`We met secretly and plotted how to set up the company'

Peter Kindersley makes CD-Roms, videos and children's books, but he started off with illustrated reference books. Here he explains how he broke with traditional publishing to create a business now worth pounds 380m .
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The Independent Online
MY HEART sank when I saw the burnt-out ruin of our printer. Where the old Amsterdam warehouse had stood was an enormous hole filled with ashes and rubble. The steel girders that held up the roof had gone limp in the middle. Against one wall I could just see the marks of the staircase leading up to the office where a few days earlier I had gone to look at the proofs of our first three books.

It was a disaster, but we managed to bounce back. The fire was in August 1975 and our publishing date was in early September, in time for the Christmas rush. We had to work night and day to recreate what we lost in those flames, but we did it.

Two of the books broke even and the third, The Book of Photography by John Hedgecoe, was an immense success. We must have printed a million copies. Partly that was because we chose just the right moment. Everyone was beginning to buy single-lens reflex cameras. But it wasn't because we were brilliant. We did it because that was the kind of book I wanted to read.

I first thought of publishing practical reference books while I was working as the art director for another London publisher, Mitchell Beazley. After I left them, following an unrelated disagreement in 1974, I realised there was no other publisher to which I could go with my idea. That was when I decided to set up Dorling Kindersley.

My partner, Christopher Dorling, was a cartographer, but he was working at Mitchell Beazley as a salesman. We used to meet secretly in a Chelsea restaurant, where nobody would recognise us, and plotted how to set up the company. Our first offices were the back room of the semi-detached house in Kennington, south London, where I live. Although we now have 10 offices around Covent Garden, I still use the simple pine desk I worked on at home.

Traditionally, the problem with this sort of book - reference works - is that the people who made them came from Oxbridge. And if you go there, the importance of pictures gets drummed out of you. Although we live in an entirely visual world they believe we can use words to describe it. They create a conceptual world that overlays the real world. But with reference books, you need to be as close the real world as possible.

We have a saying at DK: "Through the picture I see reality; through the word I understand it." The point is that if you want to imprint something on the mind, a picture is much better. From the outset, all DK books were more highly illustrated than our competitors'. Actually, I'm not really a book publisher - I'm someone who is interested in how you communicate information.

When we started out we had pounds 10,000 in capital, plus a pounds 10,000 overdraft facility from Barclays with my house as the security. Fortunately we never needed it. At first we didn't publish our own books, just sold them to other publishers around the world. As a result we did not have to tie up capital in books that had yet to sell. We still use the same type of approach to publishers - a dummy with a jacket and some laid-out spreads and a flow-chart showing what would be on each page.

Our first sales trip was to the Frankfurt Book Fair. But it was on our next trip, to New York, that we got our big breakthrough. We had been there two weeks, staying in the Century Paramount hotel off Broadway, which in those days was a pretty grotty home for Spanish-speaking visitors from South America. After two weeks of visiting publishers, the US firm Knopf said they would take all three titles, including The Book of Photography.

Americans are always good at taking on new ideas and backing a hunch. And the US market is the only one big enough to support something that must sell about 50,000 copies to break even. After Knopf signed, we were able to sell the books to publishers in other countries who translated the text into their own language.

The business has grown steadily since then. We began to publish under our own imprint in 1982, when we put out our bestseller to date. Family Medical Guide has sold more than 6 million copies in 15 languages. Then in 1987 we moved into children's books starting with the Windows on the World series. That was also the year that Christopher retired. His half share of the company was sold to Reader's Digest for pounds 3m.

One of the most important lessons I've learnt about business is that no matter how much changes, you must try to remain the same. You can always tell a DK book without having to inspect the imprint. The same applies to our management style. I've always concentrated on creating the books, while first Christopher and then the managers we hired handled the business side. And none of us has gone in for a rich lifestyle. I still share an office and we travel ordinary class whenever we can. People so often forget what made them successful in the first place.