In Canada, the Covid-19 crisis has created daunting challenges for bookstores across the country, from independents to chains, putting strain on the overall health of a vibrant book retail ecosystem. Many bookstores, particularly in Ontario, have spent more days with their doors closed than open. Canadian booksellers have been incredibly adaptive throughout, and it has been inspiring to see how many of them launched online stores, established curbside pickup and home delivery, boosted their social media presence, and launched websites for the first time—all to sustain Canadian readers and authors by continuing to serve as the vital link between them.
Given the crucial importance of the work booksellers do to cultivate that relationship between readers and writers, at Penguin Random House Canada we have wholly dedicated ourselves to supporting our bookselling partners large and small through all the many ups and downs of the pandemic. Bookstores play a crucial role within their communities, where knowledgeable booksellers, often with decades of experience, can curate a collection that fits their community’s interests, recommend a homegrown author for every taste, and champion their favorite reads one book lover to another. They are vibrant places dedicated to connection—both as literal meeting points for readers and for authors, when it’s safe to come together in person, and always as figurative hubs for the sharing of ideas and stories. Canadian fiction writers, poets, children’s authors, historians, and thought leaders all depend on a broad, diverse ecosystem of Canadian booksellers to connect them with their specific readerships. Ensuring not just the survival but the prosperity of this beating heart of our literary community is central to our mission as publishers, and, over the past 18 months, we’ve launched a whole array of initiatives and tactics to help this essential part of our community.
As leaders in the Canadian book industry, we continually highlight the challenges faced by bookstores for Canadian decision-makers. Through the media and direct engagement with government officials, we have and will continue to communicate the essential role bookstores play in the lives of communities, Canadian writers, and Canadians; working with the Canadian Publishers’ Council and the newly founded Canadian Independent Booksellers Association, we collaborate on a number of initiatives to support our industry. Following the conclusion of the Canadian federal election in September, we will work with those in government to strengthen Canadian publishing, support local bookstores and booksellers, and advance policies that increase our capacity to share Canadian stories. This includes working with our partners to advocate for policies that support the continued sustainability of bookselling in a changing marketplace, such as a subsidized postal rate for books in Canada that mirrors the media rate available in the U.S.
Beyond advocacy, we’ve looked for ways to channel material support to those retail partners who need it most. Our Covid Relief Fund provided a one-time credit to eligible booksellers to help sustain them, while the addition of a “Shop Local” button on our website made it easier for readers to support local bookstores even while they were closed to in-store browsing. As for Indigo, our two teams have never worked more closely together: from sales and supply chain to insights and marketing, colleagues kept in frequent, often daily touch with their counterparts at this crucial partner to support its operations and keep on getting books into the hands of readers without interruption.
Finally, we have taken every opportunity to shine a spotlight on the distinctive parts played by all bookstores in helping their unique communities thrive. In June 2020, we launched a summerlong conversation series called Indie Feature Fridays featuring authors who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color speaking with bookstore owners who are BIPOC or run advocacy-focused stores. In the fall, we kept going with our National Indie Event series, which has brought in-demand authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Souvankham Thammavongsa to viewers across Canada and beyond; our first season attracted almost 2,000 people to register by purchasing a book from one of nearly 100 participating indie retailers. This spring, we celebrated our second virtual Canadian Independent Bookstore Day with a campaign anchored by the launch of our Indie Spotlight Sunday series, which has seen us hand over control of our Instagram channel to a participating store every weekend to help them showcase their spaces and book recommendations for a wider audience. And with Indigo, we’ve partnered on more than 60 premier events featuring the likes of Margaret Atwood, Eden Robinson, Kevin Kwan, and Brit Bennett.
The future of book retail continues to evolve, and we are committed to supporting all our retail partners to ensure we can maintain a vibrant and robust ecosystem that will benefit booksellers, readers, and publishers, now and in the future.
Robert Wheaton is the chief strategy and operations officer of Penguin Random House Canada.