Every literary genre has its subgenres, but there is perhaps no genre so packed with niches as horror fiction. You’ve got your supernatural horror, postapocalyptic horror, fantasy horror, sci-fi horror, comedy horror, and then all the vampire, werewolf, and zombie horror. It’s a long list of genres for the long list of authors who self-publish in this increasingly fractured and versatile category.
Some horror writers are making a killing at self-publishing, but that’s far from the norm. More likely, self-published horror writers are seizing independence to get out work that isn’t finding a home with traditional presses—and many of them are passionate enough to keep going despite making little profit.
“[Horror] is a genre with rabid, but small, fan bases and obsessive authors; it’s a hard genre to sell,” says Martin Kee, who has self-published several horror works that also tie in elements of sci-fi and fantasy, including A Latent Dark, The Umbral Wake, and Bloom: Or, The Unwritten Memoir of Tennyson Middlebrook, all exclusively on Amazon. “Horror isn’t for everyone, and I think a lot of people who might enjoy horror steer clear because they think it’s just gore. Other people just don’t want to feel scared or anxious. They just don’t want that stuff in their head. I respect that, but there’s such a broad spectrum of horror out there, I think people would be surprised what they end up liking. I’ve even been told by readers of Bloom that they didn’t even know it was the book they wanted to read until they read it.”
J.E. Mayer, author of a number of horror novels, including An Anger at Birth, based on the true story of a teen serial killer, links many readers’ reflexive disinterest in horror fiction to their dislike of slasher stories and movies, and insists that slasher fiction isn’t representative of the horror genre—at least not anymore. “Horror is just coming back as a strong genre in general,” Mayer says. “Slasher stories dominated the public attention for some time, and traditional horror tales became associated with [them], and thus horror received a bad name in publishing. [Unless] you were Stephen King, if you wrote horror, you were seen as writing gore.”
To be clear, no one is claiming that gore is dead, but rather that the playing field has opened tremendously, and that’s thanks in part to self-publishing. Many indie horror writers find that, had it not been for self-publishing, they’d never have been able to get their “hard to sell” ideas out into the world.
Saved by Self-Publishing
“I chose to self-publish simply to be read,” says Joe Schwartz, whose eighth book, the horror novel Stabco: You Need Nothing Else, is now available on Amazon. “The odds of getting someone substantial to publish your work when you’re basically just getting started are less than awful.”
That traditional publishers simply don’t have the time or resources for your work is a sentiment that all too many horror authors can relate to. Trent St. Germain, who published the horror novel The Incubus and the Others with Kindle Direct in the summer of 2015, estimates that he received between 30 and 40 rejections from agents before venturing out on his own.
“I lost track of how many agents I queried,” says St. Germain, who recently signed a book deal with the small publisher Black Rose Writing. “I thought I’d have more credibility and grow my audience if I found a publisher. But now that I look at things, and the more reading I do online, it feels like the lines are more blurred between self- and traditional publishing, though with self-publishing you keep most of the money.”
Tam Francis published the short story collection Ghostoria: Vintage Romantic Tales of Fright using CreateSpace, Nook Press, and Smashwords because she didn’t think a short story collection would be of interest to a traditional publisher. “I feel that publishers don’t publish short story collections unless [the author] is famous or has won a big contest, so I thought I would publish Ghostoria to try out self-publishing and see if I liked it,” says Francis, who has since launched a hybrid small press, Plum Creek Publishing, with several other writers. “Right now I’m happy with self-publishing.”
Francis notes that she put about $300 into her book and has made $400, a number she’s content with, given that her initial goal was simply to break even. “Unless someone wants to turn my book into a movie, I’m not sure I see a point in having a traditional publisher.”
John D. Conroe, author of 11 self-published books, 10 of which are in the series the Demon Accords, also doesn’t see the point of having a traditional publisher, and notes that if he could give one piece of advice to his younger self, it would be to not even bother with traditional houses. “My advice would be to skip the traditional query process and go straight to Kindle Direct Publishing,” says Conroe, who still works a day job but thinks he could get by on his books alone. “Focus on writing good books, invest in editing and cover art, and don’t look back.”
Susan Goggins, who writes as Raven Hart, is in the process of making the leap to self-publishing, in part because she doesn’t like how slowly traditional publishing houses operate. “By the time [Ballantine] released the first of our vampire series—two years after we submitted the [manuscripts]—my writing partner and I missed out on the booming subgenre of vampire books and paranormal romance,” she says. “Even more tragically, my writing partner Virginia Ellis died before the first book came out. That control over timing is so important.” Now that Goggins has fulfilled her five-book contract with Ballantine, she’s decided to continue her vampire series on her own, though she hasn’t decided which route to go, finding the amount of choices “dizzying to the point of being stressful.”
Then there are authors such as Jason S. Ridler, who self-published the dystopian vampire thriller A Triumph for Sakura because he was advised by agents that a book featuring a Japanese female lead and an African-American man wasn’t marketable. “None of the major houses at that time, in 2011, were regularly publishing books with multicultural casts,” Ridler says. “I thought I could dodge all those bullets by not dealing with publishers at all. My understanding is that it’s starting to change, but back then the culture was reacting negatively against that stuff.”
Ridler notes that A Triumph for Sakura has been his most successful work, and has done well particularly among women. But success doesn’t mean bundles of money. “At best I make $20 a month,” he says. Ridler blames himself for the paltry profits:“I’m not aggressively promoting, and I don’t care about being a rock star bestselling author. The time I have left on this planet has to be spent doing things I care about. Relentless promotion and book tours aren’t bad things, but I’d rather spend time being better as a writer.”
Such are the sentiments of Ania Ahlborn, who self-published the horror novel Seed in 2012, after being courted for months by a big-name agent who ultimately decided not to take her on. “I was so crushed and angry because I’d been so close,” she says. “So I threw everything aside and wrote Seed and did it with no expectation and nothing to lose. That’s when I discovered Kindle Direct and, because I was bitter, I said, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to write another query ever again.’ ”
Ahlborn didn’t have to. Seed took off, and within six months of its publication, Amazon Studios asked to buy the movie rights. “At that point I was overwhelmed, so I hired an agent,” Ahlborn says. “We negotiated two book deals with Amazon, and then a second contract with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery imprint.”
Though she’s happy with her publisher, Ahlborn feels strongly about the merits of self-publishing—after all, if she hadn’t done it, she wouldn’t have gotten the book deal in the first place.
The Challenge of Discoverability—and Endless Promotion
Like self-published authors in every genre, indie horror writers are tasked with managing all aspects of their books, from cover design to publicity. Writers’ success is often determined by the amount of work they put in, and many horror authors insist on spending the extra money to get a quality cover and professional editing. After that, it really comes down to reaching readers, and that can be tricky because there’s just so much work with which to compete.
“The key issue nowadays is discoverability,” says Jana Oliver, the author of a number of self-published horror novels, including the Demon Trappers series (which she continued on her own when St. Martin’s Griffin stopped publishing it after book four), and the nonfiction book Socially Engaged: The Author’s Guide to Social Media, coauthored with Tyra Burton. “There are thousands of books out there, and you have to find a way to stand out so readers can find you in that vast sea of stories. It is not an easy task. A top quality website is vital, some sort of social media presence certainly helps (Facebook, Twitter, perhaps Pinterest or Instagram), along with having the patience of Job. I find consistent social media interaction helps, as well as lots of networking. Treating your readers with respect should be a given. I allocate about 30 minutes per day, sometimes longer, for marketing and promotion. Truth is, it probably should be more.”
Oliver says that until this year she was self-supporting, and after changing some directions in her writing, hopes to be so next year, too. “Frequent publications are the key, and I only put out one book last year, so that affected my income level,” she notes. “Some writers publish four or more books a year. It all depends on their personal commitments, how fast they write, and the length of their books. From what I can see, a regular and robust publication schedule certainly helps ‘feed’ your readers’ desire for scary stories.”
Willow Rose, who has self-published 39 books since 2011, is constantly feeding her readers—and marketing her books is literally her husband’s full-time job. “My husband used to take care of everything else, too, like covers, the interior design of the e-book and paperbacks, but now we have hired someone to deal with all that so he can focus on the promotion part,” said Rose. “We use the Web pages [that have] loads of subscribers, like BookBub and Robin Reads. Through them we get out to thousands, sometimes millions, of readers all at once. We also have our own newsletter that we send out whenever we have a bargain or a new release. This means a new release quickly generates sales and ends on a bestselling list the day after it is released. And soon after it has plenty of reviews, which gives the book life. Some of my readers read a new book in 10–12 hours and then post a review afterwards. Furthermore, we use Facebook ads that target horror readers. I use my Facebook profile as my way of keeping in close contact with my readers to tell them of new releases, bargains, etc.”
Rose notes that she makes six figures a year. Certainly it’s not just the heavy marketing that helps push her work—it’s the style and accessibility of her books. She focuses on making likable characters and building suspense, and steers away from gore. She also aims to make even the most “far-fetched nightmares” seem completely realistic, and like they could happen to you.
“Horror is a tickling sensation in your stomach; it’s not supposed to make you want to throw up,” Rose says. “I build up suspense, make people like the characters, and then let horrible things happen to them, but no more than what I think the reader can take. I think often horror writers are too focused on the bloody and scary stuff that they forget you have to really care about the characters for it to be suspenseful.”
Nicole Audrey Spector is a Los Angeles writer whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.