CV: Helen Fraser, Managing director, General Division, Penguin Books

: Helen Fraser, Managing director, General Division, Penguin Books
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I went to Oxford in 1967 to read English, but I didn't think at all about what I was going to do afterwards. When I left I sifted through various possibilities, and decided that publishing was the most appealing.

But I got nowhere, so I went to teach English in Paris for 9 months, and with the money I earned I travelled in Southeast Asia. When I came back, I found that a vacancy at Methuen had come up.

I started there in 1972, as a kind of trainee-cum-secretary, and I spent the first year typing letters and learning to copy-edit. In the second I started to commission books in the area of literary criticism; one of the first books I commissioned was a book by Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf. At the end of the second year, I thought it was time they made me a commissioning editor, but when I asked I was told that there were three girls ahead of me in the queue.

So I left with two colleagues to start an independent publishing company called Open Books, which published similar academic stuff and was funded by Mitchell Beazley. I had a wonderful time, publishing the first book to explode the myth about progressive teaching, but after about a year and a half, Mitchell Beazley withdrew their funding.

So at the end of 1976 I went for a job as a non-fiction editor at Fontana, the paperback list of Collins. I worked with Frank Kermode on their Modern Masters series, and we expanded the non-fiction list. We published the first-ever book on the SAS, which appeared six weeks after the Iranian Embassy siege in 1981, and was a big bestseller; that kind of publishing is naturally opportunistic.

That same year, I was made editorial director of the whole non-fiction list in paperback, and in 1985 I also started running Flamingo, the literary paperback list. In 1986 the company restructured, and I became involved in hardback publishing too, such things as Ken Livingstone's memoirs, Roy Jenkins' diaries and Simon Schama's An Embarrassment of Riches.

Everything seemed to go along swimmingly until one day in 1987, when I was fired - one of a long line of editors to be ejected from HarperCollins at that time. It seemed like a disaster then, but in retrospect it was probably the best thing for my career, because I'm very bad at leaving places. And I was offered lots of jobs; the problem was trying to decide which one to go for. In the end I went to Heinemann, which was in a complete mess - it had just lost its paperback arm, and six directors had resigned - but I knew I'd be running my own show at least.

After an enormously stressful first six months, we had some extraordinary successes. We bought Michael Jackson's autobiography, and the money just poured in from this one book. And the Heinemann list was very interesting - among the authors I edited were Thomas Harris and Amy Tan.

In 1989 we started a paperback arm, Mandarin, and in 1992 the structure of the whole company was changed. I became publishing director of the Mandarin, Minerva, Heinemann, Secker and Warburg, Methuen and Sinclair- Stevenson imprints. But in July 1995, I got into work early one morning to find out we were being sold.

We had no idea who was going to buy us, so the sale process was agonisingly prolonged. During that period, because of all the uncertainty, it was very difficult to continue to buy books for the following year, and also to keep staff. After eight-and-a-half months, it was announced that we weren't going to be sold after all, as our owners, Reed Elsevier, couldn't get the price they wanted.

So we embarked on a very vigorous rebuilding programme between March and November, and that May I was made managing director of the trade division. But in the middle of November the person I reported to, Sandy Grant, was suddenly fired, and I suppose we all knew then that the writing was on the wall for the company.

About two days after that I got a call from Penguin about the possibility of coming here as managing director. It was a very difficult decision to make, but in the end I felt I had to go, and about three days later I was told that Reed Trade Division was being sold to Random House. I started at Penguin at the end of January, and in the time I've been here we've created a new structure and made a lot of new appointments. Everything's up and running now, and I'm very happyn

Interview by Scott Hughes

Comments