Cover Story: Judging the Book Business of Horror


I miss the ‘80s. All of the time. And I miss it because of the book covers.

This is not a product of my age, however. It is instead the fact that we face an inexcusable irony in today’s Age of Information Technology: it’s harder than ever to find information…sound, truthful, vetted information. About anything.

From who wrote what to canon lists, from how to write a short story to the definition of Literary terms and Literary Criticism…All the way to where is the New Horror shelved….Just because it once was aptly published does not mean you can find it – or find it easily – today. Even when it is right in front of you, it’s almost impossible to see.

This has more to do with the packaging than you think. And with Technology, the packaging seems to have homogenized along with everything else. Technology has this nasty habit of making everything disappear, right before the eyes.

But if there are exceptions, why isn’t the proof of the past and the proof of current sales figures enough to send us right back to the awesome book covers of Yore? Why do we assume it to be more complicated than simply judging a book –and buying it – by its cover?

Still a Snipe Hunt

Younger, tech-savvy folk might not want to admit it, but when actual people were in charge we managed to have accurate systems for searching and retrieval, for validation and reference. One didn’t have to go far to find someone who could explain the system. You were one summer afternoon away from the Vaults of All Human Knowledge…and from all the Horror you could handle. One simple reason was book cover art.

Ahh, the Good Old Days… when monsters roamed the paperback displays and color shouted genre.

King

The real bottom line in retail book selling is that books are judged by their covers in a serious and instantaneous way that has dire consequences. Says Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords) in a 2013 article for The Huffington Post: “ ‘Our brains are wired to process images faster than words…When we see an image, it makes us feel something.’ A great cover, he says, can ‘help the reader instantly recognize that this book is for them.’ ” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/book-cover-design-indies_n_3354504.html )

In other words, it connects the reader to the content – to expectations that include genre. That can lead to a purchase, even if the author is unknown.

But it can also make inferences about the level of faith the writer and/or publisher has in the work, the quality of editing and writing within, and provoke gut reactions to the book as a product. Continues Coker, “In addition to promising what a book will deliver, the [cover] image also promises (or fails to promise) that the author is a professional, and that the book will honor the reader’s time.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/book-cover-design-indies_n_3354504.html )

So why aren’t we seeing more commitment from publishers? Are they intentionally trying to disguise Horror? Is this part of the movement to eliminate genre altogether, to “improve” the overall Literary quality of our writing, or a denial of our denial that all writing is Literature (of some sort)?  Or is it simply a part of a larger manufactured truth manipulated to prove to everyone that Horror (as a target genre) is changing and has lost its teeth? If Horror falls, is another genre next?

Yet good Horror is toothy. It’s edgy. And it’s typically not Literature. So why are we trying so hard to herd all writers into the same corner, starting with the book cover? It’s not going to improve literacy, book sales, or the quality of the writing.

I still buy Horror, and so do others. When we find it. It is simply more disappointing when the cover seems artless and flat, when it doesn’t invite you to hold it in your hands, to caress it, and clutch it to you when the world intrudes. It also doesn’t make it stand out on the shelf…from all of the thousands of others.

Working in a retail bookstore has been a blessing for the reader in me. It’s helped me “happen” across new Horror and new Horror writers without the very prejudiced opinions of publishing house marketing departments.

I don’t have to worry that Stephen King might be fulfilling a contract agreement or personal favor he couldn’t get out of by recommending a title, I don’t have to feel manipulated by “bestseller” lists, or have titles pushed at me. But it has been an exercise in frustration in setting out to find Horror on any given day.

And even when I find it, if I don’t buy it immediately, it still tends to disappear almost as quickly as it is discovered, sent back to publishers for not selling, or purchased but not scheduled to be replenished…never mind the rhythm of my paychecks. This means that a Horror fan must be a predatory bookstore regular…prowling the aisles in search of the next book, willing to purchase immediately (pounce), put the item on hold (stalk), or order a copy unseen (track).  It means we must be able to find it and find it fast.

But it also means that in today’s environment of wanting it all handed directly to us, we must become diggers. We have no choice but to research our own genre ourselves and root out all of the information we can like miners in a dark tunnel… because we are in fact alone. Horror is still a genre… a niche read… and experts on the genre with author names and titles and genre history at their fingertips are still somewhat rare.

Publishers seem to be in a trance, dazed and wandering about mumbling that Horror is dead and nobody buys it. So marketing departments are happily tucking it between non-traditional bookcovers, disguised as …gag….popular fiction.

Not only has our section been eradicated in the erroneous belief that Horror has gone Literary or just gone, but it is decorated like something that sits next to The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath.

springtime  broken

What’s a Horror fan to do? Like long-playing records (now coquettishly called “vinyl”), Horror has often been bought and read because of the covers… But the truly fabulous, eye-catching art that screamed “Horror Novel…Beware of Nightmares Within!” are gone. Those magnificent illustrations have absconded to Science Fiction and Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Comics, and Young Adult fiction…leaving Horror with uninspired cover art that does not distinguish the genre from the run-of-the-mill. It doesn’t say “see me” or “hold me” or “luxuriate in my imagination.” It says “I promise to not clash with your fifty shades of white décor,” and “no one has to know you like tentacles”…

Why is this?

Tentacles Anonymous. One Day at a Time.

Some of it has to do with costs (like paying actual artists and reproduction expenses which by default then are not going to someone else), and not much is invested in things that don’t have a reputation of selling. But we have to convince publishers that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy issue: that if we can’t find Horror we don’t buy Horror.

Vibrant cover art with splashy images can help us see it, and can warn readers in search of a cozy mystery off it. The fact that Horror people also tend to be cyclical purchasers expanding their collections at pause-points of the year – like before a big storm, ahead of the summer vacation, Halloween – doesn’t always help, especially if a book is published and has its sale trial during an off time. But such knowledge can also be a marketing boon…if a publisher uses it.

Therefore we also have to remind publishers that it helps to have Horror “come out” when it is most likely to be remembered, sought out, and displayed by merchants – like at Halloween, or riding the coat tails of summer movie blockbusters. And it helps to issue it in a format we can afford – paperback, even mass-market…because we also tend to be the working poor.

All of this is alleviated if we can simply find it because it is decorated to be seen. And this is especially true now that so much Thriller/Suspense and Psychological Suspense is snarfing on our genre images to punctuate their covers…

Nor does it help to force Horror into a Literary box before it is ready. While much of the genre is experimenting with better craft and broader audiences, we all need to be more honest here: Horror is and always will be a niche audience. Far too many people want to live in their own genre bubbles; they are not interested in being converted nor are they happy about being tricked. Meanwhile, ignoring the audience that does want Horror is genre suicide.

What publishers need to rethink is this whole “genre-less” environment thing… It does not lead to more people discovering more books and authors, to higher and broader sales. Trust me: I work in a bookstore. People come to find something they want…a formula they find satisfying – whether it is classics, cozy mysteries, romance or fan fiction and military science fiction, elves, dwarves, or superheroes or poetry. They don’t look at the publisher imprint. They don’t care if the writer has a degree. They don’t know who Raymond Carver is. They might not even know anything about Critical references to Hemmingway. They wrinkle their noses, they gawk at the prices and mutter something about Amazon when neither they nor ourselves can find what they want. And one of the most requested things is…The Horror Section.

Be still my heart….

That’s right. Our fans are die-hards, and they are collectively in disbelief that the Horror section is not only gone, but remains gone. Sometimes they think they found it when they happen across the letter “K” in general fiction, until they realize the three bays are only the current catalogs of King, and Koontz. They wander for hours before dragging their exhausted bones to Customer Service like wanderers in a desert to ask “where the heck is the Horror?”

(Hey, I have a solution. Everybody out there writing Horror….quick… change your last name to start with a “K”… Take my Horror section will ya….)

Meanwhile, imagine my frustration when I have to say…”there is no Horror section. It is all out there. Somewhere.”

Keep in mind, some of us are getting old and memories fail. Names sometimes defy my speedy recollection. If only I had a section, I murmur like a mantra…I could go right to specific authors and say “this – this is GOOD”… But no. And all too often when I do remember a new title or name, the book is not there because nobody found it and it didn’t sell so it went back.

art of

Horror Writers Unite!

It may take authors to put pressure on Publishers. That may mean that authors have to take the creative bull by the horns and actually be ok with what they write. It may mean that an author has to argue with an editor about “possibilities” versus “realities.”

Note to Publishers and Horror authors: what we as readers and retailers need to buy and sell Horror is Horror that is identifiable.

That means that in lieu of an actual, let’s-make-life-easy Horror Section, we need genre codes. Visual cues…

We need to be able to spot our authors buried in the stacks of popular fiction. We need to find them when they are old, and when they are new. We need to know we are looking at Horror… not a Literary work with a handy set of (surprise!) Horror conventions.

Horror fans really are a forgiving, fun-loving bunch. We are fine with kitsch when the story is good. We are ok with pulp. And we admire the well-crafted miracles of any Poe or Lovecraft we discover. So we forgive any author trying to up their game, following the advice of marketing people who think sales will follow in confusing the public.

But we are your fans. Please stop trying to blend in. Unless you want a garage full of first editions of your book. Demand your audience be able to find you and that spectacular best seller you are sitting on.

Demand book covers that will telegraph your genre to your waiting and hungry audience. There is a lot to be said for judging a book by its cover. And that works both ways.

Horror Publishers Wake Up!

And if PUBLISHING wants a solution, if it really wants to sell books…quit messing with the genres. Books are just like anything else. It’s not the quality items that make your sales goals…it is the simple stuff. The cheap stuff. Those of us who buy it make it possible for you to pay the True Artists their Mega Paychecks. Give us our stuff. We want it back.

Really. Once upon a time our purchase of genre Horror supported whole subsidiaries and imprints, supported midlist authors, pulpy magazines, rank and file editors, bookstores, printers, artists, reviewers, critics…Hollywood… Put it back! It might not be as lush as before, but if economists are to be believed and cost of living is really relative to pay throughout history, then we should be able to finesse it. Right?

And bring back our artists! We do want monsters and tentacles and screaming girls and evil scientists and dark cemeteries on our covers – not “pretty” artwork from other genres. We do want covers that tell us we are in Horror-land – the reds, the blues, the greens… just like old movie posters…the day-glo stuff, the textured stuff, images that announce a Horror fan is reading Horror… The grunge fonts, the dripping letters…

God, I miss the ‘80s.

And all I have to do to see what could-have-been is go to the Young Adult Section.

Because Young Adult publishers and marketing departments are doing it RIGHT.

Artwork to die for.

Artwork to put in a picture frame.

Artwork that shouts “find the print!” “Who’s the artist?” “I have to have that book!”

girl  Asylum

Maybe if adult Horror fans felt like publishers had a little faith in the product…

It’s not too late to turn it around. Print is not dead and neither is Horror. And better book covers is one of the easiest ways to get our genre mojo back. We want color, we want texture, we want artwork, and… we want category identifiers on the spine – the kind that say HORROR in large letters, repeated on the back at the bottom or top of the blurb. HORROR. All caps. All the time.

It’s the way we find our genre. It’s the way we roll when we have a little spending money in our pockets.

So, publishers… You want in on this action? Or not?

 

GOOD HORROR I HAVE ACCIDENTALLY FOUND

(Nonfiction)

Grant, John. Spooky Science: Debunking the Pseudoscience of the Afterlife. New York: Sterling, c2015.

Jones, Stephen, ed. The Art of Horror: an Illustrated History. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, c2015

Travis Langley, ed. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead. New York: Sterling, c2013.

Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, c2015.

(Anthologies)

Datlow, Ellen, ed. The Monstrous. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Books, c2015.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, ed. Classic Horror Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2015.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, comp. Great Ghost Stories: 101 Terrifying Tales. New York: Fall River Press, c2016.

Guran, Paula, ed. Mermaids. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2015.

Guran, Paula, ed. New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2015.

Jones, Stephen. Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft and Others. London: Titan Books, c2013.

Matheson, Michael. The Humanity of Monsters. Toronto, Canada: ChiZine Publications, [c2015].

(Novels & Single Author Anthologies)

Aronovitz, Michael. Phantom Effect. New York: Night Shade Books, c2016.

Baker, Jacqueline. The Broken Hours: a novel of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Talos Press, c2016.

De Kretser, Michelle. Springtime: a Ghost Story. New York: Catapult, c2014.

Kupersmith, Violet. The Frangipani Hotel. New York: Spiegel  & Grau, c2015.

Lebbon, Tim. The Silence. London: Titan, c2015.

Reid, Iain. I am Thinking of Ending Things. New York: Scout Press, [future projected release June 2016 – with an excellent cover on the advance copy, by the way]

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26 thoughts on “Cover Story: Judging the Book Business of Horror

  1. A really interesting, thoughtful review. As a spec fic fan who doesn’t appreciate Horror, I have, nonetheless, often wondered how you get to find your books because you’re right. With a few honourable exceptions, those fabulous threat-filled covers featuring skulls/blood, dark fractured fonts all seem to have migrated to the crime and even, the YA shelves where I’m busy trying to work out if they are REALLY filled with scenes liable to leave me with nightmares (I’m a wuss with an over-active imagination) or whether the marketing dept executive was having a gloomy day…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi SJ! It really is a challenge finding adult Horror… we’ve even lost some fans to YA BECAUSE they can find it, it is well written, and it is so visible. Unfortunately there is a plot afoot that supports the elimination of genre entirely, largely based on the perception that the presence of the MFA graduate in the stables of contemporary fiction is resulting in a bleed-over into more Literary style writing. Besides being NOT entirely true, no one can find a darn thing. It’s sad, really. But there’s also a rebellion afoot to regain our section. Wish us luck! And thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I absolutely wish you the very best of luck! It comes to something when a fan of a particular genre cannot even identify the book of their choice by the cover! Maybe you can lead the charge for some sensible branding by producing some cool retro-style covers. Fingers crossed!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. You’d think horror is like a Hustler magazine. I’ve always found it a challenge in finding the horror section in a library. It’s because some stories are mixed in with other genres like suspense and thrillers. Seems like horror has become a borderline genre. I found that not all so-called literary style books have interesting stories, or they seem rather indulgent. Like a person in love with his voice and just talks without saying much. Not a put down on literary styles, but really, some just seems so pretentious and indulgent — that word again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Karina! I personally think a little Literary craft never hurt anyone, but Literature does not equate to immortality; I think it’s more important to tell a good story well and let the Literary chips fall where they may. We do need to get better control of technique, however, and stop trying to mimic scriptwriting… For that, reading the classics and commentary of Literary Critics can help — as long as we recognize that few writers “write Literature”…. that discovery comes a long academic time later. Maybe it is better to mesmerize our audience with scary stuff and just be happy we write what we want — HORROR. Then maybe it would get filed where we can find it…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I have noticed what you have written about here–I love horror, but have a hard time finding it. Publishers need to wake up! I would never have started watching The Walking Dead if the advertisements for it had been homogenized. Maybe publishers need to take a good look at popular TV shows and movies, and see that people still want horror in all its scary, bloody glory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mary! The sad thing is that publishers don’t have to research too far. The market is hot and heavy for 1980’s Horror DVDs and 1980’s and Classic Horror authors… Horror remains a solid genre with dedicated fans. While we may not have the stats to prove we like our newer authors, I maintain that it is because we cannot find them. I can’t help but think somebody is trying to “make an example” of Horror in an attempt to convince everyone that if all writing is Literary, none of it is traditional genre. But then they said Literary Critics couldn’t change… and look at them now: we even have our own Literary Critics starting to establish a canon for our genre. I say it ain’t over til the fat Vampire sings….And we aren’t going to take this lying down in our coffins.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I love Steven King. I’ve read most of these book. I remember a lot of people saying they didn’t like “Needful Things”, but I loved it. It’s the only reason I know anything about Sandy Koufax. 😂And you are so right about cover art attracting the reader. I just happened to be browsing for a book to read on a long trip one day, and happened upon Jill Thompson’s book, “Death, At Deaths Door”. I had never read anything by Jill Thompson before. I didn’t know anything about her, but she had me at that cover art. Whenever I’m looking for a new book to read, it’s always the cover that draws me into reading the synopsis. Cover art is very important to me. I think it’s just crazy and inconsiderate not to let your cover art speak for your book. It should call out to readers from the shelf. Come to me–have I got a story for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Khaya Ronkainen

    Oh KC, I love your ‘Horror’ passion! This a very informative post, and there’s so much to learn from it by all writers. Thank you. And what a privilege to work in a retail bookstore, “I don’t have to feel manipulated by “bestseller” lists, or have titles pushed at me.” Best 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My Dear KC, I love Horrors, Mysteries, Westerns and Action, and Hitchcock is one of my favourites.

    In the days when I was buying books, I remember that I went by Titles and Authors.

    Yet How do we find these titles or authors? The cover of ‘The Art of Horror’ that You give just pushes one to pick it up.

    Yes, Good Covers Are Needed. Hope publishers will take note. …Regards.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “they are not interested in being converted nor are they happy about being tricked. Meanwhile, ignoring the audience that does want Horror is genre suicide.”

    Exactly. You don’t sell a lot of cheese burgers if you try to market them as chicken nuggets.

    Liked by 1 person

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