After amassing 50-plus years’ publishing experience between them, sisters Sarah and Kate Beal now run their own independent, Muswell Press. The pair tell Tim Relf about their plans
When you first set out in publishing it’s easy to think there’s some magic ingredient required to do it well. Actually there’s not, insist Sarah and Kate Beal. "Of course, you need a bit of luck sometimes," Sarah says, "but what you have to do is learn as much as you can and apply yourself."
The duo had been searching for a project for a while when, in 2016, they spotted the chance to buy Muswell Press, following the death of its founder Ruth Boswell. "It occurred to us this could be just the platform we were looking for," recalls Sarah. "It had a website, a distributor and a small backlist with some quite well known people on it including Virginia McKenna and Matthew Sweeney. Plus, it was about to close, so didn’t cost us a lot!"
Nearly three years on, and the business is making a name for itself as a thriving independent, bringing out nine titles last year, with 12 planned for 2019 and 16 for 2020. The aspiration is to reach about 25 titles a year by 2024, with a potential turnover by then topping £1.5m. "It all depends, of course, if any of those books is a breakaway. You only need one Girl on the Train!"
The Beals certainly have insight into the trade. Sarah clocked up 20-plus years at Bloomsbury, where she oversaw the international launch of Harry Potter, before a stint as HarperCollins’ marketing director. Kate’s career has included periods at Bloomsbury, Faber, Ottakar’s, Walker and, more recently, a sales director role at Oneworld.
They also reckon publishing is "in the blood." Their father, Tony, was md of Heinemann, their mother, Rosemary, an editor (the couple met through the SYP). Sarah’s recently graduated daughter is working for Waterstones. A distant forebear ran a bookshop in Soho Square in the late 19th century.
"It’s important that we recognise what we don’t know as well as what we do know," says Kate. "Broadly speaking, I have more of a commercial background and Sarah’s more editorial, but on the Venn diagram of our skills and experience, we do meet in the middle a lot, so we have to fill the bits round the outside with people who are strong in different areas."
To do this, the Beals have assembled an editorial board of "friends and supporters" - to give advice and help on everything from "commissioning ideas to navigating the metadata minefield".
The pair don’t want Muswell to get too big. "We want to always be at a size where we can still be absolutely behind every book," Kate says. "Some publishers will acquire a whole load of books and crash them into the list because they feel the need to fill slots. We’ll only do what we feel will work and what we believe in."
There are, they say, opportunities for small publishers at present. "The world is pretty receptive to what small publishers can offer and do," says Sarah. "There’s good trade support, too."
The digital era and modern working practices have also opened doors. "On a practical level, we can work with a whole bunch of freelancers remotely; and social media means some marketing is incredibly cheap. In the old days, you'd take out adverts in the Times or on the Tube, and it could cost you up to £30,000."
They acknowledge they’re at a crucial time for Muswell, as it’s self-funded and neither is yet taking a salary. They both work from home (meetings often take place at Sarah’s kitchen table, while dog walks in North London parks are a great opportunity for blue-sky thinking); have an intern, Anya Hutchinson; and a semi-permanent relationships with two experienced publicists, Fiona Brownlee and Hannah Corbett.
"Because Sarah and I know each other so well, we can second guess what the other one will think and do, so we can cover for each other," says Kate. "But we will have to formalise our roles more as we mature as a company, because we won’t be able to both keep a view across every aspect."
But the building blocks of success are getting put in place, she stresses. Rights income and audio are proving to be "quite a nice little earner"; and the sales and distribution network is spreading - from the UK and Ireland, further into Europe, ANZ and more recently into the USA, Canada and the Caribbean (SE Asia is the next territory they’ve set their sights on).
They’re targeting a mix of fiction and non-fiction, but are steering clear of poetry ("done too brilliantly by other people"), SF and fantasy ("we don’t like it") and kids’ books ("a whole different ball game").
Books they can believe in
This broad spectrum perhaps reflects the pair’s eclectic interests. Sarah, for example, is also a garden designer, having studied the subject when her children were young and she was working four days a week. "I find it so relaxing, I love it," she says. Kate originally trained as an artist. "I once thought I was going to float around in chiffon and produce these lovely paintings!
"If we only publish the books we love ourselves, that’ll help us retain the passion," Kate adds. "We’ve both spent far too many years working on the midlist. Like a lot of people, I’ve had to go out and sell books I simply didn’t believe in.
"We have similar tastes so hopefully won’t squabble too much about what to acquire, but our tastes are quite varied. We also want to be very big on author care. It’ll be about growing our list by nurturing authors, as well as acquiring new ones. Because we’re small, we can do joined-up thinking well, and we’re nimble. We also like to buy world rights wherever we can."
The pair are also aware that design will be a crucial element in the success of the list. "Purchasing decisions are so often based on visual impact, so we spend a lot of time thinking about our covers and commissioning top designers who also work for much bigger houses, so we can compete at the highest level," adds Kate.
Titles they’re currently excited about include Tommy Barnes’ A Beer in the Loire, which, billed as A Year in Provence for the Instagram generation, is an account by a former stand-up comic of his move to France. Another is a book of short stories, Last Train to Helsingor, by Heidi Amsinck; plus a first novel from Toby Faber (one of Kate’s former bosses).
Then there’s Livingstone’s London, an affectionate look at the capital by the former Mayor (who is married to the pair’s younger sister, Emma). "We’re sensitive to the fact that he’s a politician and not everyone’s cup of tea, but he adores the city and it’s an amazing book, a mix of observation, anecdotes and practical stuff," says Sarah. "It’s really touching in parts. We commissioned him to do it. We’re having it libel-read, though - obviously, as a small independent we can’t afford to be sued!"
They hope that "The Ken book", as they affectionately refer to it, will be the start of a "city" series - written by authors who already have a profile, with a quirky, slightly leftfield angle. They’re also keen to launch an LGBTQ+ list, with an editor-at-large, Matt Bates, looking at reverting rights on backlist titles, plus hunting for contemporary titles.
"We have managed our funds carefully, so, while we’re not rolling in it, we certainly won’t go bankrupt," says Sarah. "If at any point we felt we’d overstretched ourselves, we’d rein back. That’s one of the good things about being self-funded - we ultimately call the tune when it comes to finance. We don’t have an investor demanding a set return at a set point in time.
"We briefly thought about opening a bookshop, but we couldn’t make the figures work. Thank goodness we didn’t do it, because, as it turned out, Waterstones moved in up the road from the one we were looking at and the credit crunch hit soon after!
"What we’re doing is not without worries and risks, but we wanted to be our own bosses. Ultimately every business starts with one person - or, in our case, two! We love what we’re doing.
"Someone said to me the other day it was really brave of us to have done what we have, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Sometimes it’s more stressful to work for other people, especially if you’re not of the same mindset as them, and it’s so satisfying to be forging our own destiny. All our oldest friends tell us our parents would have been proud of us - and that’s perhaps the nicest thing of all to hear."
Pictured: Kate (left) and Sarah Beal