In conversation with Toby Marshall



Toby Marshall is Head of The School of Life Press, where he is responsible for all areas of the publishing business.  After gaining a Master’s degree in Publishing at the London College of Communication he cut his publishing teeth working at a variety of publishers across a wide range of sectors including design, lifestyle, reference, legal, licensing, children’s, stationery, custom publishing and most areas between.  In 2016 he was included in ‘The Bookseller Rising Stars’, a list of publishing industry future leaders in the UKs leading trade publication.

What does a day in your life look like at The School of Life?

My day now, in what I hope is the late stage pandemic, looks a little different to my typical TSOL (as we call it) day in 2019! It probably involves more biscuits and sadly less cycling, but overall the tasks have not changed hugely. I am responsible for TSOL Press as a whole, so my daily tasks include looking at all elements of what we do, from creative to sales and production to stock management. We also produce a range of products which complement our books, so the day can be quite varied. I will regularly spend time in discussion with our content team on new areas of focus and I am lucky to oversee a dedicated and hugely talented team who are the driving force behind the beautiful things we produce.

The School of Life Library

I'm a big fan of the books and have several on my bookshelf. How do you decide which subjects to focus on when publishing new books? 

At TSOL our ideas are broadly focused across six core areas. These topics, or themes, together cover the elements required to lead lives that are more self-aware, more resilient and calmer. The themes are: Self-Knowledge, Relationships, Work, Calm, Sociability and Leisure & Culture. 

When it comes to new titles, our content team work to provide insight and guidance across all aspects of those areas, in accessible and engaging ways. Each title addresses a need and is designed to help the reader overcome challenges. For example, in 2020 we published The Couple’s Workbook, which, while being a book on relationships, contains exercises that any couple can do together to help them face the hurdles that will no doubt present themselves in a long-standing relationship. This title was intended to be something a couple uses together, prompting conversations and forgiveness, helping couples approach subjects that may not commonly be broached outside of a therapist’s session.

I suppose that is a bit of a longwinded way of saying that we find subjects to talk about, broadly within our six key areas, with a focus on helping people live more fulfilled lives.

What does the process of putting together a book entail?

It depends on the complexity of the project, be that a relatively straightforward essay book or a highly illustrated children’s title, but it starts with discussing ideas as a team. Once the topic and general direction of a title is identified, we will start planning out how we want to deliver the content, using the visual aspects and the quality of the physical book to best get the message across. 

An example that comes to mind is our children’s title Happy, Healthy Minds, which is a title on emotional literacy – a children’s guide to emotional wellbeing. For this title we really wanted to capture the subject in fun and beautiful illustrations that demonstrated the feelings being described to help children fully grasp the concept, so an early job was to find an illustrator who we felt would be able to convey the message whilst holding a child’s attention. 

We then work out the best format to suit the subject, word count and overall layout style that we’re aiming for. This is led by our Publisher, Srijana, who is brilliant at visualising where she wants a title to go, and then inspiring the designers and illustrators to bring out their best work.

What's the most memorable School of Life book that you've worked on and why?

What comes to mind first when answering this question is actually an audiobook. In July 2020 we released our first audio titles which, after nearly 16 years working in publishing, was something completely new to me, with lots of new considerations and things to work out. When thinking about narration, how fast is too fast, how long a pause do we need here or there, is the emphasis falling in the right place and what do we do when there is an image, or a table within the text? Planning out our audio range and starting to produce key backlist and selected frontlist titles has been an interesting project. By the end of 2021 we will have 8 titles in audio, with at least a further 6 coming in 2022. The list will continue to grow which is really exciting and a great way of engaging with new audiences.

On Confidence, available in audiobook format

If you could recommend one School of Life book to someone, which one would it be?

What They Forgot To Teach You At School, which is publishing in North America in October, is probably the title I would chose. It’s a collection of essential emotional lessons that guides the reader through important areas that we have been left to work out ourselves – things we were not taught at school. These are lessons on really important subjects that touch all of our lives – things like how to trust people, how to cope with anxiety and who to start a relationship with. 

What are you currently reading? And what's on your must-read list for these coming months?

I recently finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a unique re-telling of an event (if you can call WW2 ‘an event’) that I find fascinating. It was not at all what I expected, and I couldn’t put it down. I have just started Jews Don’t Count by British comedian David Baddiel, which I am finding insightful, complex and funny (as is his way). It’s a title that may not get much attention on your side of the Atlantic, but that should. After that I’m not sure. I’m a sucker for a detective story, so I think something else by Ross Macdonald might be on the cards.

About The School of Life

The School of Life is an organization built to help us find calm, self-understanding, resilience and connection - especially during troubled times. They place an emphasis on the need to understand ourselves better, so that we can secure serenity and make optimally reliable decisions, particularly around love and work.