Unfurl the Eyestalks! (It’s Halloween — Do You Know Where Your Horror Is?)


Come the month of October, the human eye turns toward the shadows and wants to see its monsters lurking there. It’s a Halloween thing – this annual need to take our scary out for a nice stroll through the graveyards of our imaginations. It’s also why so much Horror is usually released in print and film during this month – producers and publishers know where our minds will be. And they are most happy to oblige.

But lately things have been….changing. Not so much Horror has been materializing during October. The unexpected reason for this is the homogenization of genre currently afoot…and homogenization is signaling a misleading loss of Horror sales.

Going Genre-less in a Genre-Driven Business

There is a movement to defrock genre – best explained by agent and author Donald Maas in his book, Writing  21st Century Fiction (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2012): “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works…” (13) When a hot item turns into a subcategory (12) and the author into a “brand” (8) the question arises as to what real category does the book go into – genre, or not genre, mixed genre, or general fiction? – an answer the author, agent, and publisher seldom share. The result has been the crumbling of the old bookstore hierarchy of categorization (10)… Or, The loss of section and the intermingling of genre on the shelf.

And the alarming thing is they say it like the elimination of section was an answer to a problem many genres – including Horror – never had. When sales first fell flat, it was because the genre temporarily high-centered with slasher fiction in the 1980’s; that was followed by a series of economic recessions (large and small) that affected not only publisher costs – but Horror fan wallets. The reduction by publishers of the mid-list author stable and the subsequent result of less new Horror being published then, followed by the marketing decision to eliminate the section in most bookstores resulted in the illusion that Horror wasn’t being bought or written anymore. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy that lives on in general mythology today.

The myth could not be more wrong; Horror fans constantly ask for the Horror section. Yet Horror continues to languish on open-genre shelves like last year’s Easter eggs on the White House lawn. Make no mistake, this is an expensive problem, and the solution is not to hide more Horror at higher prices.

But Wait! POD and Limited Run Fiction – The Publisher’s Solution

The problem resulting from having so much unbought Horror fiction rotting on general fiction shelves has spawned unsavory consequences: higher prices, limited runs, and POD publishing.

The sad fact is, publishers have come up with a solution for the lesser success of contemporary Horror: printing a limited number of copies in more expensive constructs (typically hardcover and trade paperbacks) to hide in the stacks indistinct from their literary neighbors, and Print-on-Demand editions instead of remainders (when it is not printing limited numbers).

Gone are the days of cheap pulpy Horror in mass market mouthfuls. Because Horror must “fit in” with its new shelfmates, more of it is “classed up” at $15.95 and $26.95 than the more manageable $7.99.

But there is a consequence to trying to “trick” general fiction readers into buying Horror that the Horror fan doesn’t recognize: the established Horror fan (the one actually wanting the stuff) decides not to buy it if they stumble across it in the stacks. Horror fans are not typically rich, and most of us acknowledge a high pulp rate to the genre which is a fun read but is never desired in any format more expensive that one hour of minimum wage.

If publishers are trying to convince us that Horror writers are now more Literary by glamming up the format, it’s not working. When a Horror writer reaches classic status and becomes collectible, classier editions are welcome. But for new writers in particular…higher prices equal lost sales…no matter how many quotes from Stephen King get printed on the cover.

Limited runs speak for themselves. Less, in this computer age, is not more. Frequently by the time the Horror audience “discovers” them, titles are gone from brick-and-mortar stores. Because publishers seem convinced by their marketing departments that Horror isn’t selling, fewer titles are being published in lower numbers – to prevent a large accumulation of stock in warehouses. But paradoxically, today’s tech-savvy customers never go looking for it further than Amazon, if they go to Amazon. They don’t tend to order it. They don’t want to wait for it.

Horror fans want to browse, discover, and purchase their Horror right now. We are all about instant gratification in the bookstore.

Furthermore, just because titles don’t sell out doesn’t mean they might not be good sellers – if their audience could actually find them…if people had time to read them and chat them up on the sales floor before they went missing.

But this is not what is happening. What is happening, is an industry-wide default to POD “remainder” copies, if not an exclusively POD offering of Horror titles.

Print-on-Demand literally means exactly that – a customer orders it, pays for it, and it is printed up (on a machine much like an old, half-room-sized Canon copier) in a matter of minutes. Problem is, frequently too often not only is the title unknown, but the author is unknown and the publisher as well. This means the quality of the writing, editing, publisher and story is very much in question. And because the book still typically costs $14-15, plus shipping, the customer will walk rather than take the gamble.

Why? Because for most people, that is two hours of minimum wage work. As the economy gets harder on the economic classes that tend to read Horror, there is a whole lot less gambling going on. It simply isn’t affordable.

So once again genre fans are accused of not buying Horror, and some marketing person somewhere pronounces this as evidence that our genre –like other genres in their argument – is dead.

Again, I respectfully disagree.

How dare anyone plant Horror like readers want to go on a scavenger hunt and then claim no one buys Horror anymore – when we can’t find it to buy it?

How dare anyone take the book out of our sight and our hands, out of the grapevine, out of reviews, and expect healthy sales from a title left to rot online as POD?

Supposedly, this is all part of the same argument – that Horror (like other genres) has homogenized to the point of being pointless to categorize.

What a disservice to Horror writers and fans alike. Maas says, “For me, where genre ends and literature begins doesn’t matter” (13).

Doesn’t matter? Well let me take away your author and title list and send YOU out onto the bookstore floor or even the internet. Go ahead. Find Horror. Find IT ALL. Because if you can’t and find it fast, congratulations: you just lost the customer. Translation for agents and publishers: You just lost a SALE.

And to quote Mr. Maas once again, “Blending genres doesn’t bust a novelist free of genre boundaries. It can simply put one in a new box” (12).

So… what? We should go boxless? Yeah, I can see that being a big help when a customer wants “Horror” and we both stand there, gazing out over the multitude of bays holding thousands of book spines…

Not Your Grandad’s Halloween

Heck. It’s not even last year’s Halloween.

More and more Horror is just “publishing”…ignoring what time of year it is…perhaps in the hope that the Horror audience is just hungry enough for it (so now we’ve lost the Halloween Horror-publishing bonanza advantage).

But once again, we can’t find it. I work in a bookstore and I have trouble finding it.

There is not enough publicity for titles in our genre that we can discover an author and a title before it gets yanked off the shelf for low/no sales.

Worse, publishers are – in cost-cutting mode – not publishing unproven authors/titles often or in large number. So “when they are gone, they are gone…” sometimes within four to six months. Then someone whose job it is to make excuses for poor sales blames our attention spans, our ages, or a general lack of interest. These people need to think again.

Helpful hint reminder here: the average Horror fan is not in the top tax bracket. The average Horror fan has limited funds and visits the bookstore less often than preferred because of those limited funds. Four to six months may be how often the Horror fan washes ashore in search of a new book to read. If he or she zigs when publishers zag, we completely miss each other.

I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to find a book I recently read for a Horror customer only to discover there are less than five remaining in the warehouse, or it is gone completely.

Again. LOST SALE.

Or it has gone POD (Print-on-Demand) … another thing a customer is seldom comfortable with –especially if the author, the title, the publisher are unfamiliar. If they cannot hold it in their hands, read a few paragraphs to gage writer-capability, editorial standards, publishing quality – then they WALK AWAY.

Once again: LOST SALE Mr. Publisher. LOST.

Nobody tries to sell Horror like me, I guarantee it. I want my genre to flourish – with new readers and old. And as much as I respect Mr. King, and as much as he seems to be the whole entire Horror section these days, Stephen King should not be the only Horror section people can find.

NOTE TO PUBLISHERS: HELP US.

Stop with the blended genre thinking. Filing it in Literature doesn’t make it Literature. Ask a Critic.

Here’s the solution to sagging Horror sales:

  • Give us our section back!
  • Identify the book as Horror on the spine where we can see it.
  • Give us affordable pricing (not over $16.99)
  • And if you are going to publish Horror in hardback for a new author, don’t judge its potential success by hardcover sales. Horror fans tend to buy paperback first. (It’s a cost thing.) So don’t plan a hardcover and then ditch the release-to-paperback plan.

So in case you were wondering, it’s not your imagination. Horror is increasingly hard to find. This has less to do with the popularity of Horror than the lack of a Horror section. But we as Horror fans and writers have a lot of convincing of publishers to do. And it’s not going to be easy.

Let me try to help a bit. Here’s a list of some titles and authors to get you started this fine, Halloween season. If you don’t find them on the shelves, order them – they are well worth it. Some are old, some are new. Some are trans-genre. But don’t let that stop you. Horror needs to be found and celebrated. Grab your candy. Unfurl the eyestalks. You’re going to need them…

HORROR ACROSS THE GENRES (*= Glow in the dark covers!)

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Asylum by John Harwood

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Ghost Writer by John Harwood

*Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Hyde by Daniel Levine

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Lady in Black by Susan Hill

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Nobody Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill

Phantom by Susan Kay

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

The Silence by Tim Lebbon

Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Starter House by Sonja Condit

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde By Robert Louis Stevenson

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Norton Critical Edition)

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

ANTHOLOGIES

Blumhouse Book of Nightmares: the Haunted City by Jason Blum

Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahnuik

Probably Monsters by Ray Cluley

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville

Best New Horror (any year and edited By Stephen Jones)

(Anything edited by Stephen Jones)

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (edited by Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling and/or Paula Guran)

(Anything edited by Paula Guran)

Best Horror of the Year (any year and edited by Ellen Datlow)

(Anything edited by Ellen Datlow)

 

BOOKS ABOUT HORROR

The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction by Gerrold E. Hogle

Ghosts: a Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof by Roger Clarke

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

How to Write Horror Fiction by William Nolan

The Modern Weird Tale by S.T. Joshi

On Evil by Terry Eagleton

On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writer’s Association by the Horror Writers Association and Matt Castle

100 Best British Ghost Stories by Gillian Bennet

*Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

The Weird Tale by S.T. Joshi

CANON AUTHORS (generally accepted to BE canon)

Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, David Case, Robert Chambers, Guy de Maupassant, Dennis Etchison, M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Oliver Onions, Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe, Edith Wharton.

 

CONTEMPORARY CANON-ELECT AUTHORS (generally assumed will be joining canon and/or actively debated)

Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Roald Dahl, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Hill, Stephen Graham Jones, Jack Ketchum, Stephen King, T.E.D. Klein, Dean Koontz, Tanith Lee, Bentley Little, Graham Masterton, Richard Matheson, Robert McCammon, H.H. Munro (Saki),Anne Rice, John Saul, Peter Straub. (Apologies for those who I might have missed.)

 

HORROR PUBLISHERS WITH TITLE CATALOGS

Chizine Publications http://chizinepub.com/titles

Prime Books http://www.prime-books.com/prime-books-catalog/

Arkham House Publishers http://www.arkhamhouse.com/authors.htm

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2 thoughts on “Unfurl the Eyestalks! (It’s Halloween — Do You Know Where Your Horror Is?)

  1. Same here, Chiller… I miss the sense of rebellion and scaring myself reading alone in empty rooms, losing time and imagining all manner of monsters!

    I’m glad you’re now on WordPress… anyone who loves a great review of Horror movies should visit your blog, post haste!

    Like

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