The feminist press that could and did

Virago changed the state of publishing in the 70s and is now being profiled as a grandparent of feminist thought at the New Statesman.

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.

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