h1

Joe Mastrogiacomo, Chief Operating Officer, Popular Book Company, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “We Find That With Supplemental Products, And This Is A Phenomenon Worldwide, Paper And Print Is Still Strong.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

February 17, 2021

We’ve found that the demand for educational publishing for children’s paperback workbooks, is still increasing every year because parents literally want to have something physical… Joe Mastrogiacomo…

Popular Book Company (Canada) Ltd. was incorporated on July 19, 1994 to publish quality workbooks and other learning materials for preschool, elementary, and high school children. The history of Popular Canada is marked with a line-up of successful publications, beginning with MathSmart published in May 1999. The brand became an instant success in Canada.

Today, along with their workbook series, Popular Book Company also has four licensed publications with the Old Farmer’s Almanac—365 Days of Fun and they have more titles coming out under the licensed Paw Patrol name. And they’re expanding into the U.S. market. 

Joe Mastrogiacomo is the chief operating officer of Popular Book and is extremely excited about the growth opportunity the U.S. market offers. I spoke with Joe recently and we talked about the print phenomenon of children’s educational workbooks. According to Joe, print has never been stronger in this area as parents struggle to be both teacher and homeworker during the pandemic. And how even before the pandemic print workbooks for children were very successful for this Canadian company. 

So, please enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Joe Mastrogiacomo, chief operating officer, Popular Book Company. 

But first the sound-bites:

On placing children’s workbooks with magazines in the marketplace: In fact, it was the pandemic and Linda Ruth, (CEO, PSCS, Publishing Management and Consulting) who actually came up with the idea, because the demand during the pandemic for workbooks since kids were not in school, the demand was super-hot. Linda Ruth came up with the idea saying, because there was such a high demand let’s convert the books into bookazines. And she’s done a wonderful job and so has Comag; they’ve done a great job putting our books in these six pocket displays near the checkout at some of the grocery stores. 

On what he feels the role of print is in educational materials in this digital age: Because we take our content very seriously, we’re worried about the copyright obviously, but more importantly, we’ve found that educational publishing for children’s paperback workbooks, the demand is still increasing every year because parents literally want to have something physical.

On any challenges he thinks he may face moving forward: Eventually we have to migrate into more e-book educational learning, absolutely. And more teaching resources available on our website. But it’s a delicate fine line, the challenges, we don’t want to cut out the distributor. We don’t want to cut out the Costco’s and the Walmart’s of the world. We’re loyal to them. They have the footprint in their stores, so we’re a little bit hesitant to start advertising too much to bring people to our website because we don’t want to disrupt that distribution relationship. That’s the challenge in our world.

On whether he believes the revenue will be the same with e-books as it is with print: Great question. In the short-term, no, I don’t believe so. I really don’t. But in the long-term, I do believe we can. That’s going to be the wave of the future for all workbooks. Children’s books it still is. In my view, in the book market, children’s books are year after year still holding their percentage increases. But it’s going to be the challenge in the future of the revenue, absolutely.

On his roadmap for the future: I think if we concentrate on our mission goal, which is to absolutely take education seriously. Children have to learn and supplemental products is a competitive world. We have to compete around the world and unfortunately, we seem to be falling behind compared to other children in other places around the globe. And in order to keep our competitive advantage, we have to educate our children.

On his definition of success: I guess the definition of success is selling units. We’re going to expand in different subject areas: English, Spanish to English. One of the Paw Patrol’s we’re doing is going to be called Basic English-Spanish Words in January. So, we’re going to expand more in those subject areas. We also have eight books under Complete English Success coming out in January 2022 as well. That’s from Pre-K to Grade Six. 

On whether he’s had any feedback from his audience about the change to bookazines: Because this year has been an abnormal year with the pandemic, the demand was there. Just give me stuff because my kids are at home. I’m going crazy being a teacher and working from home; just give me the content. But in the future, that’s probably a good point. We probably will look at separating, at having content specifically for the magazine industry with a different cover and another book for the book industry with a different cover. Right now they’re both the same, just the SKU number is different.

On anything he’d like to add: We’re very excited about the U.S. market. It’s obviously 10 times the size of the Canadian market. We have a small office in Chicago that does a little bit of our administrative tax work. But we will be expanding and hiring more individuals in the U.S. Right now we deal with U.S. teachers but the majority of the staff is in Canada, but we will be expanding and opening up an office in the U.S. And that’s exciting.

On what makes him tick and click: What I love about this industry, as I said, I was involved with the creation of the “Dummies” company; it’s very entrepreneurial for me. When I came to this company not that long ago, about four years now, there was things to change here in Canada. But I’m the one who pushed to enter the U.S. market. And I think the U.S. market is a tremendous opportunity for  educational workbooks.

On how he unwinds in the evening: I watch CNN. I’m a U.S. political buff. (Laughs) That’s really what my passion is about. I remember as a child getting so excited about watching the Watergate trials. I’ve always been a U.S. political buff. And right now there is a lot of material out there. (Laughs again) I watch way more American news than Canadian. That’s my passion, and traveling. Unfortunately, the travel part has been on hold now for a year. Let’s just hope we can get through this tough time in history.

On what keeps him up at night: The business does. I have to worry about payroll; all our staff has been working from home here in Canada. I let them work from home starting in early March 2020, way before the lockdown here in Canada. The staff was a little apprehensive, production editorial is the only staff I have. The salespeople still come in once and a while. They wear masks in the office and they are socially distanced.

And now the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Joe Mastrogiacomo, Chief Operating Officer, Popular Book Company.

Samir Husni: With the pandemic, 2020 was definitely a year unlike any of us had ever seen, and for the world of publishing as well. Your latest entry into the marketplace, the 3 to 1 fun books that you’ve done through a license from the Old Farmer’s Almanac are sold on the magazine racks. Can you tell me more about this phenomenon of books looking like magazines or magazines looking like books?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: Absolutely. In fact, it was the pandemic and Linda Ruth, (CEO, PSCS, Publishing Management and Consulting) who actually came up with the idea, because the demand during the pandemic for workbooks since kids were not in school, the demand was super-hot. We’ve been in publishing in Canada for 27 years doing workbooks. We are the leaders in the market; we have 55 to 60 percent of market share in Canada. We take our contents for workbook education very seriously. And we’ve done well. We have all the major retailers in Canada. 

Two or three years ago we started to publish for the U.S. market. What happened was that the pandemic hit, obviously, in North America. And although in Canada our sales, Costco, the grocery stores, people were still buying our products because Costco sells groceries up here and Walmart as well, so those two accounts and our online did really well. But in the U.S. market we were in trouble, because the Barnes & Noble’s and the independent bookstores were closed. 

Linda Ruth came up with the idea saying, because there was such a high demand let’s convert the books into bookazines. And she’s done a wonderful job and so has Comag; they’ve done a great job putting our books in these six pocket displays near the checkout at some of the grocery stores. We started mostly in the Midwest and then in the Northeast. The demand has been great and the fulfillment has been pretty good. 

We’ve managed to get to the magazines because those types of grocery stores don’t carry books. I don’t think they have a book section at all. In order to meet that demand, the parent is going through the checkout and they have a child, so they feel a need to buy our books. So, I have to thank Linda Ruth and Comag and ANC; they’ve done a great job in expanding our titles. As I said, we’ve been in business many years and never thought about entering the magazine market. And up here in Canada we’re not in the magazine market because everybody knows our brand up here. But in the states this is going well. 

In fact, we’re expanding our publishing program tremendously. We’re coming out with more licensed product under Paw Patrol; we’ll have three titles, math-based, between the ages of three and five, coming out in June, and then another three under English activity in January. So we have those titles under the Paw Patrol coming out in the future. Then in September, we have four more books being published. We’re going to Pre-K and K for both our Complete Math Success series. Right now we have from Grades One through Six. And our Complete Curriculum Success, we’ve already published Grades One through Six and now we’re going Pre-K and K, and they’re coming out in September. 

Overall the experiments have been great in the magazine market. Higher returns, obviously, in magazines than in books, but what Linda Ruth and Comag decided to do was, because our content is not time sensitive, they kind of turned it into an annual, and that was the most we could do. It worked out well. 

Samir Husni: In this digital age, you’re still in the business of creating ink on paper. What do you think the role of print is in education, entertainment and communication with the younger generation today?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: Because we take our content very seriously, we’re worried about the copyright obviously, but more importantly, we’ve found that educational publishing for children’s paperback workbooks, the demand is still increasing every year because parents literally want to have something physical. It’s hard for a parent to monitor what a child is doing on an iPad, whether the child goes into a room and starts to play video games or whatever. When you have a book and the parent tells the child to do pages 15 through 20 and they know the parent will review it, you can leave the child alone because the book is there.

We find that with supplemental products, and this is a phenomenon worldwide, paper and print is still strong. And we are continuing that phenomenon. What we’ve done with a lot of our product and we’re going to continue this in the U.S. market as well, we have QR codes throughout our books, every book now, if it’s a complete math book, grade six let’s say, we have many QR codes. Automatically, a child can scan a QR code with their phone and it’ll have a teacher within that lesson, additional materials. So we’re expanding in those resources.

And for the smaller children we have a lot of printable materials that they can download as well to help them, especially with Paw Patrol, ages about three to five, some coloring and stuff. Everything we do is educational-based; it’s very serious. All of our product is done and reviewed by teachers in the U.S., they all agreed to the National State Standards, everything is properly reviewed. Everything is tied to curriculum. 

Samir Husni: As you move forward, what do you see as some major challenges you may face and how will you overcome them?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: How long is print going to last? I’ve been in printing for 30 years; I started my career in the late ‘80s. I was with Pearson and educational textbooks at that time, and then a friend of mine, we opened up the “Dummies” company, Excel for Dummies, etc. I started the Canadian sub and he started the U.S. parent. We were always worried about what was going to happen to print. 

For now, it’s working well, as I said. But eventually we have to migrate into more e-book educational learning, absolutely. And more teaching resources available on our website. But it’s a delicate fine line, the challenges, we don’t want to cut out the distributor. We don’t want to cut out the Costco’s and the Walmart’s of the world. We’re loyal to them. They have the footprint in their stores, so we’re a little bit hesitant to start advertising too much to bring people to our website because we don’t want to disrupt that distribution relationship. That’s the challenge in our world. 

Samir Husni: Do you think you can make the same revenue from e-books as you do in print?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: Great question. In the short-term, no, I don’t believe so. I really don’t. But in the long-term, I do believe we can. That’s going to be the wave of the future for all workbooks. Children’s books it still is. In my view, in the book market, children’s books are year after year still holding their percentage increases. But it’s going to be the challenge in the future of the revenue, absolutely. And even the magazine industry, I don’t know it that well, but I’m sure over the last 15 years it has declined as well. I know in Canada, some of the bigger content providers are starting to get out of the magazine business. It’s been tough. 

Like anybody, we’re in that family of books and magazines, so we’re going to be faced with that digital problem as well, the e-commerce.

Samir Husni: What’s your roadmap for the future? 

Joe Mastrogiacomo: I think if we concentrate on our mission goal, which is to absolutely take education seriously. Children have to learn and supplemental products is a competitive world. We have to compete around the world and unfortunately, we seem to be falling behind compared to other children in other places around the globe. And in order to keep our competitive advantage, we have to educate our children. 

Our parent company actually started in Asia, in Singapore. An individual started the company back in 1923. In Asia, especially for math, it’s drilling. That’s how they do it, they drill the math into children. And it’s just practice after practice. And that’s why in the field of math they’ve excelled. Canadian children, American children, we are falling behind. So, what we have to do is keep serious to our content, make sure that it’s always in agreement with the curriculum; we have to provide more and more resources to our consumers, to the parents, making it easier for the children to learn. We need more videos, more online content, and we’ll see what lies ahead for the industry.

Samir Husni: You said your expansion into the U.S. market had been successful. What’s your definition of success?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: I guess the definition of success is selling units. We’re going to expand in different subject areas: English, Spanish to English. One of the Paw Patrol’s we’re doing is going to be called Basic English-Spanish Words in January. So, we’re going to expand more in those subject areas. We also have eight books under Complete English Success coming out in January 2022 as well. That’s from Pre-K to Grade Six. 

So far we’re stopping at grade six in the U.S. In Canada we go to grade 12. We have supplemental math books for grades 9-12. So we can expand in different subject areas in the U.S. We can expand into higher grades. We’re the only workbook publishers in all of North America who’s invested in video technology with teachers. Other publishers haven’t done that. We believe we are giving the parents and the children value added material. And in return, our consumers look for our brand. And that’s our goal. To make the brand more recognizable, to always give value added content and always have serious content. There are other publishers out there, but they don’t revise their books. We have a serious editorial team here; we’re about a 30 headcount. So we’re serious. 

Samir Husni: Have you heard any feedback from your audience about changing to the bookazine look?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: Because this year has been an abnormal year with the pandemic, the demand was there. Just give me stuff because my kids are at home. I’m going crazy being a teacher and working from home; just give me the content. But in the future, that’s probably a good point. We probably will look at separating, at having content specifically for the magazine industry with a different cover and another book for the book industry with a different cover. Right now they’re both the same, just the SKU number is different. 

Samir Husni: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: We’re very excited about the U.S. market. It’s obviously 10 times the size of the Canadian market. We have a small office in Chicago that does a little bit of our administrative tax work. But we will be expanding and hiring more individuals in the U.S. Right now we deal with U.S. teachers but the majority of the staff is in Canada, but we will be expanding and opening up an office in the U.S. And that’s exciting. 

The growth is the U.S. market. We’ve tapped ourselves out in the Canadian market. There are no new accounts that we can go after. We have almost 60 percent market share. Then perhaps expand into different markets as well, perhaps the Spanish market, Mexico and some of the other Latin countries around the world. We will start doing workbooks in Spanish, I believe. 

We have the talent and we have the resources. And we have the will to grow. That’s all we specialize in, workbooks. Like I said, our parent company started in 1923 with one store in Singapore. And now we have offices all over the world. Our headquarters is in Singapore. I report in to the greater Hong Kong area and we have offices in Taiwan, the U.K., so we’re expanding. 

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click, motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: What I love about this industry, as I said, I was involved with the creation of the “Dummies” company; it’s very entrepreneurial for me. When I came to this company not that long ago, about four years now, there was things to change here in Canada. But I’m the one who pushed to enter the U.S. market. And I think the U.S. market is a tremendous opportunity for  educational workbooks. 

And if we in North America want to remain competitive with the rest of the world, we have to give more material for our children to expand their minds and learn more. We have to provide them with content so that parents can encourage their children to do more and get ahead. 

Samir Husni: How do you unwind after a hard day’s work?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: I watch CNN. I’m a U.S. political buff. (Laughs) That’s really what my passion is about. I remember as a child getting so excited about watching the Watergate trials. I’ve always been a U.S. political buff. And right now there is a lot of material out there. (Laughs again) I watch way more American news than Canadian. That’s my passion, and traveling. Unfortunately, the travel part has been on hold now for a year. Let’s just hope we can get through this tough time in history. 

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Joe Mastrogiacomo: The business does. I have to worry about payroll; all our staff has been working from home here in Canada. I let them work from home starting in early March 2020, way before the lockdown here in Canada. The staff was a little apprehensive, production editorial is the only staff I have. The salespeople still come in once and a while. They wear masks in the office and they are socially distanced. 

In September, they came back for a period of 10 days when the COVID numbers went down and then they started going higher again, so now they’re back working from home. I haven’t seen my staff in a year, except for that 10 days in September. I’m looking forward to having them back. So I worry. What keeps me up is that I have a business to run, bills to pay. But it’s a lot of fun. I like being involved in education definitely. It’s rewarding. 

Samir Husni: Thank you. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: