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Companies Of A Century: How W. W. Norton Became A Knowledge Keeper

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Over time, a project that started in Mary and William Norton's living room expanded into a true publishing house, disseminating knowledge from such celebrated academics as Bertrand Russell, Paul Henry Lang and Sigmund Freud. 

Editor’s Note: Chief Executive is kicking off a new annual tradition this year by celebrating every sizable (over $100 million in annual revenues) standalone company turning 100 in 2023. Check out the rest of this year’s class for tips, insights and, above all else, the inspiration you need to keep going….and going.




HQ: New York, New York
Revenues: $113 million
Employees: 575+ 

When William Warder Norton launched the firm that bears his name, his goal had more to do with disseminating knowledge than making a profit. Fans of the lectures held by the People’s Institute, he and his wife, Mary D. (“Polly”) Herter Norton, decided to hire a stenographer and assemble the talks into pamphlets, which they would sell in sets of 20. Their guiding mission was to “bring to the public the knowledge of our time.” 

Over time, a project that started in the Norton’s living room expanded into a true publishing house, as the Nortons began acquiring and publishing manuscripts from celebrated academics, including Bertrand Russell, Paul Henry Lang and Sigmund Freud. 

After Norton died, his wife organized a joint stockholders agreement to sell the company to its top editors and managers, setting the stage for a company culture that would perpetuate the core values of the company’s husband-and-wife founders. The employee ownership plan remains in force today, ensuring that the company is guided by like-minded professionals who share a passion for producing notable literature. 

Expanding Portfolio 

Books like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, Thirteen Days by Robert F. Kennedy and Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis are among the multitudes of era-defining works W.W. Norton has brought to the reading public. W.W. Norton has also expanded and adapted over the decades, introducing poetry, academic textbooks, professional books and vocational and trade publications. More recent initiatives aimed at embracing new technologies and digital platforms also broadened its reach. 

Even as it evolves with the times, the company remains committed to its founders’ mission of making books that foster critical thinking and intellectual growth accessible to a wide range of readers: “I feel I stand on the shoulders of giants,” CEO Julia Reidhead recently told publishing website Shelf Awareness, adding that the company will continue to publish books that engage, enlighten and inspire, ensuring that the legacy of William Warder Norton and his vision endures for generations to come.


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