Philip Kogan obituary

Founder of the publisher Kogan Page, one of the first companies to focus on business and management titles

“Disruption is back with a vengeance” declares a headline on the website of the publisher Kogan Page, above such titles as The Post-Truth Business and Human/Machine – not “sexy” ones that adorn charts or grace windows, but the sort of books that established Kogan Page as Britain’s foremost publisher of business books.

“Disruption” was a word close to the heart of Philip Kogan, the co-founder of the company that bears his name, for Kogan, who has died aged 92, was in the best sense a disruptor: a scholarship boy born in the Depression, who grew up knowing the value of education and gave up a career in research and development when, at his annual appraisal, he was shown a graph plotting out his career to age 40.

After a brief foray into science writing, in 1967 he set up shop as a publisher, determined to fill a gap he had spotted in the market. The book trade was then stuffy and upper-class, and titles made their way slowly from manuscript to bookshop.

Kogan, a man with no old school ties, no money and no pretensions, came up with his own ideas, found his own authors and oversaw the whole publishing process from one room in Gray’s Inn Road, London, selling many of his books “off the page” via ads in daily newspapers. “He felt business people needed essential information,” explained Helen Kogan, his daughter. “It was all about providing knowledge and knowhow. He believed in meritocracy and believed anyone should be able to start a business.”

In the 1960s that was both easier and more difficult. The entry costs were lower, but a young man from a poor background trying to borrow money faced barriers. Harold Wilson’s 1964 Labour government was forging a new Britain in “the white heat” of “revolution”, investing in science and technology, but there were no venture capitalists waving open chequebooks. And Kogan had a wife and young children to support.

As a bright young scientist, Kogan must have felt that “white heat”, understanding better than most the opportunities it would bring. The 1964 Industrial Training Act established an industrial training board for each industry at a time when learning was “on the job” and fewer people went to university. Business and management studies were all but unthought-of – what better way to fill the knowledge gap than with accessible how-to books? The Industrial Training Yearbook 1967-68 was Kogan Page’s first title, and it was sold mostly by direct mail.

Today the company publishes around 120 titles a year and has a backlist of 1,200, from Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions (first published in 1986 and now in its 11th edition) to Dirty Dealing: The Untold Truth About Global Money Laundering, International Crime and Terrorism (2000). By the 80s, most mainstream publishers had created a business list, usually driven by high-octane titles by business moguls, but Kogan Page blazed the trail and over the course of 56 years has won numerous awards at home and aboard.

Kogan was born in Stratford, east London, the elder of identical twins and the fifth of six children. His parents were Jewish refugees who had arrived in Britain shortly before the first world war, meeting in the East End. His father, Boris (known as Barnett), died when he was four, and his mother, Hetty (nee Vickers), a small shopkeeper, struggled to make ends meet. Evacuated to Cornwall, the twins sat their common entrance exam during the blitz and won scholarships to Stratford grammar.

Both boys went on to university: Maurice to Cambridge to study history; Philip to Reading to study physics followed by a master’s at London. A decade as a research physicist followed until an appraisal drove him to the job ads and he applied for a position as chief editor of Understanding Science, a schools’ partwork published by Sampson Low, a family company whose bottom line was bolstered by Jane’s Fighting Ships and an Enid Blyton franchise. “I learned to produce on time and make others do the same,” Kogan would reflect.

From Sampson Low, Kogan made a brief foray into educational technology and then to Cornmarket, a careers publisher founded by Michael Heseltine and Clive Labovitch that developed into Haymarket. Kogan then struck out on his own, borrowing £2,000 from a brother. With Terry Page, an industrial journalist and short-lived minority partner, he put together The Industrial Training Yearbook. Today Kogan Page sells into 90 countries and translation rights of its titles are sold into 50 different languages, co-publishing with such organisations as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and the Institute of Risk Management. Its bestselling title is Armstrong’s Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice.

“Obduracy,” Kogan once replied with typical self-deprecation when asked the secret of the company’s longevity. In reality, Kogan Page prospered because he thought outside the book trade and understood every aspect of the business – at some stage he had done it all. He was always open to new ideas (there was an early robotics list), commissioning locally but publishing globally. He watched the pennies but took calculated risks and was never mean, and unlike many publishers did not use his company to underwrite a lavish lifestyle.

Kogan was ferociously bright, a critical thinker who interrogated ideas and staff while always listening to people and occasionally going over their heads. Independent of mind and spirit, he was determined never to sell, despite an offer of £12m, and retirement was never an ambition. He remained active even after handing over the reins to Helen and spent much time mentoring younger publishers and working tirelessly for the Independent Publishers Guild, of which he was an active member for 60 years. He also served on the Publishers Association Council, his wisdom and pragmatism helping many smaller publishers survive the turbulence that followed the collapse of the Net Book Agreement in the mid-90s.

Kogan’s carefully cultivated persona was that of an old curmudgeon but, in reality, he was kind, generous – and mischievous. Sometimes it was hard to know if he was serious or joking, but the twinkle in his eye and the scarcely suppressed giggle would give him away.

In 1955 he married Gillian Bluglass. She survives him, along with his children, David, Helen and Sarah, and grandchildren, Rebecca, Emma, Hannah, Joe and Jake.

• Philip Kogan, publisher and scientist, born 10 April 1930; died 24 December 2022


Liz Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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