London’s Rebecca Smart and Paul Kelly: DK’s Bond With Consumers

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Almost 50 years old, DK has had its best year in 2021 and its best half-year in 2022. We talk with co-CEOs Rebecca Smart and Paul Kelly.

Paul Kelly and Rebecca Smart, co-CEOs of DK. Image: DK

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Rebecca Smart: ‘We’re Very Accessible’
Heads turned early last month when Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle pointed out in Bertelsmann‘s earnings report that DK Worldwide had “the strongest first six months globally since they became part of Penguin Random House.”

Dohle had named Rebecca Smart and Paul Kelly as co-CEOs in April during London Book Fair, succeeding Carsten Coesfeld. And DK, founded in 1974 as Dorling Kindersley, already had reported its best year in its 48-year history in 2021, “strengthening  its creative core,” as Dohle wrote in a memo, “expanding the discovery of its books online, while continuing to support all retail channels for books, and implementing strategic partnerships with our Penguin Random House sister companies.”

Created by a duo—Christopher Dorling and Peter Kindersley—and now run by another duo, Smart and Kelly, DK has something rare in the international book publishing business: actionable brand recognition among its consumer base. Other than in cases of strongly niched content, readers on the whole frequently aren’t particularly aware of publishers’ or imprints’ names.

And when Publishing Perspectives talks with Smart and Kelly on the run-up to Frankfurter Buchmesse, it becomes apparent that this near-half-century of building up such consumer goodwill is not something they take lightly.

“The brand resonates so strongly with people,” Kelly says. “I always find it amazing and quite humbling when you meet people and suddenly it’s, ‘Oh, my God, you’re from DK. I love DK books.’ And then they start remembering all their DK books. It has a real excitement and energy with it. It’s recognized, and it’s recognized for quality. People know that when they get a DK book, it’s going to be the most researched, pulled together by the most experts, and designed in innovative ways. It’s a really powerful thing.”

Paul Kelly: ‘Something for Literally Everyone’

If anything, Kelly and Smart seem to have been aware of this, respectful of so much loyalty among the readership while refreshing the brand. The new logo is cleaner, more contemporary, more abstract—but not shocking, not an insignia that the faithful can’t still readily spot across the aisle in a bookstore.

Ask Smart what’s behind such reader attachment to the brand, and she says, “I think we’re very accessible. I think DK appeals to families everywhere, to every family, as it were. And I think it has been something that’s been comforting actually, to people. We’ve worked a lot on aesthetics over the last few years. So I think you get the same, the same DK, but we’ve worked really hard on making the books look even better than before.” She points to that new sleek-but-familiar logo as an example of this.

“The other thing,” Kelly says, “is the breadth of the list. There’s something in there for literally everyone, across all age ranges and whatever your interests.”

That’s been a big focus over the last several years, broadening that breadth, he says, which—as Smart reiterates—finds its basic context in families.

There’s also an ineffable air of gentle humor behind a lot of DK’s iconic production of illustrated reference books. You catch it in its travel books series called “Like a Local” and in the 2019 title Be More Japan: The Art of Japanese Living from DK Eyewitness Travel. And here’s June’s publication of Josette Reeves’ How Not To Get Eaten: More Than 75 Amazing Wildlife Survival Skills, illustrated by Asia Orlando.

The popularity of DK books also “slightly depends on where in the world you are,” Kelly says. “In Asian markets, it’s really some of that reference and educational content that does so well. While in the UK market, it’s probably a lot more of the inspirational types of books.”

And DK is known across a far-flung range of markets.

“There’s over 100 countries,” Smart says, and offices beyond London are based in Toronto, Indianapolis, Delhi, Melbourne, Munich, Madrid, Beijing, and Jiangmen.

Translated into some 65 languages, DK reach is “a mindset,” as Kelly puts it in agreement with Smart. “We’re incredibly global.”

Being “incredibly global,” however, means that the challenges likely to keep these CEOs up at night have to do with, you guessed it, “Supply chain disruptions,” Kelly says.

That subject—getting so much attention and conversation this year—is all too well known for many publishers. “Like everyone, Kelly says, “we’ve seen the freight costs, the disruption in getting books moved around the world. It’s hard work, it really is, and we’ve had to suck up a lot more costs than normal.

“And we are really hoping we see some of it calming down next year, because it’s been pretty tough, the last two years … Amazingly, somehow we’ve generally managed to keep getting our books into stores with minimal disruption. But that’s come down to an absolutely incredible team behind the scenes who are making all of that happen and keeping books moving in ships all over the world.

“So that’s it,” the thing that keeps him up at night, Kelly says—in good company with so many publishing executives this autumn. “That’s just the very live thing that’s happening. And inflation, as well. I think we’ve got more challenges coming down, down the line.”

Opportunities in Education, Licensing, Spanish

At the same time that DK’s highly internationalized network have felt effects from supply-chain challenges, Smart says, “We’ve got so much opportunity. We’ve launched something called DK Learning,” a new offering released in March and comprising extensive classroom resources and educator support in lesson planning and presentation.

“We’re often very trade focused,” Kelly says, “so we’ve just launched this program, DK Learning, with the acquisition of Phonic Books,” a UK-based education publisher founded by Wendy Tweedie, Tami Reis-Frankfort and Clair Wilson.

Smart and Kelly also talk about their restructuring of international teams, and a planned doubling of Spanish-language content in the works, intended to take what’s now some 40 to 50 annual publications in Spanish up to as many as 120 Spanish titles, and bilingual publications seem to be of key interest in the plans.

“And we’re looking to be broadening our rights reach,” Kelly says, “out there meeting and speaking with more partners.”

“We’re known for working with some big licensors,” Smart says, “Lego and Disney most famously, and they’re incredibly important to us. But what’s really exciting is we’re also bringing on some new ones. So we’re doing some books with Eric Carle. We’ve published The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s Very First Encyclopedia (on September 6).

“Then next year, we also have books with Sesame Street, with Minecraft, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering. So there’s lots of new licenses coming onboard, too.” And Smart also points to a new energy in partnering with “lots of big organizations around the world to license content, because we own a lot of content. That’s something we’re also expanding and looking at opportunities on.”

“With our best year last year,” Kelly says, “and our best half-year this year, we’re really excited,” even while hoping that some of the supply-chain issues shared with so many intensely international operations are facing can be eased in 2023. “We’ve got a lot of plans,” Kelly says. “So fingers crossed.”

Image: From the DK Eyewitness Travel series’ ‘Be More Japan’

This is a story from our Frankfurter Buchmesse Show Magazine, now is available to our world readership in a free digital download online. The magazine originally appeared in print on the Messe Frankfurt for trade visitors as Frankfurt Book Fair opened October 19.

The magazine features extensive coverage of issues and trends that led discussions and debates at the trade show this year, along with interviews, profiles, and commentary in this strongly attended Frankfurt year. Click here for your download (PDF).

More from Publishing Perspectives on Penguin Random House and its companies is here, more on Markus Dohle and his work is here, more on international publishing is here, more on illustration and visual work is here, and more on the United Kingdom’s market, homebase to DK, is here. 

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.