Was Virago too successful?

Jan Dalley on the sale of a feminist icon which failed to reinvent itself
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The Independent Online
REPORTS of the death of feminism are always warmly received, and at the news that Virago Press is to be sold, the press trumpeted that "sisterhood is too fragile for strong individuals" and "Virago has finally sold out on the feminist dream". Virago's first generation of readers may well feel that something of their youth has also died.

It is true that the bidders in the Virago sale - initially thought to be Bloomsbury, Little Brown and Random House - smack of corporate takeover and faceless suits. But in this case, the suits are more likely to be from Nicole Farhi or Agnes B, for the main players include Liz Calder (of Bloomsbury), Philippa Harrison (of Little Brown) and Gail Rebuck (of Random House). No sign, though, of the headline that runs: Female moguls battle for women's dream.

In fact, the field is now reduced to two: Random House, although it already owns 10.6 per cent of Virago's share, had apparently not put in a bid by the end of last week. Sources close to the action suggest that the share prices under discussion are well in excess of the objective value of the ailing company. The bidders are after something more than just a property; Virago is not just another publisher.

It began life in 1973, and I don't remember it. That is to say, I hardly remember it not being there. But at the start of the 1970s, every well- dressed bookcase was dotted with orange and black (Penguins and Penguin Classics); within a few years, the same shelves were sure to be decked out with the deep green blocks of Virago spines.

Just what was the Virago effect? It's easy to be sentimental in hindsight, but for women blinking into adulthood at the time, the world really did feel new and different. Feminist thinking in the 1990s is all hand-wringing and soul-searching: what happened and whither and why. Twenty years ago, the things feminists said ended in full stops, not question marks. It was happening and that was that. And suddenly there were these glorious green books to read. Of course there were. They gave us a sense of ourselves and a whole literary past; they somehow promised a shiny future. There was no question about whether or not we bought them.

Cut to 1983. I was working for Chatto & Windus, a sister company of Virago during its few years as part of a group that also comprised Cape and the Bodley Head. I once visited a large bookshop in Coventry with one of our sales reps on her rounds. Half an hour of bargaining and cajoling persuaded the manager to take into his shop only a single copy of our latest hardback novel. Too literary. No interest around here, he said, before calling us a right pair of daft girlies and saying: "Now make sure you fill me up with the green ones before you go."

The green ones. He didn't even ask what the new titles were: he'd take anything the rep was carrying. Many of these books were just as "literary" and "obscure" as the novel he'd rejected, but they were wrapped in that green mantle; made special, made saleable.

It was then that I realised how the dreamy ideal of the Seventies had become a marketing miracle of the Eighties. This was brand loyalty any cereal manufacturer would kill for.

In those 10 years, Virago had done more than just create itself. It already had imitators: the Women's Press was founded in 1978, Pandora Press in 1982. It had made its mark on publishing practice in everything from jacket design to a new way of reviving classics.

But another effect was much more significant, and Virago's success was already sowing the seeds of its own decline: women writers had become fashionable. In publishing terms, Virago had made women hot, and Virago's achievements meant that every mainstream publisher was suddenly mad for female writers. Not only did new or established women writers no longer have such need of a special press, they were actually being competed for in a way that might make such a press second choice.

Cut to 1995. On 25 September, the bitterest moment of a stormy AGM came when Carmen Callil, one of Virago's founders and still a 15 per cent shareholder, called for the company to be sold. It was the culmination of an unhappy recent history; sales were bad and working relationships were worse. Callil herself left the board in the spring; Harriet Spicer and Lennie Goodings, latterly managing director and editorial director, have quit their jobs more recently, although they are still shareholders. Forty per cent is owned by the millionaire, Bob Gavron, whose wife Kate is Virago's current chairwoman. The other founding member, with an 11 per cent stake, is Ursula Owen, who led the company jointly with Harriet Spicer from 1982 to 1990. With Alexandra Pringle, inspired commissioning editor, Ruth Petrie and several others, this was a group of exceptional women: talented, dedicated, full of vision. Some went to other jobs but remained board members; there were quarrels and power shifts; but somehow it still seemed to outsiders more like a brilliant, fractious family than a business.

So what went wrong? How did such a group of people land up like this? And when did Virago cease to be the vanguard and begin to look rather like a dusty ghetto?

Perhaps it was a martyr to its own cause. Perhaps its only real mistake was failing to reinvent itself soon enough; groundbreakers have to go on breaking new ground. The publicity has concentrated on the personalities but it is not only in all-women companies that personality conflicts have proved destructive. As one ex-Virago put it: "When men have boardroom battles, it's heroic and Titanic and serious. When women do the same, it's a catfight. We have to be allowed to behave as badly as men do."

As badly, or as well. Divisions have meant the board hasn't managed to fill the top vacancies, even though approaches have been made; the collapse of the Net Book Agreement increases the uncertainty about the financial future: such problems make it, according to one source, now more or less inevitable that all the original "family" will sell up. And whether there is any real hope of a revived or reinvented Virago for the next 20 years remains to be seen. It will have to be left to the new regiment of women.