As the Publisher of Virago, with knowledge of our past, I thought it would be interesting for me to trawl through the Virago list and bring you regular News From Our Own Backlist .
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is an astonishing book, one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Funny, moving, revealing, it is truly brilliant. Almost like a novel, it takes the reader into a time and place never to be forgotten. It was first published in America by Random House in 1969. Maya Angelou says that Bob Loomis (who is still Maya Angelou's editor in America) asked her many times to write her story and she demurred until finally he said ‘Well I am not surprised – it's hard to write a good autobiography.’ ‘Right then!’ she replied, ‘I will do it.’
It was a huge hit in America, hailed by the likes of James Baldwin among thousands of others. But when it was shown to British publishers in the 1970s, according to Maya Angelou, they all said it was a story just for Americans. British people wouldn't care about a young black girl growing up in the American south in the 1930s, they said. So no British edition appeared. Then, in the mid 1980s, Ursula Owen, then Editorial Director of Virago, visited American publishers, and the Rights Director of Random House USA showed her the book saying she might just like this title, long turned down by the Brits, which was still a huge hit (along with the subsequent volumes) in America.
For Virago it was love at first sight. We were blown away by the book – and we hadn't yet met the author! I was the Publicity Director at that time and as soon as Ursula Owen signed the contract, I got a funny, crazily mistyped letter from Jessica Mitford (author of the fabulous Hons and Rebels), who told me she was going to make it her business to tell the world about her great friend and this book. I copied parts of her letter to send to all the press and the positive response was immediate.
And then… Maya Angelou came to visit us. Well, that is just too tame a description. In our tiny office, six-foot Maya Angelou sang and danced and laughed her way into our lives. She was not afraid to speak hard truths. She recited her poem Phenomenal Woman. We immediately invited her back for publication.
Fifteen years after the first US publication, in 1984, we published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in a Virago paperback. Maya Angelou appeared on ‘Afternoon Plus’, Thames Television with the extraordinary interviewer, Mavis Nicholson. It was a heartfelt, bold piece – including Maya Angelou talking about being raped at 8 and becoming mute – but it was also very raucous, with a huge amount of laughter, I recall. Their switchboards were jammed. The reviews and features that followed (with the Mitford blessing) were stunning. Maya Angelou beamed straight into British hearts.
But even still I don't think we quite knew what we had. Our first print run was around 8,000 paperbacks and was sold out before publication. We printed another, cautious 8,000. Today, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has sold over 600,000 copies and it's still selling year on year, month on month. It's on courses, reading lists and remains, to my mind, one of the world’s and certainly one of Virago's great autobiographies.
We have gone on to publish all of Maya Angelou's works: five more volumes of autobiography, her poetry, essays, and, most recently, her cookbooks. We have sold well beyond a million copies of her books. She is a one-off. I am thrilled to be her publisher, honoured now to be her friend.