top of page
  • Peter Cook

Peter Cook Shares Insights Into His Career Spanning Over Four Decades, Working On CD-ROMs And Digital Encyclopaedias.

Updated: Apr 26

Peter Cook
Peter Cook

From the traditional roots of print to the dynamics of digital publishing, Peter has witnessed and navigated through the ever-evolving technologies of databases, CD-ROMs which have shaped the on screen publishing industry.

As digital information continues to redefine the way we consume content, Peter's journey highlights the challenges and triumphs encountered by publishers and creators alike. With each technological advancement comes a new set of hurdles to overcome, requiring adaptability and innovation to stay ahead in a rapidly changing landscapes.

In this interview, Peter reflects on the shifting dynamics of screen-based interactions, the core essence of publishing remains unchanged – the art of presenting well-crafted content in compelling ways.

Question 1.

Can you tell us about your background and upbringing, and how it influenced your career path in publishing?

I was born and grew up in Brighton, with two brothers and a sister, living in what was then the deprived area of Whitehawk. I was fortunate in passing the 11+ exam, and gaining an entrance to Varndean Grammar School. It was in my final years at the school that I developed a strong interest in art, winning the school's annual art prize. 

Brighton School of Art & Camberwell School of Art

Encouraged by my art teacher, Mr Briggs, I was accepted on a pre-diploma course at what was then known as the Brighton School of Art. After completing the one-year course I then won a place on the three-year Dip AD course at Camberwell School of Art, studying for a degree in Graphic Design. I had always been interested in books, and decided that the career path that would suit my skill set and interests was in publishing  – working with authors, artists and photographers in a collaborative, creative environment on subjects that were always interesting. 


Assistant art editor, Aldus Books, London

On graduating I joined the staff of Aldus Books, a London-based publisher of illustrated reference books, as an assistant art editor. During my time at Aldus I worked on a number of multi-volume series, including books on science and technology, a history of discovery and exploration, and many more. The work involved conceptualising and commissioning artwork and photography, directing photo researchers, and page design. I became the Art Director at Aldus, and in 1977 I was head-hunted by VNU, a major Dutch media company, to become the art director for a new, multi-volume encyclopaedia that was being created for the US market.

What was your role at Grolier in the USA, and what were some of the key projects or initiatives you were involved in during your time there?

I moved with my family to Princeton New Jersey and, starting from scratch, over the next three years I hired staff and supervised the development of the 21-volume, 10-million-word Academic American Encyclopedia. The 10,000 page work was illustrated with over 16,000 photos and commissioned artwork, plus over 1,000 maps.

Academic American Encyclopedia with red spines and blue cover
Academic American Encyclopedia

Videodisc encyclopaedia

The print sales of the encyclopaedia were disappointing, but it was fortunate that the text had been typeset using computers, which made it feasible to develop electronic versions and it became the first online encyclopaedia, accessible via a computer, in 1980. In the early 1980s the encyclopaedia was licensed by several companies, including CompuServe, Dow Jones and the New York Times. During this period I headed up another company initiative, developing a prototype videodisc encyclopaedia, to demonstrate the potential for combining an encyclopaedia’s text information with images, audio and video. The prototype was shown to leading publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I was invited to demonstrate it to senior personnel at the US Library of Congress in Washington DC.

At this time, faced with lower than anticipated sales of the print encyclopaedia, VNU decided to sell all of the rights to Grolier Inc., a leading US reference publisher. At the time I had been developing a White Paper on the potential of the emerging fields of online and video publishing, and this work helped to influence Grolier to establish a dedicated Electronic Publishing division, where I was appointed as one of the founding members as Vice-President for Creative Services.

Question 2.

What was your role at Grolier in the USA, and what were some of the key projects or initiatives you were involved in during your time there?

In 1982 Grolier established a New York office for the new electronic publishing division and during the first year I developed plans for the creation of an early form of multimedia encyclopaedia, which would combine videodisc technology with online connectivity to a searchable text database. This led to a collaboration with Longmans, the leading UK educational publisher, as part of a joint-venture to bring together a consortium of international publishers to invest in the project.

Database technology

In tandem with the encyclopaedia venture, I also worked on the development of educational software for the Apple II, which at that time was the main personal computer used by US schools – I had purchased my first Apple II in 1981 so that I could teach myself computer skills and programming. The software programmes were developed with specialist contractors, including Bank Street, which created for Grolier a word processor and software for teaching maths. Other programmes included a simple spreadsheet, and a database programme – which began a strong personal interest in database technology and the organisation of large bodies of information.

Grolier's early pioneering work with the videodisc

Grolier's early pioneering work with the videodisc came to the attention of Gary Kildall, who had created CP/M – the first disc-based operating system for personal computers (PCs) – and founded Digital Research, Inc., a key company in the early development of PCs. In 1985 I made frequent trips to Gary's base in Monterrey, California, to work on the development of the KnowledgeDisc, a videodisc that stored all of the encyclopaedia's text as video frames on one disc. Using innovative navigation techniques, articles could be searched for and displayed in seconds.

KnowledgeDisc an interesting innovation, the technology was surpassed when Phillips and Sony developed the CD-ROM

Although the KnowledgeDisc was an interesting innovation, the technology was quickly surpassed when Phillips and Sony developed the CD-ROM, which could store up to 650 MBs of digital data on a single compact disc. This was a milestone development because at that time most PCs used floppy disks for data storage, with a few expensive PCs incorporating hard drives that held just 10 MBs of data. Gary realised the CD-ROM's potential and went on to develop the Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, the first commercial CD-ROM, which was released in 1986. To access the data on the CD Gary created the Knowledge Retrieval System (KRS) a software search engine that used sophisticated Boolean operators to perform complex searches – which was illustrated in a 96-page user’s guide, which I wrote and designed. The Encyclopedia became the key exhibit at the first Microsoft CD-ROM Conference in Seattle in 1986, where I presented Grolier's vision of encyclopedia's of the future.


Grolier's CD-ROM Encyclopaedia was a major commercial success   

Grolier's CD-ROM Encyclopaedia was a major commercial success and established the company as a forerunner in the early days of electronic publishing. The CD-ROM development and the on-going videodisc effort also came to the attention of Apple Computer's Multimedia Group, based in Cupertino, California. This led to a joint venture, that I headed up for Grolier, to create a prototype CD-ROM of US History for the newly-released Macintosh computer, which included images, audio and animations. I presented it at the 2nd Microsoft CD-ROM Conference in 1987, when it became one of the first demonstrations of multimedia technology, in this case using Apple’s HyperCard software.


Apple Conference: Multimedia in Education

I was also invited by Apple, as the representative of the US book publishing industry, to take part in  a ground-breaking conference on Multimedia in Education, with participants from the computer departments of major US universities, and innovators such as Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse and early computer networks, and Bill Atkinson the developer of MacPaint and HyperCard. My presentation focused on methods for navigating through large bodies of knowledge, and presenting information in new ways to encourage curiosity and learning. It was subsequently published as a chapter in Interactive Multimedia, published by Microsoft in 1988.

Return to the UK – Multimedia Encyclopedias

At this point I had been spending more time back in the UK, where the videodisc joint venture with Longmans began to move into a production phase. Grolier had commissioned London-based New Media Productions, an innovative video and film-making company, to develop the videodisc component, and so I relocated back to the UK to supervise the work. Unfortunately, shortly after my return the project had a major setback, when first Longmans, and then a Japanese technology company, pulled out from the venture.

Compact Disc Interactive, a technology

Although this was initially seen as a major setback, it also coincided with the announcement by Sony and Phillips of Compact Disc Interactive, a technology for storing all forms of media on a compact disc to deliver a multimedia experience. I worked with a smaller team at New Media Productions and in collaboration with Phillips in Eindhoven to develop prototypes of a CD-I encyclopaedia. At the same time CD-ROM technology was also developing rapidly along with the use of more powerful PCs, and gradually the multimedia elements that were developed for the CD-I project were migrated onto new editions of the CD-ROM, with the name being changed from the Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia to the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

Question 3

How did the Licensing of CD-ROM Titles:

The Guinness Book of Records & How Would You Survive? come about?

During the late 1980s Grolier was also seeking new products that could be created using the technology and experience that had been gained during the on-going development of new editions of the encyclopaedia. We recognised that our next CD-ROM product should play to Grolier's strengths in reference publishing, and also have good brand-name recognition. In 1990 I contacted Tony Feldman, a friend and editor that I have worked with at Aldus Books, who had become a well-known consultant who specialised in helping print publishers to exploit their assets in digital form. With Tony's help we approached the publishers of the Guinness Book of Records, and the discussions eventually led to a contract to publish the Guinness Book as a CD-ROM. I worked closely with Guinness editorial and production staff, transforming their typesetting files into an easy-to-use searchable, hierarchical database. The disc – which incorporated all of the Guinness articles, plus images, audio and video – was a sales success and was the first of four editions.

Prehistoria CD-ROM & Encyclopedia of Science Fiction CD-ROM

On the strength of the Guinness collaboration, and with Tony's help, I approached other UK publishers that had reference titles that could be transferred to CD-ROM. These included Marshall Editions, publisher of an Encyclopedia of Prehistoric Animals, which was developed as the Prehistoria CD-ROM; and Orbit Books, the publisher of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which was released as a CD-ROM in 1995.


CD Rom Disk created by Peter Cook based on David Salariya's How Would You Survive? Series.
How Would You Survive? CD ROM Hybrid Disk for Windows & Macintosh

Grolier also owned children's book publisher Franklin Watts

At that time Grolier also owned children's book publisher Franklin Watts, and the UK division had published an innovative book series titled How Would You Survive as an Ancient Egyptian, In the Middle Ages, etc. Grolier recognised their potential and I began what would become a long collaboration with David Salariya, the creator of this series and many other innovative titles. David's use of illustrations gave a cinematic look to the printed works that transferred well to CD-ROM, allowing users to interact with the information in new ways. Like the printed version, the How Would You Survive CD-ROM was well received, especially by school markets.

CD Rom How Would You Survive as an Ancient Egyptian? Scene of nile with funeral in foreground.
CD Rom: How Would You Survive As An Ancient Egyptian?

David's unique approach to illustrations also lead to a collaboration for the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, where a series of 'Interactivities' allowed users to compare then-and-now, and 3-D views, of famous buildings and landmarks, such as the Roman Colosseum and the Statue of Liberty.

Grollier Multimedia Encyclopaedia: Images of man in spacesuit, nelson Mandela, The Parthenon, Bill Clinton, Tutankamun.
Grollier Multimedia Encyclopaedia

The demise of CD-ROM encyclopaedias

However, by the late 1990s it was becoming increasingly apparent that CD-ROM technology was being overtaken rapidly by the Internet, with online access to a huge diversity of websites that no single publisher could possibly match. For the encyclopaedia market in particular the emergence of the 'free' Wikipedia, saw the demise of CD-ROM encyclopaedias, with Grolier publishing its last of 14 annual editions in 2001. Having recently been acquired by Scholastic, Grolier's Electronic Publishing Division (renamed as Grolier Interactive in 1996) was shut down as part of a cost-cutting exercise shortly after the release of the last edition.

Question 4

Tell us about your years at Dorling Kindersley

During the late 1990s I had established a relationship with some of the key staff at DK, which also had a CD-ROM division, and had reviewed some of their CD-ROM products in an article in Multimedia Magazine – one of a series of articles on various aspects of digital publishing that I had written for this, and other magazines. These contacts led to consulting work for DK when I left Grolier. After an initial project to review the DK Images website, I was contracted to create a series of databases for the company. The first of the these, the DK Picture Research Database, was developed using a commercial relational database programme, Filemaker Pro, which was deployed using client software for internal staff users, with freelance picture researchers accessing the database remotely using a web browser. The database, still in use after 20 years, managed the acquisition of all third party images, rights clearances and payments, plus the creation of picture credits. A companion DK Images Database was created to manage the 800,000 images, mostly photographs, that DK had created for use in its products. This database was then extended as a sales tool, allowing other companies to licence DK's images. The Web version utilised an innovative, browse-able visual 'taxonomy' allowing users to explore images by category, in addition to standard searches. The web version included over 250,000 web pages, all generated programmatically using the Filemaker Pro image database.


DK also began to use database technology to help in the development of its diverse reference books, many of which included over 1,000 images. I developed databases on Cars, Motorbikes, Cats, Dogs, Antiques, Animals, and Plants – including the RHS Encyclopedia of Plants. The work at DK also led to the development of rights and permissions databases for Pearson, which at that time was DK's parent company. The Pearson Multimedia Research Database, and the Permissions Clearance Database became essential tools used by all of Pearson's UK publishing companies.


Question 5

The Salariya Web Books and Website you created were innovative and a huge part of the success of the You Wouldn't Want To Be...! series. Can you tell us how you devised the web books?

Shortly after leaving Grolier I was contacted by David Salariya to discuss the development of a company website. This was an interesting challenge because in addition to performing the function of an online catalogue, it also had to help sales through direct links to Amazon, and be easily updatable as new titles and series were added. It also had to be visually appealing, reflecting the strong visual elements of all of David's books, and also be entertaining, with visual puns and interactive elements. The website was developed using Filemaker Pro to generate the HTML web pages, and proved to be very efficient for updating and adding new content.

You Wouldn't Want To Be An Ancient Egyptian Mummy Web Book designed by Peter Cook
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Ancient Egyptian Mummy Web Book

An added element was the development of a series of 'Web Books' – web-based versions of titles such as You Wouldn't Want to be an Egyptian Mummy, Roman Soldier, Polar Explorer, etc. These used all of the text and images from the print version, but allowed the users to interact with the content by locating a cursor over ‘hotspots’ to view a simple animation or a speech bubble – a fun element that was a distinguishing feature of the You Wouldn't Want to Be series. I also developed a Web Book version of You Wouldn't Want to Sail on the Whaling Ship Essex, one of three titles that I had written for David.

The Web Books generated millions of views, and good publicity for the print versions. For a number of years the 'Egyptian Mummy' and 'Roman Soldier' Web Books were listed at the top of Google web searches for these subjects. This was the result of Google's search algorithm, which ranks websites on the basis of the number of other websites that link to them, and the ranking of those websites as credible sources. The majority of the links to the Web Books came from US Schools, and respected sources, such as the BBC History website. It was unfortunate that Franklin Watts, the US publisher of the book series, did not have the foresight to invest in and promote the Web Books series, which could have had a future as 'Apps' developed for mobile phones and tablet devices.

Question 6

You have seen the publishing industry evolve over the years, what emerging trends do you believe will shape its future?

As previous sections have shown, my career in digital publishing has spanned over 40 years, with technologies continually evolving and displacing earlier media and techniques. Each of these technologies have presented new challenges for publishers and creators, especially as the very nature of screen-based interactions are often of short duration, especially when compared with browsing and reading printed books. But the challenge is still the same, ensuring that well-crafted content is presented in engaging ways, inciting curiosity and taking the user on a journey of exploration, learning new insights and broadening their understanding of the world, with all its complexity.



bottom of page