Virago's book list is trimmed as sales drop

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VIRAGO, the women's publishing group which has shifted the centre of gravity of bookselling in England and moulded the political consciousness of a generation, has been forced to cut back after a dramatic drop in sales this year.

The setback raises questions about the future health of both feminist and independent publishing in a trade increasingly dominated by conglomerate publishers, where many bookshops are tending to follow the American trend to specialise in discounted bestsellers.

Two of Virago's longest- serving senior staff were made redundant last week, reducing the editors from six to four and the total staff from 20 to 18.

The group, which despite its prominent image is relatively small, with an annual turnover of pounds 2.5m, is cutting its new- book list from 90 titles to 70, and its titles in print will be pruned by an as yet undecided number from the current 700.

The staff to go are Ruth Petrie, senior editorial director, who specialised in academic books including literary criticism, history and psychoanalysis, and had been with the company for 12 years, and Lynn Knights, editor of Virago Modern Classics, who had been there 14 years. Ms Petrie believes the group was slow to react to a slump in sales.

Its problems illustrate the difficulties that any small innovative company faces in maintaining its momentum and identity.

In its early days it used to offer a statement of intent inside every distinctive cover with its bottle-green spine, saying Virago 'is a feminist publishing company' and adding: 'It is only when women start to organise in large numbers that we become a political force, and begin to move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society . . . .' Now the inside of the cover is blank.

In 1973 there were few women in important roles in publishing. Today they thrive, and dominate some major publishing houses. Women who would have been considered too feminist by mainstream publishers in 1973 are now bankable. Roger Bratchell, marketing manager of Waterstone's book chain, points out that Jeanette Winterson is now published by Jonathan Cape and Helen Zahavi by Macmillan.

Virago Modern Classics, which revived out-of-print women authors and is now credited with resuscitating the reputations of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Rosamond Lehmann, among others, was doomed by its nature to produce diminishing returns.

At times recently it has seemed almost to be scraping the barrel, resurrecting authors who perhaps deserved to remain hidden.

At Virago, Lennie Goodings, the publisher, insists the problem is not a group losing its way or a cultural shift away from feminism in the reading population. 'We are responding to some quite tough conditions in the trade at the moment and we are not the only ones. We are a medium- sized independent publisher, and our cushion is very thin.'

The Dillons book chain is in financial difficulties and is reducing stocks and orders at the moment. This hits all publishers, but particularly Virago with its large numbers of existing rather than new titles.

'We are a literary and political publishing house, mainly in paperback; that's not a big money-maker,' said Ms Goodings.

'If you are a literary and a political publisher you have to shift, you have to keep taking the political temperature. I suppose we reflect the state of feminism in some ways. I think at the same time as some things have gone wrong with feminism - it hasn't been the answer to all things as we thought it was; it needs redefining - at the same time, what's going on with the position of women in the world is in some ways worse.

'There still is no proper childcare, women are still paid less than men. I still think there's a need for us to be there as a campaigning house.'

Mr Bratchell agrees. 'The market for their kind of books is still very strong. We need Virago. But this shows that small firms will not expand indefinitely. Sometimes they have to retrench.'