This year, there are many publishing companies celebrating significant birthdays. We spoke to three to uncover some major milestones in their pasts.
Abacus turns 50
“The imprint began in 1973 publishing exclusively nonfiction,” writes Richard Beswick, Little Brown’s managing director. “One of the early books was Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. There had been other Holocaust memoirs before, of course, but none to match this.
And if there are not many books fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Levi, A Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994, stands the test. Nelson Mandela’s particular voice and experience made this a unique work, and a standard-bearer for great autobiography. We continued to publish standout titles including Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in 2000, which Bill Clinton described as a kind of publishing self-prophecy: ‘In the words of that now-famous book that everybody is reading, it reaches a kind of tipping point and people kind of get it.’ Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist (2006) brilliantly made everyday activities seem fresh and new. Walter Isaacson‘s Steve Jobs and Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury exemplified American nonfiction writing at its finest. Tom Holland’s Rubicon in 2004 was both startlingly fresh and delightfully old-fashioned.
Memoirs have always been a strength: Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life and Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife were both Sunday Times bestsellers. And at the lighter end of the scale there are few–if any–funnier writers than David Sedaris, whose New Yorker humor in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) set a gold standard.
In Abacus’ fiction all roads must start with Iain Banks. When The Wasp Factory was published in 1984 the Mail on Sunday gasped, ‘If a nastier, more vicious, or distasteful novel appears this spring, I shall be surprised. But there is unlikely to be a better one either.’ Our Scottish writers have set the tone elsewhere too. Christopher Brookmyre’s wit and brilliance marked him out for attention with his first outing, Quite Ugly One Morning. And if Brookmyre was Tartan Noir then we were delighted to celebrate–at the other end of the scale–something which could be termed ‘Tartan Blanc.’ Much imitated, but never bettered, Alexander McCall Smith’s tales from the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency (2003) have sold more than 12 million copies in Abacus, and our upmarket crime publishing hit the bestseller list again with Jane Harper’s compelling Aussie Noir The Dry in 2016.
From America, one of our early trendsetters was Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture, and five years later came another indisputably iconic novel, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife exemplified her ability to tell stories of enormous emotional power, while Candace Bushnell truly opened our eyes to Sex and the City. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (2017) have deservedly captivated readers all over the world. In a category of its own, Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram (2003) has proved an extraordinary and enduring success.
Sometimes the force of the new does not come from the material itself, but its treatment. That was the case with Valerie Martin’s Property (2003), her Orange Prize-winning reinvention of the slave narrative. And speaking of reinvention, that is exactly what Abacus’ British novelists have done. There were early Booker wins for Bernice Rubens (The Elected Member, 1970) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Heat and Dust, 1975), and major shortlist recognition for Simon Mawer (The Glass Room, 2009), Jane Gardam (Old Filth, 2005), Beryl Bainbridge (Master Georgie, 1998), and Chigozie Obioma (An Orchestra of Minorities, 2017).
As we celebrate our heritage, bringing all of our publishing under one imprint in hardback and paperback, Abacus continues to excel–with Paul Johnson’s Follow the Money, a top ten bestseller in February, and an array of wonderful fiction and nonfiction lined up for 2023 and into 2024.”
Bitter Lemon Press celebrates 20 years of publishing
“Back in 2003 we launched Bitter Lemon Press,” says Francois von Hurter, co-founder of the company with his brother, Frederick, and Laurence Colchester. He continues: “It seemed an innocent time, you could smoke in bars, and drink too much at lunch. We were three founding partners, two Swiss and one French, so unsurprisingly our list began with the launch of a Swiss author, the legendary 1930s crime writer Friedrich Glauser, and a contemporary French one, Tonino Benacquista. We had few rules: all three had to agree on additions to our list and we had to feel that we could recommend the chosen books to our closest friends.
So here we are, 106 titles later, by authors from 21 countries who had never been published in English before, translated with great artistry from 12 different languages. A mix of legendary prize-winning authors (among which Cuba’s Leonardo Padura, Italy’s Gianrico Carofiglio, and the Swiss Goncourt winner Jacques Chessex feature), local heroes like the quartet of brilliant crime writers from Buenos Aires (Sergio Olguin, Claudia Piñeiro, Sergio Bizzio, and Ernesto Mallo), and debut authors like James Wolff, Elliott Colla and Katja Ivar.
There have been ups and downs of course. We’ve had successful page-to-screen adaptations including Colla’s Baghdad Central, Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner with Jessica Biel, and Padura’s Havana Quartet. And less successful ones like The Family, based on Benacquista’s Badfellas, with de Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones. It sank like a stone. Great book, terrible film, lots of unsold tie-in paperbacks. And we turned down Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, a bit like Richard Rowe of Decca turning down the Beatles in 1962. So it goes.
We motored on, however, moving on to serial crime novelists from Italy, Finland, Turkey, and Catalonia to name a few. Most recently to Japan, with the legendary Seicho Matsumoto of the 1960s, who single-handedly transformed Japanese crime writing into a socially sensitive genre focused on the post war travails of his country. And Riku Onda is today writing enigmatic novels that have bewitched Anglophone readers.
None of this would have been possible without great translators: Anthea Bell and John Brownjohn, for instance; Howard Curtis and Peter Bush, who have supported us from the very start; and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Miranda France and Louise Heal Kawai to name a few more.
And to coincide with LBF, we have just published The Translator by Harriet Crawley (a Sunday Times Thriller of the Month), set in Moscow, with Russia planning to cut the undersea communication cables linking the U.S. and the U.K. The Cold War turning hot.”
Virago celebrates half a century
This June, on the summer solstice, Virago turns 50. “From the beginning, Virago’s mission has been to champion the voices of women,” says Sarah Savitt, publisher at Virago, “and, more recently, people of underrepresented genders, and bring them to the widest possible readership around the world. From fiction and politics to history and classic children’s stories, our authors continue to win acclaim, break new ground and enrich the lives of readers.
In June we will celebrate our history through our Five Gold Reads: an iconic book from each decade of Virago, repackaged in a bold, fresh design.
Here is my version of Virago through ten books–the Five Gold Reads (marked with a *) plus five more. It’s an extremely partial history, but one which gives a sense of the breadth, boldness, and brilliance of the list.
Fenwoman by Mary Chamberlain (1975): Virago’s first book, a history of the women of one English village, shining a light on those people too often ignored by the official record.
Frost in May by Antonia White (1978): The first book published in the Virago Modern Classic list, the founding of which Ali Smith has described as ‘one of the best and most essential things that has happened in publishing in our time.’
The Sadeian Woman* by Angela Carter (1979): Angela Carter’s first nonfiction book, which tackles subjects–sex, power, pornography, the body–still at the centre of feminist debate.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1984): Angelou said no other British publisher thought readers would be interested in her story, now an iconic memoir and perennial bestseller for us.
The Fat Black Woman’s Poems* by Grace Nichols (1984): Joyful, funny, provocative poems from the winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
Tipping the Velvet* by Sarah Waters (1997): A groundbreaking debut, which put lesbian characters front and centre in historical fiction, and launched a stellar career.
Living Dolls* by Natasha Walter (2010): One of the books that re-ignited the mainstream visibility of feminism in the U.K. (though for us it had never gone out of style).
Trans Like Me by CN Lester (2017): A highly praised book about transgender rights, described as ‘one of the year’s most important books on transgender identity’ by the Gay Times.
The Friend* by Sigrid Nunez (2018): Winner of the National Book Award, Nunez’s first book with Virago is a witty, moving story about sex, friendship, art, and politics.
Furies (2023): Our anniversary anthology, featuring 15 bestselling, award-winning writers, each of whom has written a new story inspired by a synonym for ‘virago.’
And what about the next 50 years? What will Virago look like in 2073? The most exciting answer is: we don’t know. Writers are always ahead of the rest of us, bringing us untold stories, fresh perspectives, and original voices. I can’t wait to see what comes next.”