How To Write for Penumbra: An Interview with Editorial Director Celina Summers

Thursday, December 22, 2011
In a time when speculative fiction sources are rapidly disappearing, Penumbra eMagazine offers a pro-paying market for spec-fic writers and exciting new stories for avid readers.

The electronic magazine, owned by Musa Publishing, made its debut in October 2011 with a collection of speculative fiction stories based on a particular theme (art, death, travel, for example). They have published works by well-known authors such as: Mario Milosevic, Daniel Ausema, Scott Overton and David Blake.

To find out more about this market, we sat down with Celina Summers to chat about editing for Penumbra magazine, what she looks for in submissions, causes for rejections, market trends, and what she’d like to see more of.

Editorial Director Celina Summers has been involved in e-publishing as an author, editor, review coordinator, senior editor, and managing editor for over a decade. She studied theater and political science at college in Tennessee, including master class studies in playwriting with famed dramaturge Howard Stein. First published in high school and now the award-winning author of sixteen novellas and novels, she left her career in professional theatre to return to her first love, writing and publishing, in 2000. As the driving force behind Aurora Regency, she produced over forty historical novels in the year before coming to launch Musa Publishing.

WOW: Share with us the conception story of Penumbra Magazine and Musa Publishing. Why did you decide to launch them simultaneously?

Celina: The other three directors and I were previously the senior staff at a well-known e-publisher. We were asked to take over the management of the company because of the owner's personal situation, and found ourselves in the position of correcting problems that had accumulated over the course of a couple of years. When it was no longer possible to help that company, we parted ways with the owner and decided to start our own publishing house. We wanted to avoid similar problems to the ones we'd encountered at the company we'd tried to save—but in advance.

When we created Musa, we determined that our policy would be different from the publishers where we'd worked. We wanted to include the author in the process at a level where they hadn't been before, including complete transparency involving sales numbers and royalties. Musa authors can track their sales live on our database—daily. That transparency has carried over to every other aspect of the company.

Penumbra eMag was my pet project from the beginning. Because of Penumbra and the overwhelming response we got from the writing community, we decided that we wanted to focus on providing other avenues of publication for those writers. As a result, we not only put together a high quality speculative fiction magazine—we pay pro rates, so we get a lot of submissions—but also turned some of the short stories that were submitted to us into stand-alone, royalties-paying e-books at Musa. So Penumbra is the vanguard for Musa's programs for shorter fiction. We now publish short stories, collections, novelettes, and serial stories in every imprint at Musa as well.

As for launching the publishing house and the eMag simultaneously—well, I'll admit it. People thought we were crazy. We weren't. We knew that Musa was going to attract a lot of interest on the web and within the online publishing community. We wanted to make sure that Penumbra capitalized off that. So we set ourselves some seemingly impossible goals and, believe it or not, we made those goals. Now we're putting the finishing touches on our fourth issue and Musa will have released over a hundred short stories, serials, novels and novellas by the end of 2012. We're tired…but always ambitious with everything we do.

WOW: How did you become the main deity (Editorial Director)?

Celina: The four directors of Musa all have very specific experience in the publishing industry. Kelly Shorten is our art director and web developer (and the genius behind Delphi, our house-wide database system), Kerry Mand is our administrative director, and Elspeth McClanahan is the promotions and marketing director. Because I've been an editor for years, the editorial directorship fell to me by default. But I'd question that I'm the main deity. I do get to play the bad cop a lot, but Kerry's really the main deity; she's the money lady and we have to do what she tells us.

WOW: You worked with historical novels before speculative fiction. What made you decide to genre-hop?

Celina: I created the Aurora Regency line at AMP because of a specific need I saw in the electronic market. Several trade publishers had just killed off their traditional Regency romance lines, and those readers had lost their monthly book fix. That's how Aurora Regency came about. I was very relieved that we were able to purchase the imprint when we started Musa. We were able to bring the writers and project that I'd been working on for over a year and keep the imprint alive. Right now, it's one of the healthiest imprints at Musa.

But I didn't genre-hop. I'm also a writer, and I write speculative fiction—alternate history and magic realism primarily. So while I love my historicals, speculative fiction is my true passion. I have a fantastic head editor of our Urania speculative fiction line at Musa, Dr. Matt Teel, so Penumbra allows me to remain connected with my spec fic roots.

WOW: What is your vision for Penumbra and its place in the market?

Celina: The speculative fiction market is remarkably loyal—and has been remarkably resistant to electronic publishing up until now. However, the wonderful magazines I cut my teeth on as a young wannabe writer are starting to disappear—Realms of Fantasy's announcement that they were closing a few weeks ago was a blow to writers and readers both. I think that this is where Penumbra has a big advantage compared to many fledgling magazines. Electronic publishing allows a magazine like Penumbra to pay professional rates to authors, while maintaining an extremely low overhead for production costs. My intention is to create an electronic magazine that brings the speculative fiction reader the best in short fiction monthly, in a consumer-friendly electronic fashion, at a substantially lower issue and subscription price than print magazines can feasibly offer. And so far, the industry's response to Penumbra has been favorable. I'm optimistic about our chances to succeed at these goals.

WOW: What do you look for in a short story?

Celina: I look to be engaged quickly by the author's voice, a distinctive narrative style, and amazing content. The quicker you hook me, the greater the chance I'll like your story. We do themed submission calls at Musa, so I like to see how people play with our themes. Our Shakespeare issue coming in February of 2012, for example, got an unbelievable number of submissions (we've got just as many or more for the Steampunk issue) and, believe it or not, there was not a single Romeo and Juliet story in the whole batch. But we did get submissions based off Titus Andronicus and Taming of the Shrew and Comedy of Errors and just the creativity of those stories still blows me away. To my mind, it takes a very skilled writer to take something as venerated as Shakespeare and develop thoroughly modern and original stories around those familiar plays.

WOW: What are some causes for rejection?

Celina: I'm ashamed to admit this, but if a short story doesn't grab my attention in the first paragraphs—say half a page—then I will usually reject it. Poor grammar, typographical errors, similarity to a story/author I already know all contribute to our rejection rates. But once we narrow the hundreds of submissions for an issue down to twenty or twenty-five contenders for the 5-6 slots in each issue, rejection comes down to really tiny factors—maybe a story could have stood a little more tightening, or a character was just slightly underdeveloped. When I reject a story for those reasons, I usually try to send a personal note with my thoughts on the story—and many of those authors I'll offer a chance to publish the story through Musa instead of Penumbra. And sometimes, at the very end, it comes down to purely subjective things—like how much of our word count is remaining or which story I enjoyed more. As I've said, I'm also a writer, and I know how rejections sting. In the end, rejections are tiny windows into the heart of a story whether it's a thousand words or a hundred thousand, and if an editor tells me my narrative ran out of steam in the middle of the story that's useful to me. I know what to look for. I can't give personal rejections all the time, but I try to keep a reasonable percentage of emails with some type of feedback in them even if it's just, "I like your narrative style and want to see more of your work."

WOW: So far, what have been some of the unique challenges in putting together the eMag?

Celina: Creating a staff out of nothing and very, very quickly. We are blessed with a team of enthusiastic interns at Musa, several of whom work with me at Penumbra. All the research I was slowly doing into speculative fiction magazines before we started Musa had to be condensed into a matter of weeks. So we read a lot, we checked out other magazines editorial and aesthetic style, and we developed our vision for Penumbra in a very short period of time. Even now that we're preparing our fourth issue, we're still adding content besides short fiction. We have several articles in each issue now, and in January are adding a monthly feature about folklore and world building by a very talented author, editor and scholar Lori Basiewicz. Then, too, I personally had to make the adjustment from creating periodicals destined for print (how I learned these things back when dinosaurs walked the earth in the late 1980s) and developing one for electronic consumption. We are very fortunate to have outstanding designers at Musa, Kelly, and Coreen Montagna, our interior book designer, did an amazing job creating the layout and formatting for Penumbra. The process has been an education for me—all of us, probably—and we're now beginning the same process all over again. We have a romance-oriented eMag in the early stages of development.

WOW: You do have an ambitious team! Speculative fiction covers such a wide spectrum. Are there any trends you are noticing right now in the genre or in submissions?

Celina: Well, submissions at Penumbra are themed so that's keeping the majority of submissions on track with what we're looking for. Speculative fiction submissions at Musa have been heavy on fantasy and very light on science fiction—which surprises me still. One thing I'm noticing and am very happy about are the profusion of strong, intelligent, kick-ass female protagonists. There are more princesses saving warriors than the other way around in our slushpile these days. I think that's a good thing. I would love to see more science fiction, more Steampunk, and more fantasy that is truly fantastic and not derivative. As for horror, I want good psychological horror and not the slash and gore kind. Gore is all fine and good, but blood and guts don't equate true horror in my opinion. When I read a horror story, I want to be so terrified that I can't keep from reading further. Gore makes it relatively easy for me to move on to something else.

WOW: Lastly, any advice for someone submitting fiction?

Celina: Follow the submission guidelines. Always. It doesn't take long for any author to do exactly what the magazine or publisher asks for them to do. Take the time to format your stories correctly, to keep within the proper requirements for that publication, and to actually KNOW your market. Read what they've published recently in your genre—that'll give you a better idea than anything else whether your manuscript would be a good fit there or not. Aside from that, I think it's essential that every author educate themselves about potential publishers or agents. Before a writer signs a contract with ANYONE regarding their intellectual property, they should know what they're signing. Contact one of the writers' guilds or an industry professional you know and ask questions. Sometimes, a writer gets so excited at a contract offer that they don't realize what they're signing away. At Musa, we have our contracts and royalties breakdown on our website for everyone to see BEFORE they submit. I may be kind of prejudiced, but I think that's the way it should be.

WOW: I love the way Musa invites their authors into the process by providing easy access to all the financial matters.

Thank you, Celina, for taking the time for this interview. It’s been a pleasure.

Publication: Penumbra eMagazine
Description: Penumbra is the speculative fiction eMag published monthly by Musa Publishing.

Circulation: Electronic; currently under 1,000
Frequency: Monthly, Themed Issues
Where to get a subscription:

Pay Rate: $0.05 per word (SFWA professional rates)
Pay Schedule: On publication
Rights: We purchase first electronic rights to exclusively distribute the work for six months. Additional details available at

Photos/Art: Currently we only take art submissions for our art contests.
Contests are based on our themed issues and submission begins on the fifteenth of the month before. That means if you want to submit for the January contest, you should submit your piece between December 15th and December 31st. You can find more information here:

Payment amount(s) for photos/art: Winners of the art competition receive $50 flat.

Story Length: 500–3,000 words
Does not want: No fan-fiction; No non-fiction
Writer’s Guidelines:

Editorial calendar:
January – Sports
February – Shakespeare
March – Steampunk
April – Animals
May – Fractured fairy tales
June—Greco Roman Mythology (submission call ends Dec 31, 2011)
Jul—Politics (accepting submissions through February 29, 2012)
August—Dreams (accepting submissions through March 30, 2012)

Editor: Celina Summers, Editorial Director
Contact: The address is

Etiquette: All submissions are done by email. Include a short cover letter with your past publication credits and attach your full story in either .doc format or .rtf format. No multiple or simultaneous submissions please. We will consider reprints of rights reverted stories.

Lead time: Stories should be submitted several months in advance. Please consult the editorial calendar for deadlines.

Response time: Initial responses usually take about 2-3 weeks. If your story makes it past the first round, it will probably take a bit longer to get the final decision. We go through an extensive vetting process for our stories.

Online opportunities: At this time only authors published in an issue of Penumbra are considered for the blog.

Twitter: @MusaPublishing
Facebook: Penumbra-eMag


Vonnie said...

A thought-provoking interview. Nice to hear someone who tells it like it is. Very comprehensive and both authors and readers know right off the bat what to expect. Thank you, Celina.

Patricia said...

Loved, loved this interview. I came away feeling even MORE impressed with the way Musa is run than ever before. Additionally, I didn't know much about Penumbra and found it highly intriguing. And I'd like to read it.
Thank you.

Sharon Ledwith said...

Great interview with loads of insight and background! Thanks for sharing your roots, Celina!

_ said...

Thinking I'll post this interview with my local RWA group. Should answer all questions. Thanks, Celina.

Suzanne G. Rogers said...

It's nice to hear some of Celina's background. Great interview.

Leigh Daley/Arley Cole/me said...

I love my Penumbra issues!! I was a Realms of Fantasy subscriber and was very saddened that they folded. Penumbra is the next stage in short spec fic publishing and I am thrilled to pieces to be here at the start of it! Great interview, Celina!!

Bette said...

Brilliant interview, subject and company. Celina rocks!!

Anonymous said...

The speculative fiction market is remarkably loyal—and has been remarkably resistant to electronic publishing up until now.

Say what?

Is Musa unaware of Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, ChiZine, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies,, and tons of other pro-paying e-zines, some of which have been around since the early 2000s?

I'm sure Musa and Penumbra have good intentions, and good experience to go along with those intentions, but to imply that SF markets are resistant to e-publication is to display a shocking ignorance of the field.

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