Fred Newman: Founder of ‘Publishing News’ and the British Book Awards

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The Independent Online

Enigmatic and audacious, acerbic, unconventional and often very charming, Fred Newman, the co-creator and managing director of the UK trade paper Publishing News and the British Book Awards, has died of cancer at the age of 76.

Although he spent most of his career, in some way or other, observing and recording British popular culture, Newman was, in fact, born in Austria. Then Manfred Neumann, he arrived in the UK from Vienna in 1937, the year before Kristallnacht.

He was evacuated to Wales during the war then in 1946 went to the William Ellis School in Camden, north London. It was while at Christ Church, Oxford, in the early Fifties, that Newmangot his first taste of publishing, as editor of the student newspaper, Cherwell.

He also met Clive Labovitch there, his future business partner, and was a contemporary of Michael Hesletine and Nigel Lawson.

Like everyone else of his generation, he did his National Service, earning his Corporal’s stripes in the process. In 1958 he married Sylvia Green, a nurse he met while he was a patient at the Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Four years later, Newman got on the first rung of the journalistic ladder as a junior reporter when he joined the Daily Sketch, then in its final incarnation and owned by Associated Newspapers.

Over the six years he spent with the paper he edited the Simon Ward diary column and went on to become Chief Feature Writer and finally Features Editor. He documented such classic “red-top” stories as Princess Margaret’s liaison with Group Captain Peter Townsend (his remit included following them around the high spots of Europe) and the Profumo affair, as well as interviewing the likes of Mick Jagger, and hiring a rookie Jean Rook.

His nose for a good story, among many other tabloid skills, never left him.

In 1967, with a young family, he left Fleet Street and took up the less stressful post of Press/Information Officer at the University of Sussex in Brighton, a town that was to remain his home. He stayed at the University for five years, then returned to London in 1972, answering the siren call of publishing.

He joined Phoebus Partworks, a company that was a part of the British Printing Corporation (BPC), as managing director This was a time when massive, 100-plus issue weekly magazines that “built into encyclopaedias”, were publishing’s new black.

Heoversaw the launch of successful titles such as The Story of Pop, edited by Jeremy Pascall, and Understanding Human Behaviour, aswell as relaunching earlier winners like Cordon Bleu Cookery and The History of the Second World War, before leaving in 1979, just before BPC was taken over by Robert Maxwell. This was when a chance meeting with his old Cherwell colleague, Clive Labovitch, would change the course of his career.

Newman and Labovitch, who had partnered Michael Heseltine in building up first Cornmarket Press and then Haymarket Publishing, went into business together. They were as unlikely a pair as you’d ever meet, but whatever it was they had, it worked.

Their first venture was Skateboard Weekly, produced in the equally unlikely surroundings of Harry’s Bar, the Park Lane Hotel’s vacant basement watering hole. Skateboard Weekly lasted only as long as the initial craze it reported on, but their next venture, also planned and devised in the subdued lounge-lighting of the old bar, went on to confound everyone’s expectations.

Publishing News, which launched in 1979, wasn’t given much chance of survival by anyone, including the incumbent trade paper, The Bookseller (which still, some 30 years later, only ever referred in print to its competitor as Skateboard Weekly). But survive and prosper it did.

Having weathered numerous economic storms, and brought innovations such as daily issues to the London Book Fair, and then the Frankfurt Book Fair, in 1990 the partners organised the first British Book Awards.

Known as the “Nibbies”, after the design of their trophy, the awards went on to become the annual glittering event for the book trade, a red-carpet affair which is now televised and broadcast under the Richard & Judy banner. It is an outcome that neither man could have imagined, and one that Labovitch, who died unexpectedly in 1994, never saw.

In recent years, Newman began to step away from the helm of Publishing News, allowing others to run it on a day-to-day basis while remaining entirely engaged: he continued to be a hands-on owner to the end. Having relinquished some control, if only a small amount, he filled a lot of his time with his other passion: Ancient Egypt.

He read widely about the subject, becoming something of an expert and making numerous trips to Cairo and beyond with Sylvia.

He was a fine journalist, one of the last of the old-school, a risk-taker and a man of immensely generous spirit.

He was, above all, as one colleague described him, a brilliant entrepreneur.

In July this year, in a move which surprised staff and trade alike, he closed down the print edition of Publishing News. The vicissitudes affecting trade publishing, not least the massmigration of advertising revenue online, were something there was no longer a simple fix for. He was in the process of regrouping the business when the cancer which he had been fighting for almost two years with great courage and pragmatism finally won the battle. He is survived by his wife, Sylvia, his son Mark, and two daughters, Deborah and Stephanie.

Graham Marks

Graham Marks Fred Newman, publisher: born Vienna, Austria 13 October 1932; MD, Phoebus Partworks 1972-78; chairman and managing director, Publishing News 1979- 2008; married 1958 Sylvia Green (one son, two daughters); died Brighton 12 November 2008.