By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘We Refocused Our Media Efforts’Our popular Coronavirus Worklife series has evolved along with various publishing markets’ understanding of the COVID-19 contagion’s effects on book production, publishers’ operations, retail channels, distribution work-arounds, and consumer response.
And the world’s book markets are at many different stages, of course, in terms of mitigation efforts, economic struggles, attempted reopenings, and—most important for all of us to watch—the caseloads and public-health responses to the novel coronavirus for which the world still has no proven major therapeutic responses and no vaccine. Surely it goes without saying—but we’ll say it anyway—the pandemic is not “over,” as much as we’d all like it to be, and consistent, alert caution is still extremely important.
We look to Canada today, and to Lisa Lyons Johnston, familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers as is the president and publisher of Kids Can Press, part of Corus Entertainment based in Toronto. Kids Can Press is Canada’s largest independent children’s publisher and the 2007 recipient of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair prize for Publisher of the Year in North America.
As it happens, today (June 5) is a special one at the publishing house, as its new documentary based on the CitizenKid collection of books on global issues will air nationally in Canada on YTV, a Corus specialty channel for youth. CitizenKid: Earth Comes First from White Pine Pictures in Toronto highlights four Canadian youth activists who share a passion for making the world a better place, and we’ll hear more about it from Johnston in the course of our interview.
Telecommuting: Lakeside to Sunroom
Stand by to cope with some jealousy. Kids Can Press operates from the Corus broadcast center in downtown Toronto, overlooking Lake Ontario. The publisher occupies, Johnston says, approximately a quarter of the open-concept fourth floor of the lakeside complex, with 28 full-time staffers working in its publishing, editorial, production, design, marketing, sales, and rights departments.
Recent news about the virus in Canada has included Sandrine Rastello’s report for Bloomberg that Montreal has been particularly hard hit with fatalities nearing the 4,000 mark, more than half the overall nation’s death toll, the virus affecting the elderly population with particular force. By stark contrast, Amanda Coletta wrote on Tuesday (June 2) at the Washington Post about how the Arctic Canadian territory of Nunavut, a population of 39,000, has had no COVID-19 cases, not one.
This morning, in its 3:33 a.m. ET update (0733 GMT), the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports a Canadian caseload of 95,269 infections, this places the market in 15th place in the world for caseloads, with 7,717 deaths in a population of 38 million.
And we begin our exchange by asking Johnston how Kids Can Press is operating at this point.
‘Signal Boosts’ for Promotion
Lisa Lyons Johnston: Most of our staff live in or near Toronto, with some living within roughly a 50-kilometer radius of the office. I usually spend Monday to Thursday at my condo, which is within walking distance to work, but since March I’ve been hunkered down at my home in Dundas, about a two hours’ drive from Toronto. I have a dedicated home office, but often find myself in our sunroom since it’s so bright.
As of March 16, the entire Kids Can Press team began to work from their homes, with varying levels of success, as most were using their own personal laptops or home computers—some sharing with their children now learning from home. By early April, however, Corus IT shipped a new, secure laptop to each of us, suitable for our needs, and by then we’d mastered the art of virtual meetings and other tech details new to many of us. Maintaining connectivity was extremely important, as everyone was transitioning to new working arrangements.
At Corus, we share the fourth floor with Nelvana Studios, the animation company that produces a variety of television series for children, including Agent Binky and The Remarkable Mr. King, which are based on book series published by Kids Can Press.
To keep the production of their shows on schedule, Corus IT, the facilities department, and a small group of Nelvana management and crew members packed up and shipped more than 250 work stations to producers, directors, coordinators, storyboard artists, designers, art teams, riggers, animators, and technical staffers to their various homes. It was a massive undertaking to watch unfold and they managed to accomplish it in three short weeks.
The transition for Kids Can Press was fairly rapid and smooth. The Corus senior executives content team, of which I am a member, had a standing meeting multiple times per week early on. Our Kids Can Press’ senior leadership team had a weekly call. The executive vice president for employees and communications at Corus sent out a regular cadence of updates on the virus along with suggested government resources, and provided webinars with subject-matter experts on health and well-being for all staff across the country.
These were very purposeful. Each webinar spoke to a specific theme based on how employees were feeling.
Overall, we’ve been very aware of the importance of keeping in touch. I tried early on to speak to all of our team members through virtual town halls and since then have been connecting with folks one-on-one via FaceTime for a casual check-in. This has included a call with one of our editorial staffers who started her maternity leave just prior to lockdown, and it was such a delight to meet her little one face-to-face—or as close to it as possible these days.
Of course, it’s not just Kids Can Press’ team that’s been affected by the lockdown. We had 19 new books release this spring, with many authors and illustrators facing the unfortunate fact that their events, media, and launch parties were all cancelled, yet they still had a book to promote. Together we realized we had to pivot and thought the best way to support and promote all of the spring books was to ask the creators to “signal boost” each other via virtual story times.
We rolled out the “Kids Can Press Spring Reading Relay” at the end of March and into April, giving each author or illustrator the opportunity to read from their his or her new book on the social-media channel of their choice and “pass the baton” to introduce a fellow creator with a new book to promote.
Many Kids Can Press creators have gone on to read at festivals that have moved entirely to digital formats and have adapted their event presentations for a virtual audience. We’re learning so much new technology alongside our authors and illustrators, many of whom are offering each other tips and tricks on creating engaging online content.
With teachers and educational institutions making up the bulk of our customer base, we needed to update our fair-use guidelines so that educators could share our books virtually through the bulk of the school year, and direct them to our teaching guides and resource material.
Our sales department curated a Learning from Home catalogue to make navigating our backlist as simple and efficient as possible, and reading lists of books that address the current situation and the emotional needs that many children are facing right now.
For YA students and their teachers, we adapted a printed book club guide that we’d created for our KCP Loft title, In Good Hands: Remarkable Female Politicians from Around the World Who Showed Up, Spoke Out, and Made Change, into a downloadable teacher’s resource.
We refocused our media efforts to have author Stephanie MacKendrick speak about the remarkable women around the world leading the charge to flatten the curve of the pandemic; role models for a new generation of female leaders.
Publishing Perspectives: Is Toronto beginning to return to work? What’s your status regarding lockdowns and other restrictions?
LLJ: In Canada, each province is responsible for mandating restrictions and health and safety measures regarding COVID-19. In Ontario, where we’re located, the emergency measures, which were meant to end on June 2, were just extended for another 28 days to June 30.
Ontario’s emergency measures ban gatherings larger than five people and order the closure of most businesses, including bookstores and libraries. Many bookstores in Toronto have offered delivery and curb-side pick-up since lockdown began.
Schools are closed for the remainder of the school year. With Ontario continuing to report new cases in some regions, the plan is for a regional, phased approach to re-opening.
As part of their ease-back plan, Corus has surveyed all employees to glean what the overall comfort level is regarding the return to working at the office and will be reviewing survey feedback to determine how best to facilitate employee return, being mindful of those who may want to continue to work from home or entertain a combination of both office work and work-from-home arrangements. This is something we can’t rush.
Kids Can Press’ Staff: Handling the Disruptions
PP: Have you had to lay off or furlough any workers?
LLJ: Fortunately, we have not.
PP: Can you quantify or estimate how damaging the effects of the pandemic may be to your business in terms of revenue, number of books you can launch this year, and so on?
LLJ: As with much of the publishing industry worldwide, the spring has been challenging. We’ve definitely been hit hard on the recent list, but we’re optimistic that schools, libraries, booksellers, and our wholesaler operators will be opening up in many places in North America in the fall, and that business will ramp up.
“We’ve definitely been hit hard on the recent list, but we’re optimistic that schools, libraries, booksellers, and our wholesaler operators will be opening up in many places in North America in the fall, and that business will ramp up.”Lisa Lyons Johnston, Kids Can Press
Kids Can Press has strong Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 lists.
PP: Do you anticipate public or governmental support in the form of a subsidy or other response to the pandemic’s economic impact?
LLJ: Kids Can Press receives support from federal and provincial grants from the Canada Book Fund through Canadian Heritage and the Ontario Book Fund and Export Fund through Ontario Creates, as well as funding from the Ontario Arts Council. Canadian Heritage came forward early on with a top-up in the amount of a $500 million commitment [US$372,712] for the arts and culture sectors.
Fortunately, funds from some of these granting bodies were dispersed early in the year, to help in the short term.
The Canadian government made a significant investment as part the Frankfurt 2020 Guest of Honor preparations, including a slate of events programming—featuring appearances from one of our creators—that would have begun in the months leading up to the fair in Germany and during the fair itself. With the news that Frankfurt will not be cancelled, but will be a hybrid version combining in-person and digital events, meetings and programming, we’re anxious to hear whether organizers will consider postponing Canada’s Guest of Honor role to 2021.
PP: How is everyone you work with doing in terms of mood and outlook?
LLJ: We have had the advantage of having a number of successes and bits of good news over the past few weeks, and that’s keeping our mood buoyant.
Today’s premiere airing of CitizenKid: Earth Comes First was originally scheduled to air on Earth Day, April 22, which was during the height of the pandemic, and we felt we needed to be sensitive to that. Instead, the documentary is airing on World Environment Day with the stars doing their media appearances virtually, supported by a social-media campaign of endorsement videos by environmentalist David Suzuki and Toronto mayor John Tory, among others.
Margaret Atwood, a vocal environmentalist, has promised to tweet about it, as well. White Pine will be shopping “CitizenKid TV” as a series to broadcasters worldwide. This special is a pilot of sorts, that we hope will pique international interest.
The CitizenKid collection of books also received a bit of a boost this year with four titles being selected as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Book Club. In May, we partnered with UN Publications to produce virtual story times with the authors of the books, which students, teachers and parents can view from UN Publications’ YouTube channel for a limited time.
Early in the lockdown, I heard from Bonnie Schmidt at Let’s Talk Science [a Canadian national charitable organization that promotes and develops an interest in science and STEM programming for young people].
Bonnie Schmidt was trying to organize the acquisition and distribution of learning materials for vulnerable children in grades 4 through 6 who may not have access to online learning, potentially distributed through Food Banks Canada. She wondered if Kids Can Press had any books and materials to donate and if I could think of any other partners.
Tom Best at First Book Canada immediately came to mind. We’d been in touch recently about a donation we’d made and had learned that they were challenged in distribution by the lockdown. So, I connected these two programs and I’m pleased to report that close to 75,000 brand new STEM books have been donated from a number of Canadian publishers—including Kids Can Press—that will be distributed by more than 100 food banks and other community groups across Canada during the summer. We’re proud to be a part of this initiative. As far as we know it’s the first time Food Banks Canada has included books in their food relief packages
And finally, we just learned that the animated short film The Most Magnificent Thing, based on the book by Ashley Spires which has surpassed half-a-million copies sold, won the Best Short Film for Children Award at Spain’s ANIMAYO Festival, held virtually this year. This brings the total number of awards the film has received to 25.
And even better news, Corus’ Treehouse channel will be broadcasting the film over the Canada Day long weekend across the country.
So, we have much to celebrate at our next virtual town hall.
Self-Isolation After Speaking in London
PP: Lastly, have you had the experience of having a staff member tested positive for COVID-19?
LLJ: We fortunately have no one on our team who has contracted the virus.
Although I never exhibited any symptoms, I decided to self-isolate early in March immediately following a trip to London, in which I spoke at an International Women’s Day event hosted by and at the High Commission of Canada. I made the decision to quarantine after our prime minister’s office announced that Justin Trudeau’s wife Sofie Grégoire Trudeau became ill and tested positive after returning from speaking at the same event.
In fact, I’d shared a stage and mingled with Ms. Grégoire Trudeau at a reception that followed. March 8 seems so long ago, now.
And overall, the publishing and bookselling community is a resilient one, and though it’s been tough on everyone I’m optimistic that we’ll come out stronger on the other side of this. I’m really proud of the Kids Can Press team, who have turned on a dime, learned new skills, and shown incredible resilience through a challenging time.
If You’d Like To Alert Us to Your Plans and Updates
We’re receiving good input from many associates in the world book industry as you can see in our collection of Coronavirus Worklife series. We’d be glad to consider having you join them in telling us about your coronavirus-related news for our international readership. If you’d like us to consider doing an interview with you, contact Porter@PublishingPerspectives.com.
More from Publishing Perspectives on the Canadian market is here, on Canada’s Kids Can Press is here, on children’s books is here, and on screen development of content is here. More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.