Anyone who has visited 100 Victoria Embankment will have witnessed the limpid metropolis that is Little, Brown's HQ. "When I look at this open plan, it's a glamorous version of what we had earlier. We've come full circle," says Lennie Goodings, publisher of iconic LB imprint Virago Press.
By "earlier" she means the late '70s, when the independent publisher was based in Wardour Street, Soho, "above a pinball arcade and a gentlemen's club, with all the seedy fellows coming out of that, at the top of five flights. We had three telephones and two typewriters. When I arrived there were five of us".
That "lean team" hasn't increased much since 1979. Formed in 1973 as a publisher of women's writing— and now claiming to be the largest women's imprint in the world—the company remained independent until 1982, when it became a subsidiary of the Chatto, Virago, Bodley Head and Cape Group. Five years later an m.b.o. returned Virago to independence. Little, Brown bought it in 1996.
The move from indie to imprint (again) was not without its challenges: "The power is different than when you're running your own show." Of the move to LB, she says: "It's tough to be a literary independent. Publishing's a gamble, you need capital, so it's better to be inside a house like this." Still, risk is what continues to compel her: "It's never predictable. Publishing is a lot about luck."
Goodings' rise reflects the changes in the industry, and society, over the past 30 years. She emigrated from Canada in 1977 and fell into a "pretty radical circle of people", many living in housing squats. Her first job was with publicity company James Service, where she promoted Thorn Birds author Colleen McCollough. Having only done a "bit of hitch-hiking" in the UK, she was forced to co-ordinate a publicity tour via a map, having never heard of half the places.
Drawn by the politics of the Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative and of Virago, she later wrote to them both. "With the chutzpah of someone of that age, and of not being English, I said: 'I think I can help you.'" They obviously agreed, as she was taken on by Writers and Readers and then by Virago.
Of the early Virago days, she says: "What was true then and is still true now, is that there are a lot of women in publishing but they didn't have the power to take the decisions. There were some, but there were more men deciding what to publish." She laughs: "Being Canadian, it didn't bother me. You don't get daunted because you don't read the signals properly."
Art versus commerce
On the day we meet, Borders is in its death throes, which Goodings describes as a "vacuum". She adds: "You're going to see the rise of the independents. One of the big differences [since I began in publishing] is the landscape of bookselling. There were hardly any chains then. "What's harder these days is making the leap from publisher to readers."
Arguably, Virago's leap is one of the trickiest, as a purveyor of literary fiction and non-fiction, but Goodings is enthusiastic: "I love the clash between art and commerce. I really love the idea of thinking, how do you subvert that, how do you get in there?"
She agrees that the hardback is struggling, but qualifies, "I just feel like ever since I've been in publishing, that's been the conversation. What's hard, too, is to let people grow naturally– we didn't put Sarah Waters into hardback until [third novel] Fingersmith. I feel that kind of thing is tougher now. Bookselling is always about a person telling someone else to read a book. That's tougher without having more individuals to handsell."
She is calm about the recession: "Virago's always made a profit, always." The imprint's turnover increased from just over £3m in 2008 to more than £4.5m in 2009, helped by Waters' Man Booker shortlisting, Marilynne Robinson's Orange win and influential non-fiction such as Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi. Goodings is excited about this year too, highlighting Natasha Walter's Living Dolls, Lyndall Gordon's biography of Emily Dickinson Lives Like Loaded Guns, and memoir of former FARC captive Ingrid Betancourt, There is No Silence That Does Not End. "We're not looking for more than 30 books a year, so I can afford to be very, very picky. It has to be something very special, and there has to be a market for it," she says.
"I think the brand name helps with Virago. People come to a Virago book, they know it's going to be quality. I hope we've upheld people's faith in us."
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