In 1942 Ian Allan, then working in the public relations department for Southern Railway at Waterloo station, decided he could deal with many of the requests he received about rolling stock by collecting the information into a book. The result was his first book, "ABC of Southern Locomotives". This proved to be a success, leading to the emerging of trainspotting as a national hobby, and from this the company was formed.
The company has grown from a small producer of books for train enthusiasts and spotters to a large transport publisher. Each year it publishes books covering subjects such as military and civil aviation, naval and maritime topics, buses, trams, trolleybuses and steam railways, including history, preservation and modern operations. The headquarters is at the western end of Shepperton railway station in Surrey.
At the end of 2016, the company announced that they were withdrawing from railway publishing. Crécy Publishing acquired these titles, including the Oxford and abc imprints, but would no longer publish these under the Ian Allan name.
Ian Allan Publishing has acquired several companies and imprints.
Ian Allan Publishing's trade representation is provided by Amalgamated Book Services for its own imprints and a growing list of associated publishers. Midland Counties Publications, acquired by Ian Allan Publishing at the same time as Midland Publishing, was established in the 1970s with the objective of selling books at aviation events and by mail order to a growing number of enthusiasts who could not always find the publications they wanted to read on the shelves of their local High Street bookshop.
Ian Allan Publishing was well known for its range of enthusiast-based magazines, including the following titles:
A history of the company and of its publications down to 1967 appeared in the November 1967 edition of their pmagazine Railway World.
Those magazines still in print were acquired by Key Publishing in March 2012.
Through the Lewis Masonic imprint, the company also publishes the quarterly masonic magazine "The Square", the longest running masonic periodical in the United Kingdom.
From 1962 to 2007 Ian Allan also published, jointly with the Light Rail Transit Association, the monthly magazine Modern Tramway—known later as Light Rail and Modern Tramway and currently as Tramways & Urban Transit—and continues to handle printing and some distribution of TAUT, as well as printing of the LRTA's quarterly historical journal, Tramway Review.