W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. History
New York, New York 10110
Telephone: (212) 354-5500
Fax: (212) 869-0856
Incorporated: 1923 as People's Institute Publishing Co.
Sales: $100 million (1997 est.)
NAIC: 51113 Book Publishers; 323117 Book Printing
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., the oldest and largest publishing house owned wholly by its employees, strives to carry out the imperative of its founder to "publish books not for a single season, but for the years" in the areas of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. is an employee-owned publisher of trade books and college texts. Perhaps best known to college students for its Norton Anthologies, the company has published a diverse and well-respected mixture of academic and popular titles since it was founded more than 75 years ago.
W.W. Norton & Company began in 1923 as the not-for-profit People's Institute Publishing Co. William Warder Norton and his wife, M.D. Herter Norton, published in pamphlet form lectures delivered by others at the People's Institute, the adult division of Cooper Union in New York City. They initially ran the People's Institute Publishing Co. as a side venture, having come to New York from Columbus, Ohio, to work in the import-export business. Soon the demand for the lectures, some of which were delivered by the reigning intellectuals of the day, turned the Nortons into full-time publishers.
In 1925 Warder Norton spent six weeks in Europe, meeting publishers in England and on the continent. He bought the U.S. publishing rights to about 20 nonfiction titles that would be imported as unbound sheets and printed in the United States. He also arranged for an English-language version of Paul Bekker's The Story of Music, with his wife Herter doing the translation. Herter would later translate the poetry of German poet Rainier Marie Rilke to widespread critical acclaim. The Story of Music was Norton's first music history title, a field in which the publisher would excel as its list expanded.
While in England Warder contacted philosopher Bertrand Russell, and they became friends. He acquired Russell's new work, Philosophy, the first of several of Russell's works that Norton would publish. As a result of Norton's trip, the company's first offerings had a distinctly European flavor and included such titles as John B. Watson's Behaviorism, which would become a classic in psychology, Franz Boas's Anthropology and Modern Life, John Cowper Powys's The Meaning of Culture, and Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses.
By 1929 Norton had 34 titles in print and a dozen employees. The firm survived the Great Depression in spite of having its bank account frozen for ten years by the failed Bank of the United States. The company's staff took pride in the quality of its list, and two successful titles published in the mid-1930s helped offset prior losses. They were An American Doctor's Odyssey, by Victor G. Heiser, and Mathematics for the Millions, by Lancelot Hogben. The former was the firm's first major bestseller and a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, while the latter went on to sell more than 250,000 hardcover copies and remained in print as a Norton paperback.
Entered College Publishing, 1930
Norton's college department began by promoting the company's titles to university libraries and faculty. Warder Norton would also call on college professors and persuade them to write books for Norton to publish. In 1930 Norton became more seriously involved in college publishing when it acquired a substantial number of titles in print and under contract from textbook publisher F.S. Crofts. Crofts had previously obtained these titles from publisher Alfred Knopf. To these Knopf/Crofts titles Norton added books it had found in subjects such as history, literature, education, and foreign languages.
Around this time Norton also became more involved in publishing books on music and psychiatry. Up to this time most books on music history had been published in Germany, which had a near monopoly on music scholarship. With the rise of Nazi Germany, however, many academics fled Europe and migrated to the United States. Norton published several titles on music history with an academic appeal. Then in 1941 it published Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization, a hybrid that sold well in the college and trade markets. Lang was a professor of music at Columbia University and, for a time, music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune. He became Norton's advisory editor in music and brought to the firm such market-leading textbooks as Joseph Machlis's The Enjoyment of Music and Donald J. Grout's A History of Western Music.
Norton began publishing important titles in psychiatry in 1932 with the publication of Franz Alexander's The Medical Value of Psychoanalysis. The next year it published Sigmund Freud's New Introductory Lectures, which would achieve long-lasting fame. Norton later became the U.S. publisher of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. In addition to publishing academic titles in psychiatry, Norton also published trade-oriented psychiatric works by authors such as Rollo May and Harry Overstreet that became bestsellers.
Published Western Civilizations, 1941
In 1941 Norton's college department published Western Civilizations by Edward McNall Burns of Rutgers University. Within a year the book was recognized as an important history survey in the college market. As new editions were published, Norton introduced several firsts, including full-color illustrations and maps in the fifth edition. The sixth edition became the first survey text to be available in a two-volume paperback alternative to the single hardbound volume. With the publication of the 12th edition in the 1990s, the book continued to outsell most of its competitors.
During World War II paper and binding materials were in short supply. Norton was thinly staffed as many of its employees served in the armed forces. Warder Norton himself served as head of the Council of Books in Wartime, which was responsible for allocating scarce printing materials among all publishers. Late in 1945, shortly after the end of the war, Warder Norton died at the age of 54 following a brief illness.
Became an Employee-Owned Company, 1946
Warder's death could have easily meant the end of the publishing company, but Herter Norton came up with a plan for the company to continue. She offered nearly all of her stock in the company to the firm's leading editors and managers. A Joint Stockholders Agreement was drawn up, entrusting ownership of the firm to its employees. The agreement has remained in force for more than 50 years, and the number of shareholders has increased to include nearly all Norton employees. The agreement ensured Norton's independence; there is no market outside the company for its stock, and employees who have purchased shares must sell them back to the company or to other employees when leaving the firm.
Period of Expansion, 1950s
Storer D. Lunt succeeded Warder Norton as the company's president from 1945 to 1957, when he became chairman until 1964. Norton's publishing program expanded in the 1950s, and the firm became more profitable. The college program went through a remarkable transformation when Norton began publishing the first of its Norton anthologies. These anthologies, with their innovative editorial and design standards, literally changed the way survey courses were taught. Perhaps the two most successful anthologies were those published for English survey courses, The Norton Anthology of English Literature and The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. The various Norton anthologies have sold more than an estimated 20 million copies.
The company's trade department also turned out an array of successful and influential titles during the 1950s and 1960s. These included The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique; Dean Acheson's Present at the Creation, a political memoir; Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy's posthumously published account of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Joseph Lash's biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor and Franklin, which won a National Book Award.
Began Publishing Poetry and Paperbacks, 1960s
In 1957 George C. Brockway became president of the company, serving until 1976. He was also chairman from 1971 to 1984.
During the 1960s Norton initiated a small but distinguished poetry program. The company would publish works by National Book Award winners A.R. Ammons, Stanley Kunitz, and Adrienne Rich, as well as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.
The company also began a paperback publishing program and another in children's book publishing. While the latter did not survive the decade, the former proved quite successful and was closely allied with the company's college department. The paperback program began as the Norton Library, a series of reprint editions of little-known 19th-century novels. When these failed to sell well, the paperback program was expanded to include history, politics, and psychology. Other titles were drawn from Norton's already published hardcover editions, and acquisitions were made from other publishers, especially university presses.
The college department continued to be the principal engine in the company's growth. It strengthened its English list by publishing a series of Norton Critical Editions. It also became more heavily involved in subjects such as economics, political science, and the sciences. Competing against 12 other publishers, Norton won the right to publish the M.I.T. Introductory Physics series. Four texts in economics by Edwin Mansfield and an introductory psychology text by Henry Gleitman bolstered the college department's presence in the social sciences.
Sales Increased Fourfold, 1970s--90s
Donald S. Lamm, who had joined Norton in 1956 as a college sales rep, served as president from 1976 to 1994. He succeeded George Brockway as chairman in 1984. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, Norton's sales increased fourfold. While the college department led the way, the company's trade department also contributed. College publishing added several important texts, including American Government, by Theodore J. Lowi and Benjamin Ginsberg; Hal R. Varian's Microeconomics; and Macroeconomics, by Robert E. Hall and John B. Taylor. The trade department added several academic authors to its list, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman; Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould; and historians such as Edmund S. Morgan, William S. McFeely, Jonathan Spence, and Peter Gay. McFeely's biography of Ulysses S. Grant won a Pulitzer Prize, and Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time was a national bestseller.
The company's trade list became more eclectic as it introduced a variety of non-academic titles. Among the more successful titles were Martin Katahn's diet books and a series of mysteries from writer Walter Mosley that featured black detective Easy Rawlins. Norton also published Helter Skelter, an account of serial killer Charles Manson's family written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.
The company established Norton Professional Books in 1984. Its books were sold via catalogs and direct mail and were initially targeted for psychotherapists. Based in Evanston, Illinois, Norton Professional Books eventually expanded into architecture, design, and nautical science.
In the early 1990s Norton became more involved in international publishing. It created W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. in London, England, and established sales affiliations in several Far East countries. In 1994 W. Drake McFeely became president, and Donald Lamm was promoted to chairman. McFeely had joined Norton in 1976 and was most recently vice-president and associate director of the college department. In 1995 the company launched its web site, and in 1996 it published its first CD-ROM textbook.
At the start of 1996 Norton acquired Countryman Press, based in Vermont, to bolster its backlist. Countryman had a 23-year history and published a series of adventure guides for explorers, hikers, and bicyclists. It also had a mystery imprint, Foul Play Press, which Norton planned on continuing. It was only the second acquisition in Norton's history, the first being Liveright Publishing Corporation in 1974.
Celebrated 75th Anniversary, 1998
As Norton celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1998, it could look back on a history of balance and stability. The employee-owned company was stable and profitable, taking in more than $100 million in annual revenues. Its last two years had shown record-breaking profits, and it had comfortably paid a $1 million advance to author Michael Lewis, who had left Norton after the success of his first book, Liar's Poker. Norton had achieved balance by carefully mixing trade and college publishing. It was guided by its founder's sense for publishing books of lasting value, or "Books That Live," his motto. Finally, the firm's employee ownership had given it unusual stability and promoted a high degree of loyalty.
Norton employees were entitled to buy stock in the company after working for the firm for three and a half years, and about half of the company's 400 employees owned stock in 1998. Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the stock was controlled by Norton's 14 directors.
The company's employee ownership would be an important factor in its ability to continue as a medium-sized independent publisher. It had no plans to grow through acquisitions but had broadened its offerings by taking on the distribution of books from other smaller publishers. In early 1999 the company announced a new imprint, Outside Books, a line of books about active living and the outdoors that would be published in association with Outside magazine. With its strong college department and expanding trade lines, Norton was likely to continue to prosper as an independent publisher.
Principal Subsidiaries: Norton Professional Books; W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. (U.K.).
- "About W.W. Norton," http://www.wwnorton.com/about.htm, March 1, 1999.
- Feldman, Gayle, "Seventy-Five Years of Norton's 'Books That Live,"' Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1998, p. 16.
- Milliot, Jim, "Norton Acquires Vermont's Countryman Press," Publishers Weekly, January 29, 1996, p. 10.
- "New Head for Norton: McFeely Is Appointed President," Publishers Weekly, May 23, 1994, p. 27.
- "New Norton Line with 'Outside'," Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1999, p. 20.
- Reid, Calvin, "Norton on the Web," Publishers Weekly, July 24, 1995, p. 11.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 28. St. James Press, 1999.