An eyewitness for Dorling Kindersley
30.06.09 | CHRISTOPHER DAVIS
Well, somebody had to tell it. Peter Kindersley says that he has been asked several times to write the story of the company he co-founded, but he cannot bring himself to do it. As the only other board member to have survived the quarter century of Dorling Kindersley’s life as an independent company, it therefore fell to me to chronicle its rise and fall. Eyewitness: The rise and fall of Dorling Kindersley is published today (30th June) by Harriman House.
It is, of course, a partial view – not an authorised biography, such as only an outsider could compile, but an anecdotal memoir with, I hope, enough of a narrative arc to interest non-participants and even students of business. It obviously doesn’t belong to the “4-bottle lunches at the Garrick” school of publishing memoir, but that’s because our 4-bottle lunches tended to take place in less venerated establishments.
Our first Frankfurt, for example, saw us holed up in the Union Hotel, a starless establishment in the grimy heart of the city’s red light district. Our meagre finances did not even run to the cost of a stand at the fair itself; instead we had to inveigle the chiefs of the big American houses to leave the comfortable shagpile of their booths and make a trip to one of the hotel rooms we occupied (avoiding if possible the piles of dirty linen outside the door, and the puddles from the shower situated in the middle of the room), where the presentations for DK’s first collection of projects were laid out on a bed. There was nothing remotely glamorous about those early days of the company. But it says something for the quality of the spreads on the bed that they mostly evolved into bestselling titles.
This book is also about a special time in publishing. Younger people in the business will have no concept of what constituted illustrated home reference in the early 1970s. Most of it wasn’t illustrated, for a start, and therefore struggled to be of practical benefit. DK came into being at a time when the gap between what was needed and what was available was a chasm. Baby & Child, by Penelope Leach, one of DK’s earliest books, was, for example, the first ever illustrated babycare manual.
Not only did we aim to fill that gap, we were determined to establish a benchmark for quality that would give us an edge over competitors. It meant spending money on the page, and it meant producing books that would satisfy Peter Kindersley’s aesthetic standards as well as his commercial instincts. He didn’t care what it took to achieve those aims; sometimes the budget on a book doubled, even trebled. His formula for typesetting, for example, was to get a quotation and then mentally double it. Occasionally he would demand that a book be re-set just before it went to the printer if he decided he didn’t like the typeface. To us it often seemed crazy, but we learned in time that he was usually right. “Just Do It!” he would say, and that became a company mantra long before Nike adopted it.
The 1970s quality gap in adult home reference was repeated in children’s non-fiction in the 1980s. As a category it had been largely neglected by children’s publishers, who failed to recognise that there were legions of Baby Boomers out there, desperate for quality information books for their young. DK once again found itself at the forefront of a revolution in publishing, one that helped to fuel the stratospheric growth of the company between 1988 (the year the Eyewitness books were launched), when we were 100 people with a turnover of £10m, and 1999, when the staff numbered 1,500 and the turnover nudged £200m.
That was, in many respects, a golden decade in illustrated reference publishing and we were fortunate to be at the heart of it. The industry had finally shed its post-war image of impoverished amateurism, the global market for books expanded year on year (especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall), the hunger for information was universal, independent bookshops were not dwarfed by the retail chains, classy design and high production values were prized, discounting was limited to book clubs and special sales (at least until the NBA was abolished, arguably the worst decision in British publishing history), celebrity trash was a monster yet unborn, and the book itself was not yet an endangered species.
Mind you, it came close to being endangered within DK when Peter Kindersley (allegedly) declared “the book is dead”. Certainly the rich promise of Multimedia played a huge part in DK’s flotation in 1992, and in Peter’s mind there was a certainty that the delivery of information would migrate to new formats. I sometimes speculate on what would have happened to DK if it hadn’t been torpedoed by the Star Wars fiasco. Would it have become a player in the world of online information? Would it have evolved into a more overtly educational business? Or would the company have subsided beneath the weight of its own baggy expansion?
It would be intriguing to hear Peter Kindersley’s version one day, as he could describe his evolving vision for the company, something he did not always articulate to his colleagues. And he would be able to give an insight into those conflicts that arise from Founder’s Syndrome – surely an interesting topic for a business book if it hasn’t yet been written. Is there ever a satisfactory exit point for the founder and chief architect of a creative business forged largely in his own image? How does he resolve the Faustian pact which decrees that the price for personal wealth is to lose control of your creation? I can only guess at these conflicts within Peter, but I suggest he is still not reconciled to the loss.
For the most part, however, this book is a celebration of what was, for many of us who worked there, the best years of our lives. The spirit was incredible, unquenchable. It exemplified the art of the possible. Thus, when the massive overprintings of the Star Wars books were revealed, and the company plunged into a state of near collapse, the effect was profoundly traumatising. In some ways it mirrored the recent collapse of the banks. But DK had not been built on a culture of greed; it had been built on a platform where the quality of what we produced mattered above all else.