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“Books are the weapons in the battle of ideas.” These were the words of William Warder Norton, who 90 years ago launched the firm that bears his name. Today, the three-person company he once ran from his living room has become the oldest and largest publishing house owned entirely by its employees.

In 1923, Norton and his wife, Mary Dows Herter Norton, hired a stenographer and began transcribing and publishing the lectures delivered at the People’s Institute, the adult division of Cooper Union in New York City. While initially modest in scope, this enterprise embodied Norton’s progressive vision that leaders in their fields—not mere popularisers—should “bring to the public the knowledge of our time."

The Nortons soon expanded their programme, acquiring manuscripts by celebrated academics from America and abroad and entering the fields of philosophy, music and psychology, in which they published acclaimed works by Bertrand Russell, Paul Henry Lang, and Sigmund Freud (as his primary American publisher).

William Warder Norton died shortly after the Second World War. Within a few years, Mrs Norton, who had been so instrumental in the firm’s development, decided that the company should be entrusted to the next generation of employees, and she offered most of her stock to its leading editors and managers. The Joint Stockholders Agreement that was subsequently signed gave the ownership of the firm to its active employees; that agreement remains in force to this day, the number of shareholders greatly expanded to include nearly all current Norton employees.

"Let us make all the necessary vows that we will stick to the business of publishing the best books we can lay our hands on and then keep our hands on them for as long as may be.”William Warder Norton

Since those early days, W.W. Norton & Company has consistently published books that reflect their social moment and resonate well beyond it. Some of the era-defining books published by Norton include The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which is considered to be one of the most influential books of the twentieth century; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, which had its redemptive ending famously cut by its editor to make the novel darker yet; Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy’s firsthand account of the Cuban Missile Crisis; Present at the Creation by Dean Acheson; Liar’s Poker, which launched Michael Lewis’s decades-long chronicle of Wall Street’s greed and hubris; and The 9/11 Commission Report, a vital historical document printed with record speed, a significant portion of its profits going to charity.

William Warder Norton’s aim was to publish “any book that could bring to the public the knowledge of our time”. The company holds fast to this mission and continues to print the work of some of the world’s most influential voices. Nobel Prize winners include Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, Eric Kandel, Paul Krugman, Edmund Phelps, Joseph Stiglitz and Harold Varmus; Pulitzer Prize winners include Dean Acheson, Jared Diamond, Rita Dove, John Dower, Stephen Dunn, Erik Erikson, Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Stephen Greenblatt, Maxine Kumin, Joseph Lash, William McFeely, John Matteson, Edmund Morgan and William Taubman. Norton’s thriving poetry programme, established in the 1960s, includes National Book Award winners Ai, A.R. Ammons, Stanley Kunitz, Adrienne Rich and Gerald Stern.

In recent decades, Norton’s national bestsellers have included books by Diane Ackerman, Andrea Barrett (also a National Book Award winner), Vincent Bugliosi, Andre Dubus III, Sebastian Junger, Michael Lewis, Nicole Krauss, Mary Roach, Jonathan Spence, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sean Wilentz, Edward O. Wilson and Fareed Zakaria.

At the same time, Norton’s textbook department serves as a cornerstone of the publishing programme. In the 1940s, Norton broadened its history publishing with Edward McNall Burns’s Western Civilizations. A decade later, Norton asked leading Romanticism scholar M.H. Abrams to develop a concept that went on to change the teaching of literature: the Norton Anthologies. The tissue-thin paper of these books has been turned by over 20 million students worldwide.

From its early roots in music and literature, Norton’s textbook list has expanded. Its list of academic staples includes Henry Gleitman’s Psychology; Joseph Stiglitz Economics of the Public Sector; Hal Varian’s Intermediate Microeconomics and Microeconomic Analysis; Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!; Joan L. Slonczewski and John W. Foster’s Microbiology, Stephen Marshak’s Earth have joined the Norton Anthologies, Norton Critical Editions and A History of Western Music as leaders in their fields.

During the past forty years, Norton has continued to expand its publishing programme. In the 1970s, Norton bought the Liveright Publishing Corporation and its illustrious backlist. One of the great presses of the early twentieth century, Liveright published William Faulkner’s first two novels, E.E. Cummings’s collected poetry, Hart Crane’s complete poems and Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In 2012, a revived Liveright inaugurated its first original list in four decades, with new works by R. Crumb, J.G. Ballard and Jim Holt. In the 1980s and 1990s, Norton notably added the Norton Professional Books and acquired The Countryman Press, with its well-respected nature, history and outdoor recreation titles.

Handling sales, marketing and publicity in the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East, the British branch of W.W. Norton, with offices in central London, was established in 1980.

Now, with an annual list of 400 titles, W.W. Norton is a global company, its familiar seagull logo appearing on books throughout the world. Though the Norton of today is international in scope, there is much about the company that would remain recognisable to its founders: the editorial quality of the books, the rigorously anti-corporate style and above all the shared sense of purpose that flourishes when all employees have a stake in the success of their firm.