The second-most common question a horror author gets after, “Where do you get your ideas?” is, “Can you make any money doing this?”
The short answer is, “No.” The slightly longer answer is, “Not really.” But the honest answer is, “It depends.”
Only the most popular horror authors working today make a great living on their fiction alone. These folks are usually household names or perennial bestsellers in the genre. Because even those writers who sell lots of books usually work a “real” job to pay the mortgage, raise the kids, dole out the hush money to those who know about that one time at camp.
The vast majority of everyone else in the field earns very little, next to nothing, exactly nothing, or is actually spending more on marketing than they make in sales.
Fiction writing is one of those ventures in which you can spend years creating a high-quality product, get it through the gatekeepers onto the market, win a bunch of attention and praise, and still have it flop financially and fade into obscurity. It’s like an architect who builds a lovely home that lots of people compliment as they walk past, which then sits vacant until squatters come and turn it into a crackhouse.
It didn’t used to be this way. Once upon a time in a land, far, far away, there lived magical creatures known as “midlist authors.” These folks might not have been rich and famous, but they were welcomed—even courted—by publishers, had consistent sales, and were therefore able to make a decent living writing fiction.
The reality is that, these days, the lion’s share of agents, career publishers, and booksellers make most of their money from a handful of authors who mean almost guaranteed sales. In other words, grand slam homeruns.
To extend the baseball analogy, even if you’re an author who hits a deep fly ball over the centerfielder’s head and makes it safely to third base, the umpire may still call you out. Either you get the whole darned stadium of fans up on their feet cheering or expect to sit on the bench.
Are you’re saying it’s hopeless for horror authors, Josh? That you either write a bestseller on your first try or you’re toast? No. I’m saying that’s the case for a lot of writers. But there are two ways around it.
The first way is to keep slogging. Many of today’s fairly well-known dark scribes got where they are not by being an MVP in their rookie year, but by putting in the hard work over many seasons. At first, they sat on the bench a lot. Were called up to pinch hit once in a while. Maybe they even got sent down to the minors once or twice.
But they went to all the practices, kept up a good work ethic, cheered their teammates on, and eventually the coach put them in the game. And some of them went on to become stars. Or at least that 2nd baseman you might never have heard of but who makes a regular paycheck. This is the path I’m travelling right now, and we’ll see where it takes me.
The second way is to start your own baseball team and put yourself in as starting pitcher. What I mean by this is you can publish your own work. There are many authors who not only make a good amount of money this way, they’re raking in more than they would’ve through a traditional publisher. (For those who think I’m slamming traditional publishing: I’m not. I very much appreciate my publisher PLUS I’m a publisher myself! I’m just reporting on the evidence.)
However, the only way to make self-publishing work is to put out a ton of content, put a lot of time and money into marketing, and it should go without saying, make sure your writing is up to snuff.
And this isn’t as easy as it looks. Don’t be fooled by the authors who were already traditionally published, developed a fan base, and THEN went on to self-publish. It’s very smart of them to do so, but of course that route isn’t available to most of us.
So, to get back to the original question: Yes, there IS money in horror fiction. Just not for everyone.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is, if money is the ONLY driving force behind your writing, you should probably “learn to code” instead. But if, like me, you’re writing horror anyway because the demons won’t let you stop, you might as well give it a shot!