As the CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, Kristin Cochrane is well positioned to gauge the impact that Covid-19 and the fight for racial justice have had on publishing this year. She spoke with PW in early September about the greatest challenges facing the industry.
Booksellers have been especially impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. How has this affected the way PRH sells books?
Although this has been a year unlike any other for our company and our industry, the urge to do all that we can to support our retailers and our authors through this crisis has sharpened our collective focus in energizing and incredibly positive ways. As we were forced to adapt to the many challenges coming at us, it led to new ways of working, and much of what we’ve done will serve our books and authors well into the future. Throughout this crisis we’ve truly worked flat-out to support all of our partners. Our efforts include promotional campaigns, events series, operational problem-solving, sharing consumer and market sales insights, and help with key title assortments as readers moved quickly from one trend to another, turned to books for so many of their personal and family needs, and sometimes searched out new places to buy books. Our sales reps offered personalized support on everything from ordering to helping with deliveries.
It has been so inspiring to see how adaptive Canadian booksellers have been throughout this whole crisis, with many of them launching online stores, establishing curbside pick-up and home delivery, boosting their social media presence, and launching websites for the first time. Toronto chain Book City, for example, now offers local delivery for the first time in their 25-year history. Another beloved Toronto indie, Type Books, quickly found online ways to do what they do so well as booksellers: handselling. Quebec bookseller Drawn & Quarterly started shipping across Canada and also switched to running their wonderful book clubs online, and, in Manitoba, McNally Robinson paired books with curated merchandise.
And what of Indigo, the dominant bookstore chain in the country?
Indigo has long had a strong online presence, but with their stores abruptly forced to close, they worked ceaselessly to get books to readers as demand swelled. We partnered with them on premier virtual events including with our authors Margaret Atwood and Jann Arden to help drive consumer awareness of their website, and coordinated marketing for many titles, including those featured in their “best of the year so far,” Heather’s Picks, and Staff Picks lists. Our sales team, supply chain team, and insights team were in daily touch to provide, we hope, unparalleled customer service during this time of great disruption, during which Indigo’s customers reaffirmed the central place of books in their lives.
Of the more than 200 virtual events and promotions you’ve done, are there any in particular that stand out to you personally?
One of our initiatives I’m proudest of, for the way it brought together our retailers, authors, and readers, is a wonderful online campaign called Indie Feature Friday. Each week this summer we spotlighted a different BIPOC-owned or advocacy-focused independent bookstore, bringing their owners together in conversation with our authors who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, including Ian Williams, David Chariandy, and Vivek Shraya. These events served as such a strong reminder of the essential connection between authors and the retailers who support their work, and of the important role any bookseller plays within their community. This series culminated in a celebration for Canadian Independent Bookstore Day, marked this year at the end of August, at a time when these stores needed as much attention and light shone on them as possible.
How confident are you in the future of the book business in the months ahead?
As ever, books are more resilient than many give them credit for, and this crisis period and our current road to recovery shows that loud and clear. It will be a critical fall and holiday season for us, but we have the strongest possible offerings from a range of beloved authors and exciting new voices. With the creativity and ingenuity of my colleagues, who have committed to pulling out all the stops for our authors and with our book retailers, who have done so much to make books available and offer their customers a safe and healthy shopping environment, I’m confident we will finish this year on a high note. Earlier this year it was harder, for sure, to be this optimistic.
As a leader, what is the impact of moving staff to remote work?
Our first priority has been to protect the health and safety of our employees and their loved ones. We decided to work from home before the government recommended it. Working remotely in the midst of a public health crisis has been challenging for us all, from disrupted workflows and less-than-ideal home “offices” to the loss of the togetherness and serendipity that being at the office can create. My appreciation and admiration is directed especially at the parents and caregivers who have been managing a truly extraordinary level of stress for months, juggling so much at once.
For all of us, I think the hardest piece to navigate, in a situation defined by isolation and uncertainty, is retaining the sense of community that we all enjoy when working together in the office. While we look forward to being back in the office when it’s safe to return, I’ve looked for ways to gather online more frequently and for our employees to hear from me more often to ensure we are maintaining a sense of connection. Our teams have also come together in new and different ways, ensuring we are staying on top of trends in the market, responding to consumer demand signals, and surfacing backlist opportunities.
Do you have a set of priorities for the next six to 12 months? Can you describe them and how you hope to address them?
We remain focused on our existing growth priorities, some of which include audiobooks, international sales, and children’s publishing. We continue to invest in data and insights, bringing valuable information to retailers and market research projects to agents and industry partners. And, despite severe challenges with Covid and the printer capacity issues, we’ve doubled down on our supply chain operations to maintain our best-in-class shipping and ensure every order is fulfilled as quickly as possible so that our retailers can meet their customer demand. Further, the parallel health and social crises that have emerged this summer have led us to reflect deeply on our commitment to our colleagues’ wellness and safety—not only physical, but psychological and communal as well. Employee well-being and inclusion form a core pillar of our mission and values, and ensuring that all colleagues are secure, respected, and empowered to bring their full selves to work is fundamental to our success as an employer and as a publisher. We are publicly releasing progress reports on the ongoing work we are doing to build racial and social equity within our company, our publishing, and our community. This is not a box-checking exercise for us, but a process to ensure the changes we make take permanent root in our culture and our community. For utmost transparency and accountability, we’ll continue to share our progress.
Please tell us about any personal favorites among PRH Canada titles this fall?
We Have Always Been Here is one of the best memoirs I read last year. It was the winner of this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m thrilled to see Samra Habib get wider readership. The power of what she shares in her beautifully written story about her life as a queer Muslim woman is important and inspiring reading for everyone. The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, activist and journalist Desmond Cole’s book on anti-Black racism and Black resistance, is timely reading for Canadians and a steady national bestseller since its publication in January. This book and Desmond’s important voice and activism have been an essential source of education, information, and strength for many in this country over the past several months. Empire of Wild—Cherie Dimaline’s eerie, wildly entertaining, and thought-provoking novel and Indigo’s #1 Book of 2019—is out in a stunning new paperback package this September. The Barnabus Project is a heartwarming and totally charming picture book by beloved artists the Fan Brothers—with a bonus Fan, Devin—with a timely message of bravery and inclusivity. I laughed, I cried, and I went back to the beginning after reading it the first time. An instant classic.
And Canadians of a certain age remember Terry Fox’s inspiring attempt to run across the country raising awareness and money for cancer research. Those who came after grew up taking part in the national runs that still mark Terry’s enormous impact. To mark the 40th anniversary of Terry’s cross-country marathon, we’re publishing Forever Terry, a collection of letters by those whose lives he touched edited by his younger brother Darrell Fox, and Terry Fox and Me, a kids’ book celebrating the power of friendship and hope in the face of adversity, written by Mary Beth Leatherdale and illustrated by Milan Pavlovi.