The OM Interview with Caroline Hill-Trevor, Publisher
Caroline attended Queen Mary’s between 1973 and 1978. She is the Head of Book Selection and Purchasing at BookTrust , the UK’s biggest reading charity. BookTrust works with local authorities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, via children’s centres, schools, libraries and health professionals, to get families reading for pleasure.
We spoke to Caroline about her time at Queen Mary’s and the influence it had on her later life and publishing career.
What was your first impression of Queen Mary’s?
I was only eight when I started at Duncombe Park and I remember that it seemed very big and very far from my home in North Wales. However, it really didn’t take long for me to settle into life at Queen Mary’s and I was very happy there.
How would you describe your time at Queen Mary’s?
I would describe it as being a very successful and enjoyable experience. Queen Mary’s was a great school for me: I have so many happy memories – I adored the library and was a real bookworm, reading huge numbers of books each term, which is perhaps not surprising to learn, given my choice of career!
I loved riding with Mr Barker, playing lacrosse, and keeping my pet guinea pig Treacle in the Pet Club. One of my fondest memories is of us all taking our eiderdowns (we didn’t have duvets back then) down to the Saloon to watch a film on Saturday evenings, I felt very grown up watching The Man Who Never Was and talked about it for years!
Looking back, we had such a rich and wide range of extra-curricular activities – from pottery, pets, and music, to sport, riding and the freedom to play in the incredible grounds. We were always encouraged to give everything a go and it helped us develop a huge amount of independence and creativity. To this day I remember the Nature Diaries that we had to compile each summer – I did one on birds, another on farm animals and one on fish; I won the Chamberlain Cup and I can still recall some of the facts I learned all those years ago.
Who were the most influential members of staff?
Mr Peet, the headmaster, was very kind and encouraging, and he really listened to us. Mr Burnham was a brilliant history teacher and looking back, he was very influential, as I went on to study History A level and then read History at Durham. I really enjoyed his lessons which always had a sense of theatre about them.
What were the biggest lessons you learned during your time?
Independence – being at Queen Mary’s, a long way from home, gave me the ability to get on with things by myself, gain confidence and manage my own life.
Which friends are you still in touch with today?
I see my cousin Susannah Jowitt and occasionally Suzannah Starkey and also Rosie Alison, as our paths often crossed through our work. My previous role selling film rights for books meant that we saw each other through Rosie’s work as a film and TV producer and at various industry events we invariably ended up chatting about our school days! Miranda Thompson-Schwab was at Durham with me too.
How did you embark on your career?
I had no idea about publishing, what it was, or what it entailed, but I always had a huge love of reading. I initially started off working at Foyles Bookshop, under the indomitable Christina Foyle, which was a steep learning curve! From there I moved to Heinemann Young Books in the role of Editorial Assistant. It was the early days of Apple Macs and I learned lots of skills in this role and even had my first shot at writing books: I wrote several of the Fireman Sam series, including Fireman Sam and the Cheeky Cat, Fireman Sam and the Farm Fire and Fireman Sam Lost in the Fog.
After a while in this role, I moved into selling rights, mostly translation rights; I was keen to travel and good at languages and this job meant that I could travel the world, meeting publishers and selling translation rights in children’s books into many different languages. I moved up to become Rights and Contracts Director at Scholastic. I loved this role as I got to know authors, illustrators and other publishers. Working to a strict budget was a challenge I enjoyed; I met fascinating people, many of whom have become friends, and worked in Japan, Korea, all over Europe and the USA.
Following this, I went freelance for a while and then my current role at BookTrust came up, which is essentially my dream job. I’m now responsible for buying four million books a year, to give to children under different gifting programmes and campaigns. As the UK’s biggest reading charity, with our new strategy we are working on targeting disadvantaged families to bring all the benefits of reading for pleasure to those who could benefit most. I am very committed to encouraging a love of reading in the early years, a reading habit established early is the biggest driver for social mobility, far more so than socio-economic factors. Reading helps with educational attainment of course, but so much more – mirrors and windows, it offers insights into understanding our world and enables children to see others’ worlds; helps with imagination, creativity, empathy, sharing, confidence in the world around us, and it has huge mental health benefits. All children are given books at birth and when starting school. We also have twelve different schemes and programmes currently running, for example, our Letterbox Club is for looked after children, and is a collection of books especially curated so that children in care are able to enjoy reading without fear of being upset by certain topics.
All the books I purchase are specially selected for their specific purpose, with independent experts, families and children all involved in the process.
Can you describe a typical day?
No two days are the same but a typical day would probably start with clearing emails and talking to colleagues and then some development work. This could be a programme design meeting, where we lay out lots of books and discuss what we’re trying to achieve and the target audience. I have to read lots of children’s books – it’s a tough job! I might then have a meeting with a publisher, who will tell us what they have coming up in the next few months – I don’t always know what I’m looking for, so I have to keep up-to-date with new developments in children’s books, ideas, trends, debut authors and illustrators – everything really. Later in the day there might then be a book launch event, which I enjoy as it’s a good way to catch up with my many friends in the book world, and it is so important that we support the work of authors, illustrators and publishers, and celebrate new books when they are published.
What do you think makes a good book stand out?
A really good story. I want children to read for pleasure, so for me a good book needs to be a page turner, very exciting and really imaginative, giving children a view to another world. A good book will also be diverse and inclusive, offering something that every child can identify with.
What is the best part of your job?
Choosing books that will change children’s futures.
What is the biggest achievement in your career?
I have had a varied career – with lots of highs in the sales side of publishing, but I feel that this current role is exactly where I want to be and that all my experience has culminated in this brilliant role, which is very satisfying.
What advice would you give your thirteen-year-old self if you could travel back in time?
Take your own path – don’t be led to do what your friends are doing. Look far and wide and follow your own interests and passions.
Caroline will be attending our Futures Forum on 4 March, 2023 to speak to pupils about a career in publishing. We look forward to welcoming her back to Queen Mary’s and hearing her advice.
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