Transcript: Roger Rabbit Returns

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Interview with Celina Summers, Editorial Director, Musa Publishing

For podcast release Monday, December 2, 2012

KENNEALLY: Musa Publishing began as an answer to a series of questions posed by four digital publishing professionals. Why were publishers keeping authors in the dark about how publishing works? What was the big secret about royalties? Why couldn’t writers have input on their cover art? Why did all those e-books look like Word document files with a cover slapped on them?

Out of that desire for transparency came a publishing house that sought to answer those questions, as well as many others that authors, editors and artists are always asking themselves.

Welcome, everyone, to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book.

In 2012, starting a publishing house is easy. The tough job is doing the rest of the work well. Joining me from Lancaster, Ohio, is Celina Summers, Editorial Director of the year-old Musa Publishing. Celina, welcome to Beyond the Book.

SUMMERS: Thank you, Chris. I appreciate you inviting me.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re looking forward to talking to you. You’ve got a terrific announcement about a character and an author that people will recognize instantly. But we want to talk about what got you into publishing in the first place, and we’ll tell people briefly that you’ve been involved in e-publishing as an author, editor, review coordinator, senior editor, and managing editor, for well over a decade. You were first published as an author in high school, and are now the award-winning author of 16 novellas and novels.

You left a career in professional theater to get back to your first love, which is writing and publishing, and as driving force behind Aurora Regency, an imprint of Musa, that publishes traditional Regency romance, you helped to produce over 40 historical novels in the year before coming to launch Musa itself.

And so, I want to get back to that introduction, which we lifted a good deal of it from your blog site, because it really does get to the heart of what’s going on here in 2012 in publishing. A lot of authors are finally able, not just to ask themselves those questions, but to get some answers to them. So let’s talk about that.

What were you concerned about? I mean, as you said, why were publishers keeping authors in the dark? Is that how you felt, as an author?

SUMMERS: That’s very much how I felt. I thought it was kind of ludicrous that an author wasn’t able to track their sales, or to have any idea what their royalty checks were going to be before they got them. You know, my husband and I have a middle class income, and knowing how much royalty I was going to get would have been a big benefit to me.

But what really concerned me was the number of – specifically, electronic publishers, who weren’t being honest with their sales figures to their authors. I thought that, as an author, I would be better equipped to handle my marketing and promotion and sales work if I had an idea of what was working already. And once you get to a point with a publisher that you can’t trust the numbers that they’re giving you, then you have a real problem.

KENNEALLY: Well, it sounds –

SUMMERS: So –

KENNEALLY: Right, it certainly sounds like you would. And I know that Musa created a publishing database which you call Delphi, that addresses some of these questions. Tell us about that.

SUMMERS: Delphi is a prototype that we’ve had since we opened the door at Musa. In it, we track everything from submission to publication, reviews, and day to day sales. Our authors are able to access their sales numbers from the Musa website immediately, as they happen. Our third party retailer sales are updated on a weekly basis. And our authors know exactly how much money they’re making in any given month. And then that goes for editors and staff as well.

So, we manage to track the entire publication process, from the initial query to the end of the contract, using the Delphi system. And I think that’s it’s a publishing model that other publishers would probably want to be adopting in the next few years as authors start to stand up against them, and the traditional abuses in the publishing industry.

KENNEALLY: Well, what’s interesting about that, Celina, I think, is how it has potential benefits for both sides of the equation. I mean, as a publisher, collecting editors and designers and marketing people in a single spot, whether virtually or physically, having that kind of information is going to make you more successful, as well having that information for the author.

SUMMERS: Exactly. Exactly. And so far, we have a few people who can’t – who have trouble accessing the software. These technical glitches are about the only problems that we’ve had with Delphi. And now we have an author base of over 250, and a staff of over 100, that are reliant upon this system daily, to find out the information that they need.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s –

SUMMERS: So –

KENNEALLY: Yeah, that’s tremendous growth in a single year. So you’ve got over 200 authors, you say 100 staff. So that would be various people involved at some point in the production line, if you will, for an individual book. How did that –

SUMMERS: Right.

KENNEALLY: How did that network of publishing professionals come together? How do you find them, how do they find you?

SUMMERS: Well, originally, my three partners and I – and that’s Kelly Shorten, who’s our art director, Elspeth McClanahan, who does marketing and promotions, and Kerry Mand, who’s our financial director, we all have worked in the publishing business for a long time. And a lot of our staff followed us over from a previous publisher that was disintegrating, that we worked for. So that’s where our core staff came from.

But over the past year, as we have authors of greater name recognition and books that are doing extremely well, we have a lot of people who are trying to get into the Musa system. One of the ways that we have – that we have facilitated this, is with the internship program that we run at Musa. And we bring in publishing – people who are interesting in publishing that have no practical experience, and put them into real-life jobs within the publication process.

As a result, a lot of them are being hired now as full-fledged content or line editors, which is kind of the purpose of the program.

KENNEALLY: And are these people writers as well, or are they just interested in being involved in the book business?

SUMMERS: Almost all of the people involved with Musa are writing as well. We have – we believe, at last count, 263 authors, and 500 – over 500 books either published or contracted. So we have – you know, we have a large core of writers that are in our systems as employees as well.

KENNEALLY: Right. And with that comes a kind of a community, and I guess I was thinking that if you’re an author and you’re working in that kind of environment where so many other authors are involved, you’re kind of pulling together, rather than pulling separately, trying to help everybody be successful, as well as your own book.

SUMMERS: Exactly. We have a very strongly fostered sense of family at Musa. Our authors are very proactive, and our editors are too, because they can get their editorial assignments as quickly as they choose and work ahead on the system.

But Elspeth, and the marketing community that she’s created at Musa, is really extraordinary. We have a core of authors all published with us who are working pretty strenuously every week, publicizing not only themselves, but their brother and sister authors at Musa as well. And this has paid off in a lot of recognition and awards, and – got a lot of happy authors.

KENNEALLY: Well, and also, bringing them to readers who they might not otherwise find.

SUMMERS: Exactly. Exactly. With – right now, with digital publishing at the place where it’s at, there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam out there, that you have to negotiate in order to find the book you like. There are a lot of self-published authors out there, a lot of backlists that some traditional publishers are printing off – or, excuse me, turning into style formats and releasing digitally. And in order to find the specific book, say, at Amazon, you literally have to go through hundreds of thousands of selections, in order to find it.

So it’s important, I think, for most authors who are looking to publish digitally, to be with an established publishing house, so that they automatically have the platform of a developed and growing readership, which is part of the problem, I think, they’re facing. All – almost all but maybe 5% are self-published authors.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re talking right now to Celina Summers, who is the co-founder of Musa Publishing, speaking to us from Lancaster, Ohio. And you know, many of the authors that you’ve got, I’m sure we’ll recognize their names in the coming months and years. But you are making an announcement today about an author who – at least, the title for his book series, will be instantly recognizable by everybody listening. Tell us about your announcement.

SUMMERS: Well, we are announcing today that Musa author and world-famed author, Gary K. Wolf, is finally releasing the third book in his Who Framed Roger Rabbit? series, which was made famous by the 1988 Disney movie of that name.

His original novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, was released in 1981, went on to become a bestseller, and then a Hugo award, amidst others, and led to the ultimate creation of this iconic character and world that pretty much, I’d say, has almost instant recognition quality with most Americans.

Gary has published two other books with us. His first, The Late Great Show, was released in October. His second book comes out this Friday, and that’s Typical Day. But, on Black Friday in 2013, Musa Publishing will be releasing Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?, a full length novel that takes us right back into the incredibly wonderful and amazing world that Gary created for his fans and readers. And we are very, very excited about this opportunity.

KENNEALLY: Well, I’m sure you would be. Tell me, how did Gary find you, how did you find him? Your publishing list really runs the gamut, and you’ve got a lot of different types of genre, particularly. What was it about what Musa was doing that Gary felt confident enough to bring you his new Roger Rabbit book?

SUMMERS: Well, actually, and this is kind of amazing story, to be honest, Gary first came to us through the slush pile, believe it or not. He sent us an unsolicited query, for The Late Great Show, and I was – I got the e-mail and looked at it, and was like, yeah, right, the guy who wrote Roger Rabbit is really coming to Musa. But he really was. And his book was fabulous, so we signed it, and then the next one.

But I talked with Gary quite a bit over the past few months, obviously, in the past few weeks, especially when it came to this project. And I asked him why he decided to come to Musa. And he said that basically, he liked the royalty and accounting information, which is something that he’s never gotten from a regular publisher. He gets a say in the cover art, which is huge for him, obviously. He really enjoys the proprietary software with the Delphi system, because he can interact with everyone electronically in real time through it.

And we aren’t trying to be just another e-publisher who cranks books out as quickly as we can. We have a very strong and very thorough editorial process that Gary has responded to very positively.

KENNEALLY: What’s interesting, and really intriguing about all of that is, I would think, here’s a man who could go to any of the Big Six – or, excuse me, now the Big Five, and get a contract. But yet, he chooses to go with Musa. How do you look at that kind of David and Goliath confrontation right now, the types of publishers like you against the big boys?

SUMMERS: Well, I am not one of the people who is crying the doom of the print publisher. I firmly believe that digital and print publishing can co-exist, and will continue to co-exist, that there’s always going to be a demand for hard copy books. However, the Big Six really can’t compete with the digital publisher for convenience or instant gratification.

Ten years ago, if you were reading a book and it kept you up past your bedtime, and you read until 2:00 in the morning, and you wanted to continue to read the next book in the series, you had to wait until 10:00 am the next day and go to the bookstore and all of this fun stuff. Now you can go to a website like Musa, or to an e-tailer like Amazon, and you can be reading this next book in a matter of minutes. And that’s something that the print book is never going to be able to compete with.

But, I think that print publishing is kind of reaping what it’s sown for the past few years, because of exactly what we were discussing earlier, of keeping the author out of the publication process. We believe that an author with knowledge is empowered, and an empowered author writes a better book, and writes more of them. And that’s why we created the system that we did.

And authors like Gary, who have gone through the whole system with traditional print publishers are really responding to that. And I think that’s part of why we’re seeing authors like Gary or Sharon De Vita coming to Musa, authors like Conrad (sp?) going to self-publishing. There’s a very definite backlash against the traditional print publishers right now.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, you see that authors are responding. Certainly, authors are responding because readers are responding, and the kinds of books that Musa publishes, many of them, are the sort that you’d say that when you’re up at 12:00 o’clock at night, and you want to get the next one, and the next one after that. Tell us briefly about the list that you’ve got there at Musa these days.

SUMMERS: What, the genre list?

KENNEALLY: Right. What kinds of books – just to give listeners an idea. I mean, I understand your bread and butter is what you call the sensual romance.

SUMMERS: Yes. And actually, I believe most digital publishers will tell you that. We have a very strong romance imprint that deals with everything from sweet to sensual romance. We have a historical romance imprint, which features Aurora Regency, traditional Regency romances. We also have a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual imprint, which handles all of the gay literature. And we also have the Pan imprint, which is designed for young adults in the gay community.

These imprints are probably the ones that help me to sign checks. But they also enable me to publish everything from children’s picture books – we just published our first children’s picture e-book on Monday, as a matter of fact, last Monday, The Great Gingerbread Goof, by Dee Lishess, which is a toddler-aged healthy recipe picture book story, through young adult. We have a thriving speculative fiction imprint, mysteries, literary, action-adventure, women’s fiction – we really run the list.

And then, the main thing that the romance imprints are paying for right now is a special pet project of mine, and that’s the Homer Eon Flint collection. Homer Eon Flint was an early 20th century American writer who pioneered American science fiction and the mystery genres in pulp magazines. And I’d say maybe six weeks after we opened, his granddaughter, who is also an author, Vella Munn, approached me with the idea of publishing her grandfather’s total body of works.

Well, as we started digging into this, we found not only his well-known Dr. Kinney novels, which are very – have never been out of print, basically, since the 1920s when he wrote them, but stories of all different genres. And he’s such a masterful storyteller that we have ended up publishing everything he ever wrote –

KENNEALLY: How many –

SUMMERS: – whether it was the big novels, to pulp fiction serials, and the unpublished – we had unpublished books on half-rolls of copy paper that were basically disintegrating. And we have transcribed them. And that conservation work is a very important core element of what we believe in at Musa.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s fascinating, because I – we have talked about just very similar projects with others here on Beyond the Book, and I find that exciting, that it is not only about bringing new authors to audiences, but to – helping to revive, resuscitate, if you will, the careers of authors that might have been forgotten or otherwise unavailable to those same audiences, who really will get something out of it. And I would imagine, too, they might inspire many new authors to write in that same way. And so, really, you’ve got this wonderful, virtuous circle going on.

SUMMERS: It’s really fantastic. We worked closely with Vella on the conservation of her grandfather’s works. I believe that several of his original manuscripts are now in the rare manuscripts department at the University of Kansas.

But we actually took – we took these fragile, disintegrating pages, and painstakingly transcribed them into computer documents, and now we’re bringing these stories to people who have never heard of Homer Eon Flint. We have people reading his stories – he’s getting reviews 90 years after his extremely mysterious murder. And in fact, the only non-fiction title that we have yet published at Musa is the biography of Homer Eon Flint that Vella wrote in coordination with the collection.

So we publish his work on a biweekly schedule, and we started last – I want to say we started in December of 2011, and we will be continuing to publish his work in June of 2013.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, 2012 has been the year of digital publishing, really, and we’ve seen, of course, the success of E.L. James, hundreds of millions of copies of books sold. Are you looking for a bestseller, or would you be happy with the kind of wide range of work that you’re publishing now just doing well?

SUMMERS: A bestseller is a great thing. But at Musa, we are trying not to focus on one particular book to the exception of all others.

I think that with Fifty Shades of Grey, there was really almost a perfect storm of happenings that helped to create that bestseller and take it out of the fan fiction where it began, and put it into the hands of the Big Six.

But I also think that has gone very – that has done a lot of good for my authors, because people who have read Fifty Shades of Grey and enjoy it are now looking for other authors that can provide the same kind of entertainment value. And while we are very – I don’t want to say strict about our content, but we aren’t as lax as some others.

And as a result of that, I think that readers are finding a lot of outstanding sensual romance literature at numerous digital publishers. I mean, Samhain, and Ellora’s Cave, and Carina all have been doing exceptional work with that type of book over the last – for Ellora’s Cave and Samhain, at least a decade. I think Carina’s been around for two or three years. That’s the Harlequin digital publisher. And now some of these authors are starting to get a bit more notoriety and have more people reading their books.

And it all kind of boils down to something that’s always been true about the book industry, but I don’t think a lot of people realize, and that is that word of mouth is absolutely the best promotion for a great book. And that’s how Fifty Shades of Grey took off, and that’s how a lot of the Musa books have taken off as well.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s a great point, and probably a great way to end things, because what we’re talking about is a very innovative point in the publishing business, but yet, relying upon something quite traditional, quite – sort of old-fashioned, if you will, which is, word of mouth.

SUMMERS: Exactly. Exactly. That part of publishing, I don’t think will ever change. You know, I can go out for dinner with my girlfriends, and we talk about what we read, and something that someone says just off the cuff will interest me in reading that book. Like, say, And Ladies of the Club, by Helen Santmyer, which was originally a small press book, done by Ohio State, I think, in 1981. And I heard about it in just a conversation I was having, I think at my former mother-in-law’s dinner table, and ended up reading the book, and it’s one of my favorites now. And I re-read it religiously every year.

So that’s one of the things, too, I think, that authors are really liking about digital publishing, though, it’s not all front-loaded. You know, you don’t have to buy out – you don’t have to sell through in advance the initial, like, two month period that print publishing has for shelf life on a book. With digital publishing, you actually can create the slow build in sales that increases gradually, and in the long run, increases the author’s visibility, and also their royalty checks. And that’s something that we started to do with our marketing.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, we’ll be looking forward to seeing many authors coming from Musa, and sort of building their own reputations and their audiences.

We’ve been chatting with Celina Summers, Editorial Director for the year-old Musa Publishing, joining us today on Beyond the Book. Celina, thank you so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you for having me.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as now images, movies and television shows.

You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Face-book, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, Copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.