Magazine article Management Today

Trading on the Past

Magazine article Management Today

Trading on the Past

Article excerpt

Some call it vanity publishing. Others claim that a book of corporate history can have clear commercial benefits. Nick Hasell charts the rise of a little-known literary genre

In an age when companies advertise on the Internet it might seem wilfully old-fashioned to espouse the promotional powers of a book - especially a book of corporate history. Yet that is what Hamish MacGibbon, managing director of publisher James & James, has spent much of the past 10 years doing - and, to all outward signs, doing with some success. Since publishing the history of a small north London timber supply business for its 125th anniversary in 1986, James & James has brought out over 40 titles covering the life stories of companies as diverse as Whitbread and the Woolwich. It forms part of a small, apparently profitable, niche of publishers which specialise in producing high-quality, illustrated books for the corporate market.

Most commonly, says MacGibbon, a company will commission a history to mark a major anniversary or the retirement of the founder or chairman. Other clients, according to Stephanie Zarach of rival publisher, Book Production Consultants, simply seek to document their past before the relevant papers get lost or the leading players pass away. And then there is the more suspect, self-aggrandising desire to use a glossy, hardback book to tell the world that the business is actually doing rather well.

In most cases, however, there are sound commercial reasons: to attract customers, employees, or shareholders, or to provide opinion formers, national and local government, or the community at large with easily assimilable background information.`A book can do things no other medium can do,' says MacGibbon. `It is a way of engaging people in what the company is about and getting across certain messages. It says "This is why we're good at what we're doing, why we're a good company to trade with, invest in or work for, or why we're doing a good job for the community." In short, it gets people involved in the culture of a company.' His views are echoed by Sir David Simon, chairman of BP, for whom James & James published a lavish history last year. `Great companies have strongly defined cultures" he says, `and a good company history reveals this.'

Of course, any company that wishes to publish its history must be prepared to commit both resources and time - in providing the writer with archive material and making the senior executives, current and retired, available for interview. …

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