Feminist publisher at centre of tangled plot

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

The future of Virago, the publishing house founded 22 years ago by women for women, look-ed in doubt yesterday as speculation grew that it may be sold to a mainstream competitor.

Publishing heavyweights such as Random House and Bloomsbury are rumoured to be circling, although Lennie Goodings, Virago's publishing director, refused to comment on any possible sale. Ms Goodings also declined to discuss reports that she resigned last week.

At the root of the problem is the suggestion that Virago is struggling to compete in the prolonged book-trade recession. There are also understood to be internal disputes over the decision by the publishing house, for so long a champion of feminism, to publish male authors. A senior Virago source yesterday confirmed that the current uncertainty would be resolved within two to three weeks, although she refused to provide details.

Virago was launched on a wave of feminist fervour by Carmen Callil, Rosie Boycott and Ursula Owen in June 1973. Their mission was to help women gain their place at the heart of British literature - in both writing and publishing. Every early Virago book carried a statement of intent on its frontispiece: "Virago is a feminist publishing house."

There then followed a list of the Virago advisory group, which included Germaine Greer and the Spare Rib Collective, and a call to arms by Sheila Rowbotham which read: "It is only when women start to organise in large numbers that we become a political force, and move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society."

As well as promoting the careers of writers such as the current Booker Prize nominee, Pat Barker, Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood, the company is also credited with reviving the reputations of the likes of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Rosamond Lehmann and Vita Sackville-West.

While Atwood and Angelou have chosen to stay with the publisher that discovered and nurtured them, Virago has had problems in holding on to a large stable of contemporary writers. Many have elected to leave for larger, wealthier houses - Angela Carter to Chatto and Windus, and Shena Mackay to Heinemann, for example. The grim reality of the publishing recession has also eaten into the early idealism. Booksellers halved orders from Virago's backlist of 700 titles, and last year the company sacked long- serving editors, cut new titles from 90 to 70, and reorganised.

Nina Bawden, who has 12 titles published by Virago, said yesterday: "It would be sad if it was sold, because it's one of the few small, independent publishers that has succeeded in establishing a clear brand image."

Fay Weldon took a different view. "The need now for a separate women's publisher has gone. I think it's a sign of their achievement that we can now look at all literature, rather than at male literature and female separately."

Best-selling authors who were 'discovered' by Virago

Maya Angelou: She is perhaps the best known of Virago's more recent discoveries. She has been spoken of as America's unofficial Poet Laureate, and was invited by President Bill Clinton to speak at his inauguration. Virago first published her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1984.

Edith Wharton: Virago "rediscovered" her work. The renaissance of interest in the novelist has seen an Oscar-winning film adaptation of her book, The Age of Innocence, first published in 1920. Also adapted, and listed among 15 Wharton novels published by Virago, was her 1911 novel Ethan Frome.

Pat Barker: She won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1993 with The Eye in the Door, and this year The Ghost Road is shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Although she has since moved to Penguin, she began her career at Virago where her earliest work won critical acclaim, most notably Union Road.

Margaret Atwood: The poet and novelist began her career at Virago in 1979 and has been one of the publishing house's best-sellers ever since. Her books include Life Before Man, Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories, Wilderness Tips, and Murder in the Dark.

Compiled by Ben Summers