I was 19 when my father in law to be made the remark . I had been astonished when a  friend of his , a member of the House of Lords and a close advisor to the Prime Minister , had blatantly cheated during a game of billiards . “ Dont blame him too much “, he said “ he went through Auschwitz as a capo . The man is a moral amputee . “ The expression came back to me time and again during the years in the mid 1980s when I worked as a consultant for Pergamon and then for Maxwell Communications Corporation . I do not know what made Maxwell like this , and I do not know what happened to him during the “missing ‘ wartime years from 1939 to the point where he enlisted in the British army in 1944. Nothing can excuse his criminality , or his cruel and abusive behaviour towards his family and his employees . But both John Preston’s recent book , a comment from Richard Charkin , and a long and interesting letter from Doug Whitehead , a senior MCC manager at the time of my engagement there , have given me pause for thought . We have the full measure of Maxwell the Monster : we do not have yet a proper reckoning on the man as a publisher . 

In many ways Maxwell can lay claim to being the first modern publisher , and from my own experience I can testify to the way in which he terrified his competitors into trying to keep up with him . Having founded Pergamon in the late 1940s off the back of Springer reprint and distribution contracts , he turned it into a spectacular growth story as he mapped together the explosion of  postwar science with the rapid development of new universities who needed reference collections . Then , by employing science editors and writers like Dr Ivan Klimes , for ever my image of the innovative scholarly communications publisher , it gained a competitive edge which , when Maxwell sold it to Elsevier , became the growth battery inside that company that propelled it to market leadership . 

This world was succeeded by the B2B world of MCC . The Captain stopped telling people like me that he wanted to be the biggest microfiche publisher in the world (1985) and started saying he wanted to be things like “ the biggest satellite communications company in the world “. My work had changed from two years of contract labour for a week a month ( 1985-7, always paid immaculately on time ) to ad hoc M&A and due diligence work . I shared the satellite dream , but when despatched to find the satellite takeover , drew a blank . Nothing suitable was for sale bar a three man outfit in Redhill which supplied links for realtime screen updating,  advertising late availability holidays ( “ One seat left for Famagusta on Friday “) in travel agents windows . But it was profitable . Maxwell’s eyes gleamed . Soon I was drafting the press release for Maxwell Satellite Communications ( “ world leader in growth sector “ , “ additive to group margins “ , “ largest player in the  travel sector “)

Doug Whitehead reminds me of the range of innovation . We were deep into GIS and intelligent mapping . We were dabbling in the ‘80s with linked content within digitised media . MCC led DIMPE , an EU project in distributed interactive media , seeking to build standards with people like Monotype ans Linotype . There was a feeling that we could kick the tyres of any new idea and get a hearing . And , of course , some things failed and were taken out of the shop window , or in fact proved to be the catalyst for something different which we had not envisaged . Maxwell blamed someone else and fired them in the first instance , and claimed the foresight credit in the second . But he was never afraid of failure . He expected it to happen , he made the appropriate divestments , but then he re-invested with the same tireless optimism. 

As my own clientele grew wider through the 1990s , people always wanted to hear a good Maxwell story . As I satisfied that demand I often reflected on how timorous some of these corporate players seemed compared to the piratical Captain . He had often forced them to innovate in order to keep up , and they resented it . But the fact remains , for me , that innovation on the scale practised by Maxwell needed courage and sustained self belief , and all too often those have been characteristics in very short supply in UK publishing and media boardrooms . Maxwell has a very good claim on the title “ first modern publisher “ as he sought to bridge the print to digital gulf in its earliest years . 


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