Meeting House: Lisa Lyons Johnston

Meeting House: Lisa Lyons Johnston

Publishing Consultant and PublisHer Board Member Emma House interviews inspiring bookwomen Around The World.

Lisa Lyons Johnston is the president and publisher at Canada’s leading children’s book publisher, Kids Can Press, which won the 2017 Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher, North America.

Lyons Johnston oversees Kids Can Press’s publishing operations and the stewardship of signature brands, including the award-winning CitizenKid global issues collection. In 2020, CitizenKid Television debuted as an acclaimed climate change documentarist, with Lyons Johnston as an executive producer. She has led the company’s diversification beyond traditional publishing into new revenue streams.

What attracted you to publishing, and how did you start out?

My career in publishing was due to serendipity. Early in my career, I worked at an edgy marketing and communications agency, but it closed its doors suddenly because the principal had a health issue. I had been ready for a change, and this gave me the space to think and to re-evaluate what I wanted to do next and how I might have impact but differently. By pure luck, HarperCollins was looking for a marketing director from outside the industry who could bring a fresh perspective, and someone who also who knew quite a bit about hockey — they had North American rights to hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky’s first book and other hockey books in the pipeline (hockey books are bestsellers in Canada). So, I was at the right place in my life when the right professional opportunity came along, opening the door to a varied career that has been so incredibly rewarding.

My career has not been a carefully planned road map — more the scenic route than the express.”

How did you progress to become president and publisher? Did you encounter any obstacles?

I’ve been asked a version of this question before, and I’ve wished that I could share that my career path was a brilliantly executed master plan. In some ways it was. My strategy when I started in media was to keep searching out opportunities that would challenge me, even scare me out of my comfort zone. But my career has not been a carefully planned road map — more the scenic route than the express.

I moved around as a variety of increasingly senior opportunities presented themselves: from agency work to a multinational book publisher to the founding team at Atlantis Broadcasting [a Canadian media company that launched and operated cable channels including HGTV and Food Network], to the new management team through the merger of Alliance and Atlantis, to a start-up college entertainment company in New York. Then to Corus Entertainment, where I began as head of television content distribution and a digital music service, before taking the reins at Kids Can Press.  The thread between all of these was driving the business side of creative industries to deliver value and products that I am proud to show off to my family and friends.

In terms of obstacles, when I began working in the world of cable television broadcasting, it was a very male-dominated industry. The environment was fierce, and my role was to negotiate contracts with cable and telecom companies. So, I went beyond professional development and learned how to play golf well enough to tee up with customers at industry tournaments and events! When I moved to New York, I joined the Women in Cable and Telecommunications Board. Even though my schedule was incredibly busy, I got deeply involved through the executive committee. There, I was able to really contribute and get to know other senior women in a male-dominated industry. Learning and sharing knowledge with others across industries is a muscle that should be flexed often. It takes commitment and amazing time management, but it’s worth the investment.      

What are you most proud of in your career? Have you been inspired by anyone in particular?

The enduring impact that Kids Can Press books has made in the lives of children in Canada and around the world makes me fiercely proud. Particularly books that present social justice and environmental issues — like those in our CitizenKid collection — to young readers in such a way that they understand their agency at an early age and feel compelled to action. Currently 25 books strong — with two more in the pipeline — the CitizenKid collection has been translated into 21 languages and sold into 28 territories, making it a global publishing success story. Our hope is that we are inspiring the next generation of leaders and equipping them with the knowledge that starting is the first step to achievement.

I’m also very proud to have led the development and launch of Corus Entertainment’s first companywide corporate social responsibility initiative. That opportunity was the result of me having completed Harvard’s Corporate Social Responsibility course. At the time, shareholders, customers, and employees were demanding that corporations be transparent and consistent with their social responsibility commitments, and the same is true today. So, a few years ago, along with colleagues from across all divisions of the company, we established Corus Feeds Kids, a national program designed to raise funds for and awareness of food insecurity facing children and families in Canada.

As to who’s inspired me, I’ve been inspired by so many people along the way and am currently blessed to work with a team and with incredible authors and illustrators who amaze and inspire me every day. But there is one individual who I’m finding particularly inspiring right now. I met the extraordinary Pat Mitchell briefly at her book signing at the International Women’s Forum (IWF) World Leadership Conference in 2019 where she was a speaker. Her book is called Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. Great title, isn’t it?

Pat was the first woman president of PBS, CNN Productions, and the Paley Center for Media, as well as an award-winning producer of documentaries and TV series. She is the cofounder and curator of TEDWomen and the Connected Women Leaders initiatives, chair of Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Centre, trustee of the Skoll Foundation, and advisor to Participant Media. Quite the CV! In addition to Pat’s book, I am inspired by her newsletters. This is from a recent instalment:

“Friends often comment that I don’t look my age, and of course that’s nice to hear … even though I don’t know what almost 80 looks like anymore. But other than possibly good genes when it comes to ageing, I always reply that activism is the antidote to ageing. Staying active and engaged.

 That’s the message of my book … and I try to use all my platforms to make the point that being dangerous — getting off the sidelines to speak up, stand up for justice, and show up for each other everywhere — is a necessary response to these dangerous times and the best way to sustain hope amid all the fears.”

In short, I’ll have what she’s having. Pat Mitchell has provided me with an aspiration — to have impact for the rest of my days.

You have also been involved in producing a climate change documentary. Is this an expansion of your career beyond publishing?

Having worked on the business side in a variety of entertainment and creative industries, I am always thinking of content in terms of the ways it can be shared, experienced, and monetized. CitizenKid, for example, was always envisioned as a brand with content that could translate to other platforms, including television.

While on a cultural industries mission to China hosted by the Canadian federal government, I met Peter Raymont, the president of White Pine Pictures, one of Canada’s leading documentary film companies. He immediately embraced the potential of CitizenKid and wanted to help develop its ethos to screen. CitizenKid: Earth Comes First, starring four youth activists, debuted a few years later in 2020. It was well received and was selected for several festivals.

But our collaboration has not stopped there. We are working together and with Barri Cohen, a brilliant woman who’s an International Emmy–nominated producer, on a documentary inspired by In Good Hands, a nonfiction book for young adults that encourages women to run for political office. This development is particularly significant for me because when we launched the book in 2019, we had the honour of co-hosting former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell as part of a panel discussion on women in politics at the International Women’s Forum global summit here in Toronto. At this event, Ms. Campbell thanked the author, Stephanie MacKendrick, and her publisher for creating a book that will help bring more women into political leadership roles around the world. I look forward to her reaction to the documentary, too.

So, while being an executive producer on these documentaries falls outside the traditional role of a book publisher, it aligns with my continued quest to evolve professionally and to keep pushing the boundaries of content development. In Good Hands is part of Loft, our YA imprint, which currently has five other titles optioned and in development. We’re always looking for stories that have that crossover potential.

You have won two awards recognizing women in leadership positions in Canada (2015 Leadership Award by Women in Communications and Technology and a 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada award from the Women’s Executive Network in 2018) – what do these awards mean to you and how important are they?

Being nominated for these awards by women I greatly admire is a huge boost of self-confidence. Learning about the accomplishments of other nominees and hearing their career stories really inspires me to set new goals for myself.

The profile that awards such as the WXN Top 100 provides its winners is exceptional. Each of the 100 women are featured in a multi-page spread in the Financial Post magazine, which is tremendous national coverage and a great celebration of women’s accomplishments that aren’t often covered editorially.

And an added benefit of being nominated for awards such as these is the expansion of my network of business colleagues, some of whom have become friends. As well, opportunities for board appointments and business partnerships come from being nominated for these awards. It’s a win-win for you and the company your work for.

Outside of publishing, you are actively involved in encouraging and supporting female entrepreneurship/leadership What does this involve and what difference is this making?

I was a Founding Activator of an organization called SheEO, now called Coralus. Founded on the notion of radical generosity, Coralus is a collaborative initiative led by a community of women who champion each other in business ventures, both through a perpetual fund for entrepreneur members and through the support from other executives, who choose which ventures to support with their wallets, both as investors and as consumers. Launched in Canada by Vicki Saunders, Coralus now has chapters and thriving ventures around the globe.

I currently sit on the Emmy Noether Council at the world-class Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. The Council works to encourages girls and young women to pursue careers in physics and math and helps to reduce barriers for female researchers. Whether it is visiting fellowships, full support for their families when they come to the institute, an annual Girls Day event through our educational outreach department, or providing full funding for their education here (in the master’s program, for example), the council is helping to move the dial. More recently, Perimeter developed the Emmy Noether Emerging Talent Fund, an endowment to support exceptional female PhD students at Perimeter. The three recipients this year are from Poland, Brazil, and Ireland.

The council is named for a brilliant woman who worked alongside other genius mathematicians, including Einstein, but under the radar, of course, because she was a woman. With both science and gender issues under attack these days, it’s important to strongly support both and help advance women and nonbinary folks into careers in STEM. We now have an acclaimed picture book biography about Emmy Noether on our list, too.

And this summer I attended the IWF’s “Canada Connects 2022” summit and AGM in Edmonton, Alberta. IWF is a global network that connects women leaders across every professional sector in support of each other and the common mission of advancing women’s leadership and championing equality worldwide. Being invited to become a member has opened many doors and networking opportunities. I liken it to a global sisterhood of extraordinarily accomplished women, providing community, professional development, and the opportunity to learn from members around the world and locally through regular conferences and programming. Of the many benefits to organizations like this, I think one of the most important is their ability to provide a platform to highlight and discuss the important issues of the day with thought leaders to effect change.

“Men in leadership positions … need to step up their support of female colleagues and emerging leaders by sponsoringnot just mentoringwomen.”

What could the publishing industry do to encourage greater gender balance in leadership positions?

Sadly, this is an issue everywhere. Men in leadership positions in publishing and elsewhere need to step up their support of their female colleagues and emerging leaders by sponsoring – not just mentoring – women in their industry. By actively putting them forward for plum assignments and opening doors for them. That is true of diverse voices and representation of all kinds.

Lots of men say that of course they support women advancing to leadership positions, but don’t actively use their influence to move the needle. Thank you to the men that are advocates and that are making real change in their organizations. And we can support those efforts by recognizing and spotlighting the leaders that are doing so. It’s also imperative that women speak up and be clear about our ambitions, regularly point out our achievements, use our networks to our advantage, and advocate for ourselves.

“Be curious about all aspects of the business from editorial to operations. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and become a student.”

What advice would you give to women looking to progress their publishing careers?

I mentioned in a Publishers Weekly essay a few years ago that I’d challenged myself to a year of saying yes, and how that had opened a host of opportunities for me and our business. It’s a great attitude for women to have throughout their careers — to be open and eager to try new things, to step outside one’s comfort zone, and to learn about as many aspects of their business as they can.

One of the advantages of our industry is the variety of opportunities that exist within a single publishing house. Be curious about all aspects of the business from editorial to operations. Are you currently in production? Don’t be afraid to apply for an opening in marketing or editorial. You may find a better fit elsewhere in the company where you’ve invested yourself and gained transferable skills. Make it known that you are eager to expand, take on new challenges—especially the most difficult—and it will be noticed. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and become a student.

Don’t underestimate the power of a network. Join professional organizations and non-profit boards or committees in or adjacent to publishing. Be willing to be mentored and actively seek out these opportunities. And then be a mentor. Remember this is a two-way street.

What are the most interesting things in children’s publishing right now? And what do you think the future holds for kids and reading?

Accessibility is front and centre in children’s publishing, which is tremendous, as we strive to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion for all. We are among a small number of children’s publishers who publish a simultaneous ebook for most of our picture books, many of which have read-along capabilities. In the past year, Kids Can Press worked with the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) to launch a simultaneous braille edition of the children’s book My City Speaks, written by Darren Lebeuf and illustrated by Ashley Barron.

My City Speaks is also available in an accessible ebook version, making the most of standards still being shaped, including alt-text (full descriptions of the artwork) and read-along.

Recently My City Speaks won the prestigious American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award, which honours an author and illustrator for the artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. The book’s main character is visually impaired and uses a white cane, but her disability is incidental to the storyline.

On another front, one of the most exciting frontiers in children’s publishing for us has been partnering with new digital platforms that deliver books in a variety of ways. We welcome partnerships with companies that are symbiotic with us, including Epic, a curated ebook subscription service; Vooks, who produce studio-quality animated storybooks from existing titles; and Simbi, based here in Canada, whose mandate, “Read for Good,” aligns with Kids Can Press’s thinking. Simbi is making reading accessible to underserved communities and provides a unique opportunity for new readers to read along with narration from other young readers around the world.

At Kids Can Press you have signed the Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact. What initiatives are you taking to contribute to the SDGs and carbon net zero?

Kids Can Press was invited to join the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact in 2021. Our CitizenKid collection has six titles that have been selected for the SDG Book Club, so that independent validation means we are on the right track.

As signatories, we are actively acquiring and promoting content that advocates for themes represented by the SDGs, such as equality, sustainability, justice, and safeguarding and strengthening the environment. In fact, our CitizenKid collection of books on global issues uses the SDGs as a publishing lens.

As for our environmental initiative, we have committed to print our books on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, and in 2022, 90% of our new books will be printed on FSC Mix Paper and will meet the standards and specifications set out by the FSC. We strongly encourage other publishers to sign on because we all benefit from this alignment.

Thanks for this opportunity to speak to you, Emma. I must also let you know that Kids Can Press will celebrate 50 years in 2023 — we are planning a full year of events and promotions to mark this milestone!


This interview was first published by and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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