Originally, this book was going to be called “The Idealistic Publisher”. It is not as good a title as A Bite of the Apple, with its hint of Eve’s hunger for knowledge, but that first version does at least allude more directly to one of the central themes of this honest and engaging account: how do you keep faith with the demands of an ever-changing feminist politics and an equally tumultuous literary market? Plot spoiler: it has always been a tough call.
Virago, founded in 1973, was the brain child of the Australian publisher and writer Carmen Callil, soon joined by Ursula Owen, and sustained over the years by a small and loyal team. It began in an era of gentleman’s publishing that then seemed unassailable, but largely looks like a bunch of fusty old patriarchs to modern eyes. Born of, and borne along by, the rage and energy of a generation of young educated women, Virago’s early publications brilliantly channelled this hunger for a new politics, a new history, a different kind of fiction. It has published 4,000 titles, 1,000 authors, had ten different offices and seven different forms of ownership. In 1995, it was bought out by Little, Brown – in part as protection against the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement, which, in ensuring that all retailers sold books at agreed prices, had enabled smaller, independent presses (and bookshops) to survive.