Donald Lamm Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing World of Publishing: Conversation with Donald S. Lamm, Chair, W.W.Norton Publishing Co., by Harry Kreisler, 2/5/98

Photo by L. Carper

Page 2 of 10

W.W. Norton

When did your association with Norton begin?

It began shortly after I got off a steamer coming from Oxford (or from Southampton), to New York City and discovering that $4.30 wouldn't go very far very long. So I interviewed with a number of publishing houses, hoping really to be named an editor on the spot, and then discovered that I had to hang around a lot longer than two or three days in order to get that particular title.

Tell us a little about Norton's history.

Let me go back, maybe egocentrically, to the day I arrived there. Norton was a firm that was poised on the knife-edge between success and dissolution. I didn't know that when I arrived there.

And this would be what year?

In 1956. At the time, its net revenues for the year, something I only discovered much later, were about $1 million. And even in the 1950s, a million dollars didn't go very far. So that was something I just didn't inquire about, but what interested me about the place was that everybody I talked to read books. They read the books, in fact, that the firm published.

Tell us a little about the founders.

The founders were a remarkable couple. Book publishing is often thought of as a strictly New York venture, at one time maybe Boston and New York, but the fact is that William Warder Norton grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He came to New York in the import - export business and during his early years in New York, he met a bluestocking, a woman of great intellectual power whose full name was Margaret Daws Herter, known to all of us as Polly. And they turned out to be a remarkable couple, remarkable because they had a feeling that somehow the intellectual life of the time was not being captured in books.

And they set up publishing public education lectures that would be given in New York City?

That's absolutely right. There's a famous institution in New York, not well known in the grid of great universities, called Cooper Union. Mr. Lincoln actually gave one of his greatest addresses there. But the Cooper Union, in order to generate some funds in the 1920s, discovered that they could give lectures, what we would now call, perhaps, adult education lectures, by eminent social scientists and scientists of the day. Those didn't travel very far. If you weren't in the audience in the so-called Great Hall at Cooper Union, you never heard about the lectures. That's where the Norton team came into operation -- and it was a team. So they started as the People's Institute Publishing Company, something that sounds sort of vaguely communistic. But its whole purpose was, as you have said, to put out single lectures in print in what, to use the European term, were fascicles or pamphlets.

And they expanded to an array of authors. Soon they were publishing Bertrand Russell, Paul Henry Lang, and then Norton became the publisher of Sigmund Freud.

That's right, although "Old Whiskers," as we affectionately call him, never gave a lecture at Cooper Union. Russell did. John Watson, the American founder of behavioral psychology, gave a lecture there. Forgotten people like Everett Dean Martin, a political theorist. Those were the early lectures. And what they discovered was that there was sufficient demand so that they would take a collection of these separate pamphlets and put them in boxes. That was a very cumbersome way. It was a very nice way to fall in love, as they did. I don't recall if they were married at the time actually, but they were married during the course of this.

That is the Nortons.

That's right. So people would say, "I want a Bertrand Russell and I want an Everett Dean Martin," and they would put them together in cardboard boxes. Now three years of that and they thought, wouldn't it be a lot easier if these were stitched together and turned into something we might call books?

And how did the relationship with Freud start? Was it later in his career?

It was about five or six years later, when the firm was a going concern, a modestly going concern to be sure.

This would be what year?

I think we're talking about 1931. There was a Norton editor by the name of Elling Annestad who went, as American publishers did, to London in order to find out what was happening there so that books could be brought to the United States. And he heard that James Strachey was at work on an authorized standard edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. That was the initial contact, but the really interesting part of the story to me is that a man named Storer Lunt, who preceded me by two as president and chairman of the company, went over a couple of years later and met Leonard Woolf and his much better known wife Virginia Woolf, who were the publishers of the Hogarth Press. It was Hogarth who published The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.

So what is the relationship with Norton then? You had the option to publish them in the United States?

We had a limited right to publish individual volumes in the United States. The Nortons never conceived at that time that we might be interested in the entire work. But gradually we rolled into the much larger operation of publishing all of Freud, with the exception of five volumes that eventually leaked out of the Norton corpus and went to firms such as Basic Books and John Wiley. And those are still there. Interpretation of Dreams is not a Norton book. Three Essays on Sexuality is not a Norton book.

Are the Freud books one of your all-time best sellers?

If you put them all together, yes. Certainly Civilization and its Discontents is far and away the leader. I could set my calculator every year at 35,000 copies and expect by the end of the year that the sales would get up to that number.

The other distinctive thing about W.W. Norton, in addition to its founders' concern with ideas and the development of a list of great authors, is the fact that at a certain point in its history the firm became employee owned. How did that happen, and what does employee ownership mean for your independence?

Mr. Norton, in a sense, was a war casualty. He was still a young man, 54 years of age, and he had managed to hold the firm together during the very difficult years of the Second World War. And he was head of something called The Council on Books in Wartime. It was that council, which was a consortium of publishers, that agreed to an equitable distribution of paper and binding materials, all these scarce materials that went into the manufacture of books. He commuted regularly to wartime Washington and I think he was just worn out. Shortly after V-E Day, after the victory in Europe, he died. There was a real question about whether the firm would go on. Storer Lunt, who I've mentioned, had been the sales manager, and he and a man named Howard Wilson, who was essentially the treasurer of the firm, stepped up to the plate and kept it going for a year or so. And then Mrs. Norton, in an act of extraordinary generosity said, "Boys," -- and all the directors were boys -- "how do we keep this firm going?" And the answer was not a Magna Carta answer, but it boiled down to: we would like to feel we have a stake in the future of this company, a financial stake. And she gave it to them.

And what has that meant for the firm?

Well it started, you see, with this rather small band of perhaps seven people and, I'm delighted to say, one of them was a woman, Katherine Barnard. If you go back to the '40s, this would have been an unusual arrangement that one of the key players in fact was a woman. But they came into control of about 85 - 90 percent of the ownership of the stock. It wasn't worth much of course, in financial terms, then. But then they in turn, seeing that the firm was growing and had the possibility at least of not merely surviving but prospering, decided that more and more people should be invited into the ownership. It has now expanded to the point where 150 employees of the firm own stock directly and another 350, mostly at our distribution center, own stock indirectly through a 401(k) employees' agreement.

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