sometimes daunting.  We’re just now expanding our team after our launch phase (and some big growth) so that will really help with the load.

3. Why do you think the self-improvement and wellness area of non-fiction publishing continues to be such a high-performing genre?

Self-help has been the biggest genre in publishing worldwide for some time (if not always so in Britain). I think the reason is that we publish ‘need books’ as opposed to ‘want books.’ There are always needs in people’s lives—whether it’s helping their child sleep through the night or having more confidence at work: the needs don’t go away. And right now it’s a wonderful time because the shame around this kind of publishing has largely vanished: we live in an age of Ted Talks and You Tube videos addressing introversion, shyness, and all of those topics. And in terms of health publishing, the explosion of free content (recipes blogs, videos and workouts) seems to have only stimulated the interest. I think the lucky thing for those of us in book publishing is that when people want to learn something they still trust the authority of a book far more than any competing media.

4. You’ve had an absolutely enormous hit with the books of Joe Wicks, The Body Coach. So will all future meg-selling book brands develop out of already established platforms and networks ? Is there still a place for the book which comes out of the left field based on an editorial hunch? 

Well, Joe only had 75, 000 Instagram followers when we signed him up, and no tv exposure, so I wouldn’t say he had a huge platform established. I think there are quite a few books that have been bought on a similar basis (just under a 100k social media followers) that haven’t quite worked. So I think that editorial hunch is still at play and that we are making those decisions even when people have a following. But definitely. I really love the success of left-field entrants like Norwegian Wood or even the whole colouring book craze. It’s quite a democratic time in the industry because with online retailing the barriers between the reader and the content have never been so permeable. I really believe a good idea or piece of writing can cut through now and gain momentum in a way that hasn’t always been possible.

5. Looking back, what advice would you now give the Carole Tonkinson who was just about to start her career in editorial commissioning?

Trust your gut. Yes, we have a plethora of data and we need to bring our minds to bear on that,  but the real things I regret in my career are when I didn’t listen hard enough to my instincts. When I first moved here, I desperately tried not to be ‘too American’ and I let a few really terrific U.S. buy-ins slip through my fingers (especially if English colleagues were sniffy about them). I’d also say, and this sounds trite but, ‘just be yourself.’ The more I bring my true passions and interests into my work, the better things seem to go.

John Bond
John Bond
John has been involved in publishing for more than thirty years. He held senior positions at Penguin and at HarperCollins, where he was on the main board for nine years, running sales, marketing and publishing divisions including the 4th Estate imprint and their stable of award-winning authors such as Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen and Nigel Slater. He co-founded Whitefox in 2012 on the principle that the future of successful publishing would be based upon external managed services and agile, creative collaboration with the highest quality specialists. Nothing that has happened since has dissuaded him of this view.