BRING TO THE PUBLIC THE KNOWLEDGE OF OUR TIME
William Warder Norton (known as Warder) and Mary Dows Herter Norton (known as Polly) had been married only a year when, in the spring of 1923, they set their sights on a passion project. Warder had moved to New York from Columbus, Ohio for a career in the import-export business; Polly, a native New Yorker, was an accomplished violinist, student of science and translator. Both were believers in lifelong learning. They decided to publish and distribute lectures delivered at the People’s Institute, the adult division of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, as extension courses in adult education. While initially modest in scope, this enterprise allowed the Nortons to pursue their progressive vision that leaders in their fields should, in the words of Warder, “bring to the public the knowledge of our time”.
The publishing process was simple: a stenographer transcribed the lectures, and the Nortons assembled them into pamphlets and boxed them in sets of twenty in their living room at 109 Waverly Place. As Polly later remembered, “Warder would carry the results by taxi in an old Drew suitcase that had accompanied my parents on their wedding journey, to the office.” The office was a room loaned to them by the People’s Institute at its headquarters at 70 Fifth Avenue. What had started as an avocation quickly became a full-time occupation and their enterprise was incorporated as the People’s Institute Publishing Company on 7 November 1923.
The Nortons soon discovered that the demand for lectures-in-print far exceeded their supply. They began acquiring acclaimed works by celebrated academics from America and abroad in the fields of philosophy, literature, music and psychology, publishing Bertrand Russell, Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Polly), Paul Bekker (co-translated by Polly), and Sigmund Freud (as his primary American publisher). As they increasingly sought out original books, the Nortons expanded beyond the scope of the Institute and on 7 May 1926, the People’s Institute Publishing Company was reincorporated as W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
A FIGURE OF UNIVERSAL RESPECT AND LIKING
The firm rode out the Great Depression surprisingly well, despite its youth, and began the 1940s with a handful of bestsellers and with growth in its lists. As the U.S. entered the Second World War, Warder was inspired to help found the Council on Books in Wartime, a group that allocated scarce printing materials among all publishers. Described in the New York Herald Tribune as “a figure of universal respect and liking”, he was soon elected the council’s chairman, working with other publishing greats such as Bennett Cerf and John Farrar to spearhead a book-donation effort that put 123 million copies of 1,180 titles into the hands of those in U.S. military service. “This is the most valuable thing that bookmen can undertake in the conduct of the war”, said Warder about the massive project that produced books designed to fit into the pockets of soldiers; in this role, he also coined the council’s slogan, “Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas”, which was adopted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Tragically, on 7 November 1945—shortly after the war’s end and twenty-two years to the day since the incorporation of People’s Institute Publishing—Warder Norton died. He was only 54. His death could have spelled the end of the publishing house, if not for a unique and radically generous decision by Polly. Within a few years of Warder’s death, she decided to entrust the firm to future generations of employees, in exchange for a commitment to keep the company independent in perpetuity. That arrangement, initiated in 1952, defines the firm to this day. As George P. Brockway, the company’s third president, said, “We have remained independent mainly because Warder Norton was a fiercely independent man and surrounded himself with others of like mind.” And as Julia Reidhead, the company’s sixth president, adds, “Just as important, we remain independent because Polly Norton understood that employee ownership fosters independence that can endure.”
INDEPENDENCE THAT CAN ENDURE
Since those early days, W.W. Norton & Company has consistently published books that reflect their social moments and resonate well beyond them. A few of Norton’s era-defining trade books include The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2023 and launched the Second Wave feminist movement; Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, one of literature’s most transgressive and brutal satires, which ignited a debate over social control in the modern state; Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, his first-hand account of the Cuban Missile Crisis; Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter, a landmark of true crime that exposed a new counterculture of violence; Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, the seminal behind-the-scenes chronicle of Wall Street excess that launched its author as one of the most influential nonfiction writers of our time; The 9/11 Commission Report, perhaps the most consequential government report in modern U.S. history (published by Norton with record speed, its significant sales making possible donations to programmes for disaster preparedness and international relations); Claude M. Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, a ground-breaking study of the stubborn persistence of dangerous stereotypes; and Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, which pulls back the curtain on an ageing itinerant workforce that is hiding in plain sight.
At the same time, Norton’s college department has served as a cornerstone of the publishing programme. Seven years after the firm’s founding, Norton entered textbook publishing seriously. In the 1940s, Norton broadened its history list with Edward McNall Burns’s Western Civilizations, and in the 1950s launched a book that would become the world’s best-selling music text, Joseph Machlis’s The Enjoyment of Music. A decade later, Norton asked leading Romanticism scholar M.H. Abrams to develop a concept for an anthology that would become, in the words of Rachel Donadio of The New York Times, “the sine qua non of college textbooks, setting the agenda for the study of English literature in this country and beyond”. This book, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, led the way for other landmark Norton Anthologies; taken together, their pages have now been turned by more than 50 million students worldwide. The anthologies were joined in the same decade by Norton Critical Editions, which have opened the world of classic books to 12 million students.
From its early roots in music and literature, Norton’s college list has expanded across the humanities, social sciences and sciences with the introduction of market-leading textbooks like Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!: An American History; Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing; and Stephen Marshak’s Earth: Portrait of a Planet. Additionally, Benjamin Ginsberg, Theodore J. Lowi, and Margaret Weir’s We the People: An Introduction to American Politics; Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Psychological Science; Thomas R. Gilbert et al.’s Chemistry: The Science in Context; Dirk Mateer and Lee Coppock’s Principles of Economics; and Bruce Alberts et al.’s Molecular Biology of the Cell(acquired from Garland Science) have joined the Norton Anthologies, Norton Critical Editions and The Enjoyment of Musicas pillars of the college list. Norton’s Digital Products Group has built a suite of innovative teaching and learning resources, notably Smartwork, a versatile and easy-to-use homework system; InQuizitive, Norton’s popular adaptive quizzing platform; and, launching in 2023, the Norton Illumine Ebook, an engaging, supportive, fully integrated learning environment.
During the past several decades, Norton has continued to expand its publishing programme with new imprints. In the 1970s, Norton bought Liveright Publishing Corporation and its illustrious backlist. In 2012, the Liveright imprint was revived, inaugurating its first original list in almost forty years. It has since won multiple awards and has published acclaimed books by authors including Mary Beard, Pete Buttigieg, Marcia Chatelain, Jack E. Davis, Fintan O’Toole, the late Les Payne and Tamara Payne, Richard Rothstein, E.O. Wilson, and Paul McCartney, whose The Lyricsbecame, perhaps, the only $100 two-volume set ever to make its debut at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
In 1984, Norton added the imprint Norton Professional Books, which established a robust and thriving list for psychotherapists that currently includes books by Temple Grandin, Kenneth V. Hardy, Stephen W. Porges and Deb Dana, and has now added a list of titles for professional educators.
Norton acquired the distinguished Vermont firm Countryman Press in 1996—founded as a regional publisher in 1973, now based in New York—as a dynamic Norton imprint with notable books on food, healthy living, travel, parenting and nature. Current Countryman authors range from Mary Beth Albright, Derek Dellinger, John Gidding, Kate McDermott and Matthew Raiford to the Wonder Weeks team and the King Arthur Baking Company.
In 2015, Norton introduced a high school department providing textbooks to Advanced Placement and other classrooms, and in 2017, the company launched its first children’s and young adult imprint, Norton Young Readers, offering a vibrant list of authors and subjects including recent National Book Award finalists Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes and Dawud Anyabwile, as well as Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey, David Shannon and Rosemary Wells. With these most recent efforts, Norton has become a company that—from early childhood through the teen years and adulthood—grows readers for life.
The company continues to publish the work of some of the world’s most eminent voices. Nobel laureates of recent decades include Svetlana Alexievich, Ben S. Bernanke, Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, Eric R. Kandel, Paul Krugman, Nelson Mandela, Edmund S. Phelps, Amartya Sen, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Richard Thaler, Kip S. Thorne and Harold Varmus; recent Pulitzer Prize winners include Marcia Chatelain, Jack E. Davis, Jared Diamond, Rita Dove, John W. Dower, Stephen Dunn, Nicole Eustace, Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Stephen Greenblatt, John Matteson, Les Payne and Tamara Payne, Richard Powers, Alan Taylor, and William Taubman. Norton’s thriving poetry programme, established in the 1960s, includes National Book Award winners Ai, A.R. Ammons, Martín Espada, Stanley Kunitz, Adrienne Rich and Gerald Stern, amongst many others.
Norton’s bestsellers in recent decades have included books by Diane Ackerman, Andrea Barrett, Jessica Bruder, Nicholas Carr, Jared Diamond, Caitlin Doughty, Andre Dubus III, Neil Gaiman, Annette Gordon-Reed, Stephen Greenblatt, David Ignatius, Mike Isaac, Sebastian Junger, Nicole Krauss, Paul Krugman, Jill Lepore, Michael Lewis, J. Kenji López-Alt, Janice Nimura, Richard Powers, Mary Roach, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Ian Toll, Neil deGrasse Tyson (whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurrywas the company’s first million-copy hardcover), Scott Weidensaul, Emily Wilson, Fareed Zakaria, and many others. Norton also publishes popular series, most notably Patrick O’Brian’s acclaimed, best-selling Aubrey-Maturin novels, recently reissued in striking paperback editions.
BOOKS THAT LIVE
Now, after a century, and with an annual list of 400 titles, W.W. Norton is a global company, its familiar seagull logo appearing on books throughout the world. Still, there is much that would remain recognisable to its founders: the editorial quality of the books, the independence and self-determination, and above all, the shared sense of purpose that flourishes when all employees have a stake in the success of their firm. The company’s founding vision guides its departments and imprints today and will be evident in new projects that the company launches in 2023, from the Norton Shorts series of concise, issue-driven books for general readers by today’s hottest academic stars to its bold new student success initiative, The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching.
In the 1930s, the Norton catalogue carried the banner “Books That Live”, announcing that “the Norton imprint on a book means that it is a book not for a single season, but for the years”. Today, as W.W. Norton & Company enters its second century, it continues to adhere to that motto, striving to publish works of enduring distinction in the areas of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, textbooks and courseware.