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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2 Comments so far

  1. Martin S White on March 9, 2021 21:13

    I was working at Reed Publishing from the time Maxwell bought BPC until he bought the Daily Mirror. My remit was to develop Reed’s e-publishing businesses, though I had come across his methods in an earlier business and learned a painful lesson. As a neophyte publisher (I think I got the job because I knew nothing about publishing so could ask difficult questions whilst smiling) I had a grudging respect for Maxwell’s determination to change the face of publishing. Some of the meetings that took place at Reed in an attempt to out-manoeuver remain in my memory but will never be written down. I benefited from significant internal support from Reed for e-publishing and some of the things I explored would never have been contemplated had Maxwell not have been in the mood to buy first and think later. Certainly his impact on the STM business was significant (Ivan Klimes must take a lot of the credit!) and in the end Reed profited from the expansion of Elsevier. They were without doubt interesting times to be in the publishing business.

  2. Peter Ashby on March 10, 2021 10:44

    David- very pertinent as the media cover recent book “The Fall” – and more tales come out! My long contact with ‘the captain’ culminated in a few years at the helm of some new publishing tech and markets. I was nearly fired for telling ‘the chairman” he had piled 5 full time jobs on me and that I had no budget for publishing a microfilm and online resource for what he foretold would be the 21st Century’s greatest problem – for geriatric medicine and gerontology ( I still have the brochure) I was given leave to get on with it with the big man’s words ” I am your budget” – 3 decades later I have http://www.care-enabler.co.uk – an offering from what is expected to be a global enterprise SeraCares.com! The jury is out assessing non- financial aspects of a genius crook!