Experience is the watchword at Muswell Press. Its new owners, sisters Kate and Sarah Beal, may be fresh to running their own publishing house but they are practised hands at the book business.
As the duo point out, they have a combined total of 60 years experience in the industry (at Bloomsbury, HarperCollins, Ottakar’s, Walker, Faber and Oneworld, in sales and marketing roles) and they have worked on 11 Man Booker winners.
The two can claim to have publishing in their bones: as children, with parents Tony Beal, chairman of Heinemann Education, and editor Rosemary Beal, they remember The Bookseller arriving every Friday, alongside their copies of Jackie and Bunty; predictably it was described as "Dad’s comic". And although Sarah left publishing to train as a garden designer while she raised her family, she was keen to return and start a joint venture with Kate, with whom she worked during her two decades at Bloomsbury.
The sisters heard about the Muswell Press list when it was being wound down after the death of founder Ruth Boswell last year. The small list carries work from actress and wildlife campaigner Virginia McKenna as well as the poet Matthew Sweeney; thinking, "Perhaps this is the springboard we need", the Beals bought it.
Now it has a stellar advisory board compiled from their contact books: Atlantic’s Will Atkinson; Bloomsbury co-founder David Reynolds; Kathy Rooney, formerly Bloomsbury Information m.d.; Helen Kogan of Kogan Page; and bookseller and BA president Ros de la Hey among them. Rooney "keeps us rigorous —she kicks us into touch," says Kate Beal; Reynolds has already pointed the pair to a novel. The IPG has also been "very helpful", while author Joanna Trollope has called Muswell "a truly thrilling new venture".
Sarah left and Kate Beal (©Philip Sharkie)
The Beals, who haven’t taken on external investors, are "starting small and growing organically"; they published a handful of titles last autumn, including Heidi Amsinck’s collection of Copenhagen-set stories Last Train to Helsingor, and Stuart Hopps’ thriller The Rainbow Conspiracy. This year there will be 10–12 new titles, and the number will rise to around 20 in subsequent years. First signs are good; three of its titles, including Amsinck’s and Hopps’, are reprinting following good support, particularly from W H Smith Travel, which featured them in promotions, and Waterstones.
The sisters are acquiring cannily, often hunting out authors themselves (they approached Amsinck after some of her work was read on Radio 4) and, where they can, going for world rights, with translation sales planned at the London Book Fair. Experienced freelancers, including Anna Pallai, formerly at Faber, and Hannah Corbett, erstwhile of Simon & Schuster, have been brought in to take on PR campaigns. Sales are with PGUK, with Faber handling digital distribution.
The only headache is the admin, the duo admit. "I cover more the commercial side of the business, and Sarah is more the publishing end, but it’s not a Venn diagram that includes administrative skills," notes Kate Beal, saying it won’t be long before they need to take on staff to keep that covered.
The vision for Muswell’s list is "books we personally love and that we know there is a market for", says Sarah Beal, including "good, readable contemporary fiction, beautifully designed and produced", and non-fiction "with an edge to it, a twist". She adds: "Every book has a hook, an angle, and it has to grab you. The first chapter has to really pull you in."
In the catalogue for 2018 is, in March, The Girls’ Book of Priesthood by Louise Rowland, a début novel about a young London curate dealing with the challenges of the 12 months prior to being a fully-fledged priest. "There’s nothing that’s like it," says Kate Beal. Then there’s the book Reynolds suggested, The Dissent of Annie Lang (April, £12.99), a second novel from Ros Franey, whose first, the well-reviewed Cry Baby, was published 20 years ago. It tells of a woman’s disturbing past, growing up in a strict religious family in the 1920s, and of the secrets adults believe children are too young to grasp. Corbett will help to promote the book.
A début for June will be The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman (£10.99), a novel set in the 1970s, concerning a woman who becomes the first female academic
at her Oxford college, and who begins an illicit relationship with a student during a summer reading party held in Cornwall. "She really captures that period," enthuses Sarah Beal.
Muswell’s big book for the autumn is A Beer in the Loire by Tommy Barnes, smartly pitched as "a kind of Year in Provence for Millennials and the Rent Generation". The author is a thirtysomething, home-brewing former stand-up comedian who, with his ceramicist wife, struck out for a new life in France after becoming disenchanted with London. Muswell will publish the book as a £12.99 flapped paperback with photo sections.
Also in the planning is a series of city guides by well-known individuals, offering a personal take on their city. First up is former London mayor Ken Livingstone: Livingstone’s London will reflect, among other things, on his love of London Aquarium. The book is planned for spring 2019. A smart publishing idea but, like Muswell, it’s also a family thing: Livingstone is the Beals’ brother-in-law, married to younger sister Emma.