UK: SELLING POINTS - TRADING ON THE PAST. - 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.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

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. Book production is also a notoriously slow-moving business; a well-researched history will take at least a year, if not longer, from start to finish. James & James's books for BP and Whitbread, for example, took two years each, its forthcoming title for John Laing nearly three.

Nor does a history come cheap. Prices range from around £10,000 for a small print run of a softback book to around £300,000 for a large run of a full-colour hardback. Last year, for example, Royal Insurance spent £360,000 on a 240-page history to commemorate its 150th anniversary. Half of the initial print run - some 23,000 copies - was given free to staff, the rest used for promotional purposes. Roy Randall, Royal Insurance's head of group public relations, has no doubt that it was money well spent. 'In terms of cost effectiveness, it compares very well with the £10 million we spent on TV advertising in the UK last year,' he says. Throughout its anniversary year, the company launched the book around the world at a series of receptions. 'It became a key part of our marketing activities,' says Randall. 'It helped to both re-affirm our corporate values and show our longevity, which, in the Far East in particular, is something they look for. It's a very good calling card.' But then, not all companies would seem to make suitable subjects. While the likes of BP, Whitbread and Royal Insurance can lay claim to a long past full of historical incident and colourful anecdote, some companies would seem to provide both thin material and a small potential readership. Indeed, the uninviting titles of some tomes - Contract to Build: The DJ Higgins Story, or, even better, Excellence By Caring: The Continuing Story of Silcock Express - invite the charge of vanity publishing.

Neither does a short life seem to deter companies from commissioning a book; frozen food retailer Iceland could boast a full-colour history before reaching its quarter century. But anyone considering a similar course might beware the precedent of chemical company MTM, which, with some chutzpah, published its history in 1989 after only a decade in business. Three years later its share price collapsed and its founder - and four other directors - were forced to depart. Still, it should make for a good read in the sequel.

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