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Looking Ahead: The Future of Corporate History Publications

December 17, 2019 • Sam Grabel

With 2020 just around the corner, we wanted to give our readers a recap of where we’ve been this decade, and a preview of what’s to come. In this first installment of our Looking Ahead series, we sat down with History Factory writers Scott McMurray and Peter Gianopulos to talk about the past and future of publications.

How has the company publication evolved over the past 10 years? What do these types of book currently look like?

This is a photograph of the company history book Verizon Untethered: An Insider's Story of Innovation and Disruption. The book is open and showing the first chapter.

Scott McMurray: When we wrote an illustrated, text-driven history of a global consulting firm 15 years ago, the hardcover book was oversized: It used A4, a European paper size selected to emphasize the global nature of the company, and ran slightly more than 300 pages. The book was based on company archives and more than 100 interviews, most of which were conducted by History Factory oral historians. A CD containing the interviews was included in a sleeve attached to the inside back cover.

A decade ago, we wrote a two-volume history of a large oil company, based on access to decades of corporate archives and more than 75 interviews. Totaling more than 475 pages, the oversized, illustrated history was enclosed in a slipcase. A PDF version of the book was also prepared for client use.

The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 was a watershed for corporate histories, as it was for much else in the business world. Since then, books have tended to slim down and be available in e-formats, not just as PDFs. Over the past five years in particular, our teams and clients have focused on more visually driven publications, reflecting broader societal trends.

Peter Gianopulos: For far too long, corporate publications were seen as library-bound reference books, which took readers on a forced march, chronological chapter after chronological chapter, from a company’s founding to the present. Although History Factory occasionally broke the template, corporate history books were generally filled with lots of text, employed simple designs and used simple in-house corporate images (including a lot of headshots) merely to break up the text.

The best contemporary corporate histories have the ability to extend their reach and value beyond the interior corridors of a company. I think they have the potential to be as beautiful as architectural books and New York Times bestsellers. Look at what Taschen is doing with its book about sneakers, with annotations and complex photo shoots. Look at how Wes Anderson’s experience making a movie translates into a book. Look at the Portrait of a City series, which profiles urban centers.

Make it look and feel like something people would want to keep on their desks. Go bold. Illustrations. Annotations. Pop-ups. Full-page photo spreads

Think about how some of the most widely read historians—say, David McCullough—create illustrated editions of their book that come sealed with all sorts of illustrative goodies inside. I think in many ways it’s our ability to create extraordinary exhibits that can lead the way toward what we want our books to look like.

This is a photograph of several copies of the corporate publication Verizon Untethered: An Insider's Story of Innovation and Disruption by Ivan Seidenberg.

SM: Books are in a period of transition that is as exciting as it can be frustrating. We and our clients too often fall into a default view of certain types of large publications as being coffee table books. I can’t remember the last time I saw a coffee table in a corporate office of our typical Fortune 500 client. There is an important role for large image-driven books that compel the reader to delve deeper, and as a result, deepen their identification with the enterprise. What’s crucial is the outcome the book supports, not the surface that supports the book.

We’ve also seen a rise in message-driven books that pull lessons and business concepts from a specific company’s history to be applied more widely to others. Think of this as thought leadership and business strategy books that take a look under the hood and provide blueprints for others to follow.

PG: Value comes from how much a piece of content is embraced beyond the walls of a company. If, for example, a CEO takes the time to collaborate with us on a book, he or she surely wants their time and effort to yield more than just being added to the company’s archive. There is, undoubtedly, a status trend emerging with physical objects. If everyone has gone digital, perhaps we’re seeing an extended amount of prestige going in the opposite direction.

In all honesty, things can break either way. Perhaps physical publications—especially books and magazines—will crawl toward extinction, but I have a feeling a cottage industry is starting to bloom to life, which can create real cultural capital for institutions and leaders alike. You’re seeing this in the self-publishing world for entrepreneurs, who showcase their books when giving speeches as a way to separate themselves from their competition. Great companies possess extraordinary histories. That’s real capital, which can be leveraged to achieve all sorts of practical business goals.

This is a photograph of a reader using a tablet to read 'A Brief History of Adobe Illustrator', a publication Adobe created to showcase it's company history.

SM: The death of books at the hands of this or that digital innovation is proclaimed every five years or so. Today, technology is driving expanded ways to bring further purpose to publications and tailor their content for multiple needs. Five years from now, our default concept of a book may be an interactive digital format on an iPad or tablet. Clients could then produce hardcover versions for one set of needs, and at the other end of the spectrum, link some or all of the content to augment other endeavors reinforcing the same or additional goals.

PG: Leveraging technology within publications is always a tricky endeavor. Think about how quickly the QR code revolution fizzled out. I had always hoped that smart glasses and augmented reality would pick up steam more quickly, as they present an extraordinary opportunity for corporate heritage publications. If we were all wearing digital glasses, consider how much depth, imagery, video and context we could pack into a physical book.

I do see promise, however, in smartphone technology—Kindle 2.0, so to speak—as it provides an opportunity to capture vast amounts of quotes, artifacts, stories and ideas and thread them into a reading experience. I think it’s clear that many readers seek out stories that can be absorbed in clips—short on-demand sessions—as opposed to one continuous read. Call it the Netflix effect, but it seems to me that dividing corporate heritage books into digestible snippets or chapters and releasing them via links or clips is a way to take the content we generate for books and push them deeper and further, while maximizing their extraordinary value.

For more information on corporate publications and how they might help your company, check out our blog.

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