W.W. Norton & Company, one of the country’s largest independent publishers, has generally been happy to fly under the radar, but it’s stepping out of character this year as it celebrates its 100th anniversary. The company has a host of programs and events to mark its centennial underway, highlighted by its lavish June 7 bash at New York City’s Cipriani 42nd Street that attracted some 900 Norton fans. After five well-known Norton authors (Rita Dove, Neil Gaiman, Joy Harjo, Michael Lewis, and Richard Powers) offered tributes to the publisher’s success and longevity, chairman and president Julia Reidhead gave a quick salute to the world of independent publishing, drawing loud applause from attendees.
In an interview with PW two days before the party, Reidhead, who was named Norton’s first woman president in 2016 and added the chairman title in 2020, stressed how important independence has been to Norton’s ability to build a company that publishes about 450 titles per year and operates in both the trade and college markets—a strategy most publishers have abandoned in favor of concentrating on one industry segment.
Norton has about 650 employees, including some 200 who work in its warehouse, and across its trade and college departments it has “well over” 10,000 active backlist titles, a spokesperson said. The publisher’s combination of college and trade also provides financial balance. For example, the college department’s highly regarded Norton Anthologies have sold more than 50 million copies, and Norton Critical Editions have sold 12 million copies. And while college publishing in general is undergoing tremendous change, the trade department is operating in a less volatile market.
Asked which division is the biggest, Reidhead said excluding Norton’s trade distribution clients, college is “probably” bigger.
Reidhead is not ambiguous when it comes to identifying the turning point in Norton’s history: shortly after the death of William Warder Norton in 1945 at age 54, his widow, the very active company cofounder Mary “Polly” Dows Herter Norton, after rejecting about 24 acquisition offers, developed a plan to ensure the publisher’s independence. Starting in 1952, she gradually transferred her ownership stake in the company to its employees—“a step the defines Norton to this day,” former Norton chair W. Drake McFeely writes in Books That Live: Norton’s First One Hundred Years, a book Norton published to mark the anniversary (“Books That Live” is Norton’s long-standing motto). Under this ownership model, employees who become shareholders receive dividends but must sell their shares back to the plan when they leave the publisher—a formula that ensures all of Norton’s stock remains in the control of its current employees.
With independence comes stability, community, and the freedom to experiment, Reidhead said, adding that Norton’s resources allow it to act on promising initiatives.
Through its 100-year history, much of Norton’s growth has come organically. One relatively new venture was the 2019 launch of the Norton Young Readers imprint, which Reidhead approved, believing it would allow the company to reach readers from childhood through adulthood. The imprint, headed by Simon Boughton, has been nominated for two National Book Awards, and while NYR operates in what Reidhead said is a crowded field, she has been encouraged by early results. “We have a long-game strategy,” she noted. “We can take our time to find our way.”
Norton’s few acquisitions include Countryman Press in 1996 and the 1974 purchase of Liveright Publishing, which it acquired largely for its prestigious backlist, including books by Hart Crane, E.E. Cummings, Anita Loos, and Jean Toomer.
In 2012, McFeely revived Liveright’s frontlist program “to give a home to new voices,” Reidhead said. Those new voices have done well. Authors published by Liveright have won one National Book Award, four Pulitzer Prizes, and placed 25 titles on the New York Times bestsellers list, including Paul McCartney, whose The Lyrics has sold more than 277,000 copies since the $100 hardcover was released in November 2021.
Robert Weil, who joined Norton in 1998, oversaw the relaunch of Liveright as editor-in-chief of the imprint, and stepped away from the job’s managerial duties in June 2022 to take on a new role as Liveright v-p and executive editor, focused on acquiring new titles. Peter J. Simon, v-p and editor in Norton’s college department, took over as editor-in-chief.
A similar transition took place this June involving John Glusman, who has served as v-p and editor-in-chief of the Norton Trade department since 2011. Glusman relinquishes his position as editor-in-chief this week to become executive editor. Dan Gerstle, who joined Liveright as a senior editor in 2018, is moving to the Norton trade group to succeed Glusman as editor-in-chief.
Editors frequently move from one imprint or division to another within Norton due to how closely the different divisions work with one another, Weil and Glusman told PW in separate interviews, noting that collaboration helps the different divisions prosper. “We have a sterling college division, whose synergy with the trade division is integral to the company’s success, and a fair number of our authors have emerged from academia, since the house has a unique ability to commercialize books by leading academics,” Weil said. “In fact, it is this sweet spot between academia and trade publishing, in which stellar writing and narrative is stressed, that often makes our list stand out.”
Glusman has a similar take, pointing out how well the different divisions can cross market each others’ titles. He takes particular pride in the trade department’s sales and marketing capabilities. “We have a real sales reach, and our marketing teams market as effectively has anyone in the business,” he said, pointing to a long list of bestsellers that includes The Overstory by Richard Powers, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Nomadland by Jessica Bruder.
Norton’s sales capabilities benefit from the quality of its lists. Its authors have won 18 National Book Awards and taken home another 18 Pulitzer Prizes, and Norton has published books by at least 26 Nobelists. Both Weil and Glusman agree that Norton’s independence provides a stable, and stimulating, environment for editors as well as authors.
Brendan Curry, director of the trade group, oversees not only Norton Trade and Liveright but also Norton Professional Books, Countryman Press, and Norton Young Readers, and he also echoed that being an independent publisher lets Norton think about the long term. “We like to say we buy books for the future,” he said—a mindset that helps separate the company from corporate-owned publishers that need to worry about quarterly financial statements. “If a book is late or doesn’t meet expectations, we don’t need to worry about what will happen to the stock price.”
The company also resists rejecting any title because of doubts about its sales potential. “Many of our biggest books have been bought for modest prices,” Curry said.
Everyone PW interviewed at Norton was gratified with the large, enthusiastic turnout for the party, seeing it as approval for the way the company operates. “That was one of the best and biggest publishing parties in years,” Glusman said. “It was a testament to all of our authors and to the wonderful work done by my publishing colleagues.”