Holding on to ideals

Many of the original feminist and radical organisations took to their heart the idea of doing everything in a Brave New World way as [publishing co-operative] Writers and Readers did: collectives, co-operatives, no shareholders was how some set up shop. They wanted to do business in a different mode; they wanted their companies to reflect the times. That wasn’t Virago’s way.

And yet even with this more traditional business model, Virago was powered by idealism and altruism; workers and authors gave their all to the company because we believed in the larger enterprise—changing the world with women’s stories—even if it meant taking low wages and working long hours. Authors too were willing to throw in their lot with Virago for low advances. They were very much on our side from the start.

Cynicism or pure opportunism; those have never been Virago motivations, though because we are a business they easily could have been. But over the 40-plus years that Virago editors have chosen the books to publish, their guiding principle has always been to ask: what does this do to champion women’s talent, or what truth does it tell about women’s lives? I do know that sounds impossibly idealistic and certainly I don’t mean to say that we have done this at the exclusion of an eye to profit, but cynicism has rarely, if ever, played a role in Virago’s book choices.

But from the beginning Virago has wanted to prove that the business of publishing books by women is a profitable enterprise, and the very existence of Virago shows the world that a feminist business run by women would work. In 1993, [Virago founding member] Harriet Spicer wrote: “As with all publishers, books are our lifeblood, but at Virago, what we see as being of equal importance is the existence of the press itself...the belief that women’s writing and issues could be the foundation of an inspirational, financially viable list.”

To be financially viable, you have to make a profit: this has always been crucial, because profit is protection, and Virago has almost always made a profit. When profit has been at stake the Virago directors made tough choices: about being independent, about selling ourselves, about, horribly, having to make people redundant. And now, when Virago is part of a larger publishing conglomerate, profit is still our protection—against people interfering in our editorial choices. When a publishing list does not make profit, it comes under scrutiny to find out why not.

Of course, keeping an eye on profit can mean turning down either less obviously viable projects or costly ones, but that problem—or choice—is not confined to imprints within a conglomerate. Taking risks affects both small and large houses; the difference between acquiring books as an editor in an independent and as one in a conglomerate is not about risk per se, it’s that in the latter a commissioning editor has to convince many more people in the publishing house of their belief in a book or author. In so many ways, the very act of writing and publishing means taking risks.

Balancing the books
Idealism and commerce feel like strange bedfellows, as has often been proved, and usually one of those bedfellows gets kicked out. Does capitalism always have to mean growth for an ever-increasing profit? Or can “enough” profit to keep the fires burning be sufficient? Virago’s business model, with its lofty ideals, has at the same time always been rather modest. It began small. We did not ask for secretaries, cleaners, assistants. We could all type. We have always watched our outgoings in relationship to our income. We have been awarded grants for translations, but not had grants to keep us going.

When we did our management buyout with Rothschild Ventures in 1987, the investors said: “Virago washes its own face.” An awful expression but nonetheless we knew what they meant and were proud of that.

Growth and profit are things that Virago has had to wrestle with from the beginning. All directors and shareholders agreed that Virago needed to protect itself by making profit. So long as we achieved that, any disagreements could be managed. But when we looked as if profits would not deliver, that’s when we hit trouble between us. However, even at those very low points, through our passionate rows and factions, even then, we kept to the idea that Virago must survive us. Is that not a commitment to idealism that flies in the face of cold capitalism?

Interestingly, the old Virago mix of paradoxes again: the fact that we had a hierarchy and shareholders made us take our fiscal responsibilities seriously, and indeed it also meant that whoever had the most shares could sway the choice. Undoubtedly at times it was our traditional business model that held us together, but our idealism gave us the strength to battle—even against each other—to make sure the values that propel Virago live on.

Lennie Goodings is chair of the UK publishing house Virago Press. Part memoir, part history of Virago Press, and part thoughts on over 40 years of feminist publishing, A Bite of the Apple tells the story of how Virago became one of the most important and influential English-language publishers in the world. It is out now.