Helen Fraser, CBE
Doctor of Letters
Wednesday 14 July 2010 - Orator: Cathryn Gallacher
In 1970, John Brown, then a publisher at Oxford University Press, advised a young graduate hoping for a job: ‘Women never get on in publishing.’ The graduate in question was Helen Fraser. In the years since, Helen Fraser, CBE, the recently retired Managing Director of Penguin Books, has got on in publishing. She has done so, first at a time where publishing could still conjure the notion of small firms run by clubbable men, and in more recent years, in the highly competitive arena of international conglomerates. Helen has been a hugely successful publisher, but she has also been a writer’s publisher, an astute businesswoman and cultivated reader, jealous of the best values of traditional publishing. So while Helen Fraser has had a hand in hatching many of the most successful books of the last four decades; she has also nurtured many of the best.
After a year teaching in Paris, time spent travelling in Asia, and a stint at Foyles’ bookshop, Helen did get that first job in publishing – with Methuen in 1972. Here Helen learnt her trade and began commissioning books, one of her first being by the similarly young and unknown Hermione Lee, now famous as a biographer and literary critic. After two years, Helen and two fellow Methuen employees, one of whom was Grant MacIntyre, her future husband, left to start Open Books, before in 1976, Helen joined Fontana, the Paperback list of Collins.
At Collins, Helen had a number of triumphs. She worked with Frank Kermode on the Modern Masters series. She worked too on The Embarrassment of Riches with Simon Schama - Schama describing Helen as ‘vivid, vital, considered and a wonderful listener’. Helen also revealed a sure instinct for the bestseller, publishing the first-ever book on the SAS six weeks after the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. Promoted repeatedly, Helen became editorial director of non-fiction; she took responsibility for Flamingo, the literary paperback list, before also becoming involved in the commissioning of high-profile hardbacks from such figures as Roy Jenkins, and Ken Livingstone, the latter commission being a bold move at a time when Rupert Murdoch was asserting his control over Collins.
Starting work at Heinemann in 1987 was a challenge. The company had just been taken over by Reed; it had lost its paperback imprint; six editors had resigned. Helen though, helped make Heinemann once again a successful company that produced bestsellers, and she rose in Reed to become first, publishing director of Mandarin, Minerva, Heinemann, Secker and Warburg, Methuen and Sinclair-Stevenson, and finally, Managing Director of Reed Consumer Books.
Helen then left for Penguin. In the words of Penguin's worldwide Chief Executive Officer John Makinson: ‘Helen is the author of one of the great reformations in British publishing. Her arrival at Penguin in 1997 heralded fresh thinking, a real clarity of purpose and a determination to be the best. The prizes and the profits all followed. For thirteen years she has delivered publishing that is thoroughly original, and yet distinguished and commercially successful.’ And this was done through an astonishing energy and commitment. Helen has theability to go home, cook the dinner, wash up, read a manuscript and reappear the next morning with a written report on it. This is woman who ran her company tirelessly – literally it seems – for, on Helen’s retirement Makinson noted: ‘I don't think sleep is a priority. She never walks anywhere - running is always superior.’
At first Helen was Managing Director of Penguin General, the commercial wing of Penguin Books, which contains the Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, Michael Joseph and Viking imprints. Under her leadership, Penguin General’s business grew from £35m to £50m in four years, and in 2001, Helen took over the management of all three Penguin divisions – Penguin General, Penguin Press and Puffin. There were difficulties to confront, not least when Penguin opened its new warehouse in Rugby in April 2004, but with triumphant celebrations of Puffin’s 70th anniversary the next year and with Penguin being named Publisher of the Year in 2007, Helen’s ability to foster success proved unstoppable.
Under Helen’s leadership, Penguin started the successful new imprint, Fig Tree, and Penguin Ireland was launched, to become in a mere four years, the number one Irish publisher. Mainstays of Penguin’s academic reputation, Penguin Classics and the serious non-fiction of Allen Lane, The Penguin Press flourished. Hamish Hamilton was built up again to become a byword for literary prizewinners. Indeed, in Helen’s time books from the Penguin imprints repeatedly garnered the major awards of the publishing world, and have become the books most talked of. Whether it be Zadie Smith in literary fiction, Meg Rosoff in children’s fiction, Jared Diamond on the collapse of civilizations or Joseph Stiglitz on economics, many of the books that have helped define the last decade have been Penguin books.
Penguin did not just become a more successful company under Helen - its employees became more reflective of the British population. Helen’s improved opportunities for employees from diverse ethnic backgrounds doubled the percentage of such employees at Penguin since 2005. And Helen’s commitment to ethical standards within publishing meant that Penguin drove the industry agenda on both environmental action and diversity issues, with Helen chairing the cross-industry environment group, setting up diversity internships and giving her time to pan-industry committees
Staff at the University of Bristol have had particular cause to be grateful to Helen, for her care for Penguin’s unique publishing heritage has included keeping a watchful eye on Penguin’s archive, which is housed in the Bristol University Library Special Collections. Queries from potential researchers and staff here at Bristol were fielded by Helen personally and within the blink of an eye. Helen ensured too that new materials moved to the archive. She also gave her full support to the Penguin Archive Project currently running here at Bristol.
Commenting on leaving Penguin Helen has said: ‘I'll miss the books; but one of the things I'm looking forward to in my new life is being able to read entirely for pleasure. I'm hoping to become a truly well-read person. And the authors are so interesting, and some of them have become friends: of course I'll miss them too… I thought I'd miss the intellectual challenges. But I think I'm going on to a new life where the intellectual challenges will be extreme.’ Whether as Head of the Girls' Day Schools Trust, or as non-executive director of Frances Lincoln, Helen seems to be leading a life almost as frenetic before. However, now seems a fitting moment to celebrate one who has done so much for British publishing, and through that, so much for the reading life of this country.
As you know, the Bristol University Library is home to Penguin’s Archive, and now the Penguin Archive Project, and also to the personal collection of autographed books bequeathed to the university by Penguin’s founder Sir Allen Lane. One of these books is the excellent Pelican The Modern Writer and his World, by the poet, literary critic and father of Helen, G S Fraser. In his dedication G S Fraser writes ‘To Sir Allen Lane, with gratitude for all the services of Penguin Books to British civilization. June 1964’. Had G S Fraser been alive in July 2010, he could have written the same words to his daughter.
Madam Chancellor, I present to you Helen Fraser, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.