Dear Carmen Callil: At 55, the publisher best known as the founder of Virago wants a fresh challenge. A long-time observer of the literary scene has some advice on what not to do next

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Can it be true you're leaving Castle Snipcock at last? I've been reading rumours of your imminent departure for at least six years. How you were almost fired for spending a fortune on huge biographies (untrue). How you couldn't get on with the boss at Random Century, Anthony Cheetham (untrue) and how, once he'd left, you were stiffed by his replacement, Gail Rebuck (unlikely). How you'd got through 47,308 weeping secretaries in a single year (trueish).

I'd heard you were going back to Australia (very unlikely), had applied to become literary editor of a Sunday newspaper (true, actually), were writing your memoirs (not yet) and had become a concert pianist (untrue but piquant; someone obviously saw you attacking the pianola in your living room).

The reason there are so many diary stories, of course, is that you've always been good copy: argumentative, grudge-bearing, bullshit-detecting, stenographer-demolishing, glittery-eyed, sexy and alarming in equal measures (who described you as 'a flirtatious pterodactyl in a woolly jumper'?). What you are not, however, is Gloria Swanson. That resignation stuff about how 'publishing has changed . . . it's a much smaller job to be a publisher nowadays' is pure Sunset Boulevard. Pathos is not your style. Being tough and ebullient and backing your taste, on the other hand, is.

Frankly, I think you've been playing boardroom games for too long. Since the conglomerates moved in on the old herbivorous houses of Cape and Gollancz and Secker and Hutchinson, publishing management has got streamlined to the point of inertia. There has been less place for what Waugh called 'the originators, the exuberant men'. Publishing has got bigger, not smaller; but for people like you, who thrive at the centre of things, big companies aren't the answer.

According to the Bookseller, you're simply 'off to have adventures, darling'. But elsewhere you're muttering about becoming 'something in politics'. Ghastly idea: fading sportsmen and grumpy tycoons like James Goldsmith may fancy themselves as statesmen, but you've always been too much of a piss-taker to start acting sincere. Ditto for becoming a chat-show host.

How do you want to be known in 2024? As the founder of Virago Modern Classics, the publishing success of the Seventies, but which grew to be known dismissively as a 'reprint house' of unreadable worthies such as Dorothy Richardson? As the woman who commissioned the Shaw biography? As Publisher without Portfolio or another of those titles they give people who are larger than life? (Editor at Large? Roving Commissionaire?)

Forget it. What you should be doing is running Callil Books from a shed in Shepherd's Bush fashioned out of tough-but-tasteful eucalyptus, and publishing a maximum of 20 novels and biographies a year, all by people you believe in. Then you'd have some fun again. You'd be surprised by the number of aspirant Michael Holroyds and Toni Morrisons out there who write because they imagine being published by you one day. They're the unborn waiting for the brisk-but-brilliant midwife. I should know, since they include

Your faithful servant,

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