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Rise and Fall of a Giant: Adrian Webster reviews a history of Dorling Kindersley

Cover of  by Christopher Davis

It is difficult to overstate the impact Dorling Kindersley made on the international publishing scene in the last quarter of the 20th century. A company which started as a book packager in 1974 in a backroom of Peter Kindersley's South London home had grown by 1999 to an international publishing giant turning over approximately £200m with a staff of more than 1,300 people. Along the way - in response to the irrepressible Kindersley's ambitions and need for cash - the company was part-owned by Readers Digest, then by Microsoft, floated in a hugely hyped and successful IPO, and finally sold in crisis to Pearson, where it is now a division of Penguin; a once mighty beast brought down by one major act of commercial insanity - printing thirteen million copies of a series of Star Wars books that sold 'only' five million.

Christopher Davis's Eyewitness: The Rise and Fall of Dorling Kindersley is a rollicking good tale, and there is much here from which to learn about publishing, business and human psychology. Davis writes well, and not just by the standards of most publishing memoirs. Anecdotes include gems on sleazy hotels, the sexual appetites of authors, wine-swilling nuns, the sun-signs of Norwegian dogs and endless examples of Kindersley's eccentricities. The reader gets a very good feeling for DK the institution and the loyalty, fervour and camaraderie it engendered.

Davis, famously convivial and widely liked, was a talented editor who grew into a formidable publisher with his finger on the pulse of international demand. Internally he was also the unofficial human resources director of DK in its formative years and externally he became its leading ambassador. Which was just as well on both counts, because although Davis makes it clear that Kindersley was a very difficult man, he doesn't quite convey what an unpleasant experience it could be dealing with him for those both within and outside the company. He also has, perhaps, a rose-tinted view of DK as a happy band driven by purely creative ambitions. DK was a tough nut to do business with, and Davis, both publisher and the ultimate godfather of the vast sales organisation, was not always as cuddly as he looked. In its pomp, DK was a veritable war machine - a Panzer division rolling across the fields of international publishing, feared and admired in equal measure.

Davis was in the original gang which in 1974 left Mitchell Beazley, then the world's most foremost 'co-edition' publisher, to help MB's driven art-director, Peter Kindersley, pursue his own publishing ambitions. Christopher Dorling, DK's co-founder, does not feature large in Davis's memoir. The international sales skills that he acquired under James Mitchell's tutelage were a key factor in getting DK off the ground, but his ambitions never matched those of Kindersley. Davis's own contribution was ultimately far more significant.

DK did not invent international co-edition publishing. The credit for this is traditionally given to George Rainbird, whose eponymous packing company in the 1960s was the first systematically to use what was as much of a business model as a creative concept. The Platonic ideal of a sucessful co-edition book is one which is desirable and saleable in a large number of language markets (preferably a minmum of, say, 12); too expensive for any one market to bear the development costs; illustrated and designed in such a way that it can be printed in all those languages with only a change of black plate; and for which an enlightened author can be found who will accept either a fee or royalties based on the original publisher's net receipts rather than, impracticably in the co-edition world, on published price.

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