Musa Publishing: a case study

Once upon a time (2007ish) a new publisher came online with the usual bells and whistles, and then devolved into a sea of acrimony and accusation (circa 2011 – 2012). That publisher was Aspen Mountain Press, and out of its ashes a group of authors, editors, and support personnel banded together to create Musa Publishing.

From the start in mid-2011, Musa looked interesting to me. They were ambitious, courting a wide range of genres across many imprints and a short fiction magazine. They promised they wanted more than the ‘usual erotic romance’, and wanted to push the boundaries of genre science fiction and fantasy work, as well as horror, thrillers, mysteries, and women’s fiction. I penciled them onto my submissions list, for when I might be querying a mainstream fantasy and a M/M erotic romance space opera.

Few other publishers are as well-documented on AbsoluteWrite’s publishing forums. Many of the Musa principals had previously been AW regulars for years; there was an undercurrent from outsiders accusing AW of ‘going soft’ on Musa because of that connection. I did see a lot of uncritical enthusiasm, but mostly from new writers like me who didn’t know better. The old pros asked the uncomfortable questions.

I saw cracks in Musa in December of 2011. I queried them anyway for one book, and got a rejection letter I counted as a blessing. I’d already decided to decline any offers from Musa. This was based on the growing rumors of dysfunction in the core staff, as well as one staggeringly ugly and unprofessional book cover.

Over nearly 130 pages of posts on AW, I watched Musa’s rise and fall through the lens of its loyal authors and reasoned skeptics. So many of the former said variations of ‘I didn’t see this coming’. I knew there was trouble early in 2012. I guessed the company probably couldn’t survive, by Q1 of 2013. 

I expressed doubts in public, but didn’t push it too hard: Filigree’s Rule, and the fact that many of those authors were going to be very hostile to me if I did. I actually hoped Musa would trim most of its under-performing imprints and its magazine, and recover to become a stronger market. But I wasn’t willing to commit even one short story to it, until I saw positive change.

At its best, Musa was prompt with royalty checks and transparent about its accounting. Many of its ideas were brilliant, just undermanned and underfunded.

Its principals tried to run a small publisher with the output and scope of a Random House, with marketing leveraged mostly toward authors themselves. Musa took on a huge workload, and many books (and writers and editors, etc) suffered stress because of it. Most of Musa’s staff worked for royalties only, a risky move for a publisher that small (though many of them still do it.) Market forces combined to hit Musa with lower and lower sales per author. At one point, there was an odd consensus that many Musa authors were selling low double-digit copies during the entire life of contract. We’re talking fewer than 20 copies, to be blunt. By the end, even long-tail marketing of hundreds upon hundreds of books couldn’t bring enough operating cash.

Musa will be gone as of February 28, 2015. To their credit, its principals decided to go out with grace and dignity to themselves and their writers (unlike other meltdown publishers.)

I’d have no qualms about considering any new company they might found, provided they answer the issues that combined to fell Musa.

Those are worth looking at again, as an object lesson to new writers:

1) Reliance on author-based marketing. This may work for one in a hundred small-press authors; the rest are effectively limited to only several hundred sales over life of contract. If that.

2) Staff paid on royalties. I’ve seen this in the art market, too, where it usually creates a downward spiral of more product, rushed production, high staff turnover, and lesser earnings overall, as well as a perception of lower quality.

3) Which leads to too many books published per year, to the point that many of them were not professionally marketed at all.

4) Too many genres to earn a solid industry focus and reputation. Musa had many imprints dedicated to separate genres, plus its Penumbra magazine. Musa’s cover branding was fairly distinct, but it never earned breakout status in any of its genres.

I’m very sorry to see them go. I’m sorry for the authors who now have to decide whether to self-publish, or attempt finding reprint publication with other presses. I wish all of them well – and I’m selfishly glad my debut novel isn’t in that pack.

It’s hammered home to me that authors should be wary of publishing with only one house, or even in one genre.

 

Author: Filigree

Artist and writer living in the Southwest USA.

2 thoughts on “Musa Publishing: a case study”

  1. That’s a great writeup. I want to do a similar article, because I came close to sending a manuscript to the Urania imprint (and I’m usually stringent about waiting until a press proves itself).

    Musa did have a lot of potential and support, but I agree that their reach exceeded their grasp. Multiple imprints and Penumbra plus plans for two other e-zines… it would have taken superhuman effort and operating funds to make that succeed. I wish they’d throttled back and refocused efforts after it because clear something was wrong.

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