After serving in various roles at Bertelsmann, including a stint at Penguin Random House US, Carsten Coesfeld was named CEO of DK, PRH’s global division headquartered in London, on March 9, less than a week after the cancellation of the London Book Fair due to the spread of Covid-19. The pandemic would soon cause widespread disruption around the world, bringing fresh challenges to a publishing company with offices in 10 countries.
In a Zoom interview just before the holiday break from his home office in Germany, Coesfeld acknowledged that his start at DK was not what he expected. But he said his familiarity with the way Bertelsmann/PRH works, including its supply chain (immediately before being tapped to head DK, Coesfeld was president of telecommunications at Bertelsmann’s Arvato Supply Chain Solutions business), was a big help in getting a handle on all the unexpected developments caused by the virus. As DK’s roughly 800 employees headed home to work, shipping computers to much of the staff was a priority, so that DK could continue to create new titles.
Coesfeld himself returned to Germany where he turned to online meetings to connect with his new team and began a virtual listening tour. Virtual staff meetings are now regular events. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said.
Coesfeld’s boss, PRH worldwide CEO Markus Dohle, appreciates what the DK CEO has accomplished under difficult conditions. “Despite facing so many challenges immediately upon his arrival at DK last March, Carsten has quickly adapted and implemented thoughtful changes that have already yielded positive results for our company,” Dohle told PW. “I’ve also personally enjoyed collaborating with him closely on a variety of key global priorities for Penguin Random House and look forward to doing more so in the future.”
While Coesfeld dealt with the disruptions to work routines caused by Covid-19, he remained focused on keeping the momentum going for DK’s rebranding campaign, which was launched at the beginning of 2020 and implemented throughout the year. He said that, despite the pandemic, the rollout went as planned and that he has been very encouraged by the reaction from both the book trade and from readers. “The next step for us is to double down on using the new brand and our mission to inspire curiosity across all our marketing channels and to increase reach and engagement,” he added.
The rebranding is not only about bringing a fresh look to DK’s works—it’s about making the company more flexible in terms of developing products and entering new categories. In an odd way, Coesfeld said, the pandemic accelerated some of DK’s efforts. A priority has been to increase the publisher’s education business, and it was able to use its deep backlist to meet the surge in demand from parents seeking materials to teach and educate their children at home. Coesfeld said DK’s children’s and educational titles had a great year, led by its various workbook series, which saw sales double over 2019. Standouts included My Encyclopedia of Very Important Things and Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary. The performance of DK’s educational books has further convinced Coesfeld that the educational market, including in the U.S., is a big opportunity.
Like publishers everywhere, DK saw an abrupt shift in sales across its different channels last year. In its core markets—the U.S., U.K., and Germany—online sales had high double-digit gains over 2019, Coesfeld said, making it imperative that the company continue to find ways to help customers discover its titles online, whether through the use of keywords or by investing more in search engine optimization.
Coesfeld said he is proud of the way DK employees were able to not only meet a jump in demand for existing titles but also to keep developing new titles for 2021, which he called the “first full year of a broadly overhauled and reimagined list.” Part of the effort is to create more content that will engage children and adults in interesting and fun ways, he noted. He is also looking to further diversify DK’s author and contributor talent pool to spur the creation of content that will provide “a fuller picture of history and today’s society.”
DK’s new approach also includes expansion into more nonfiction areas, and to do that the company is working with an array of partners. One partnership that has Coesfeld particularly excited is with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This year will see the release of three projects: My Met Sticker Collection, The Met Lost in the Museum, and the What the Artist Saw series, which will show children the world through the eyes of famous artists. The newest title in DK’s Timelines series, Timelines from Black History, was released in late January.
With nearly a year’s experience under his belt, Coesfeld sees more growth ahead for the publisher. “This is an incredibly exciting time for DK,” he said.