Interview with Kristin Cochrane, CEO, Penguin Random House Canada
“As we were forced to adapt to the many challenges coming at us, from bookstore closures to a changing marketplace, we created new ways of working that will serve our books, our retailers, and our authors well into the future.”
What have been your biggest learnings from COVID-19?
The extraordinary circumstances of this year, and our efforts to do all that we can to support our retailers, authors, and readers through this crisis, sharpened our collective focus in energizing and extraordinarily positive ways. As we were forced to adapt to the many challenges coming at us, from bookstore closures to a changing marketplace, we created new ways of working that will serve our books, our retailers, and our authors well into the future. In particular, the parallel health and social crises this summer have led us to take action to foster greater racial and social equity within our company, our publishing, and our community, and to make our community at work a more secure, respectful, and inclusive place for our colleagues. We have work to do on many fronts, from interrogating our hiring practices and developing a pipeline of more diverse publishing talent, to further diversifying what we publish and how—work that is fundamental to our success as an employer, and as a publisher, and that will be part of everything we do. As we head into the fourth quarter, I’m excited by the strengths of our publishing, supported by an equally strong team of publishing experts.
What has inspired you during this time?
So, so, so much.
Working remotely in the midst of a public health crisis has been challenging for us all. My appreciation and admiration are directed especially at the parents and caregivers who have been managing a truly extraordinary level of stress for months, juggling so much at once. While we’ve missed the special sense of community that comes from office life, people have gone to great lengths to simulate communities where possible—our office book club meets more regularly than it did pre-pandemic; such is the desire for us to connect around our shared love of reading. I’ve also heard of many teams meeting for safely distanced park visits and holding Zoom happy hours (some with themed costumes!), and of course our colleagues have found many new and sometimes better ways to collaborate around the opportunities presented by trends in the market, responding to consumer demand and surfacing backlist opportunities to jump on.
Canadian booksellers have my utmost respect for the massive shifts they’ve made to reach readers from the moment stores were ordered to close in late March. More than fifty indies went straight to curbside pickup and home deliveries. Decades-old stores that had long questioned the need for e-commerce launched websites. All sorts of creative and inspiring promotions were launched locally and nationally, and these will surely remain part of how they do business going forward. Our largest national retailer, Indigo, moved swiftly to meet customer demand online after its stores were forced to close. Star authors such as Margaret Atwood and Jann Arden did Instagram Live events to help drive awareness of Indigo.ca. Indigo now has curbside pickup as well, and a new partnership with Instacart heading into this critical fall season.
Our authors have been immensely patient as we worked with them to revise publication timelines and rearrange book tours. They’ve participated in more than two hundred virtual events, thanks to the skilled efforts of our publicists and events team, and have been a source of entertainment and comfort for countless readers who continue to turn to books to get them through these long months.
What are some challenges you, personally as CEO, and your local territory have been facing?
We have often been the envy of other territories, given our healthy market mix of physical and online retail, with Indigo operating more than two hundred stores nationally. Of course, this meant that when all stores were forced to close in March, the impact on our business was significant. In response, we’ve worked flat-out to support all of our partners in a collective effort to get through this together.
The challenge I continue to face is the sense of connection to my colleagues, whose vigour, creativity, and love of book publishing energize and inspire me. Our open-plan office allows me, day to day, the ability to say hi, quickly check the mood or spirit of a team or individual, get book recommendations, and just generally connect. Despite everyone’s resourcefulness in finding other means of keeping us connected, it’s the texture and the nuance and the sparks of those hallway conversations, which are impossible to replicate on a Zoom or Webex call, that I miss most.
To tackle this, I keep looking for ways to gather even more frequently and deliberately than we did in the office, and for me to have as many connections as possible. Since March 13, when we sent folks home, I’ve written letters. Every three to four weeks, I hold a virtual all-company town hall, at times with guests from the leadership team. I’ve enjoyed the visits I’ve made to various teams over the past months—our sales team, an art meeting with our Young Readers group, a discussion with McClelland & Stewart about their antiracism plan, Zoom happy hours with the design team and one as well with the creative marketing team—and I’ve done my best to stay closely connected to as many people as possible. But if I’m being honest, I rely on that connection even more now than I did before, and I miss walking the halls and hearing the buzz of our office, seeing boxes of newly printed releases from the warehouse being opened, catching recommendations about what was exciting to read over the weekend . . . and so on.
Do you have any advice for our global colleagues?
Be okay with acknowledging that this is tough. It’s so important to remember we’re in this situation without a playbook. We can and should take solace in the work we’ve chosen and its impact on society—by extension of the authors we publish and their work that we help bring to readers, we are helping people to stay informed, entertained, inspired, and connected, and to emerge from the crisis much stronger for it. We can accept that this is difficult, while finding the energy to continue by looking to what’s been best about this time, from our achievements for the future of our business, to the way we’ve supported authors, retailers, readers, and one another through it. Collectively, we have an important part to play in sustaining our communities, and that has helped me stay hopeful and optimistic.