Not long ago, I messaged a horror fiction “gatekeeper” to thank them for their work and to ask if they’d be open to reading more indie horror authors. They responded by listing a few well-known names they were promoting, including one whose “Big 4” published novel had years ago been made into a popular Hollywood movie. And then basically told me that all good writers eventually become famous, which is when this person will read and share their work.
As an author, editor, small press publisher, and reader, everything I write about horror fiction is a conflict of interest. That being said, I also have the privilege of seeing the landscape from a variety of perspectives. On top of that, I’ve interviewed scores of writers, followed their careers, and listened to podcast after podcast with some of the biggest names in the genre. The one thing most of them have in common? They were thinking about giving up until that one big break.
After years of processing this information, I believe I’ve come up with the essential elements for getting one’s horror book published and selling. I call them the three “CONS,” as in: CONTENT, CONTACTS, AND CONTEXT.
CONTENT is the writing itself. The craft of stringing words together. The plot, pacing, character development, thematic elements, etc. One would like to think this is the ONLY factor required for success. And, indeed, that may be the case for a handful of extraordinarily skilled authors.
But for most writers, your book can be excellent and still not make the cut if it’s not the right story at the right time. Or your prose may be exquisite, but simply not be accessible to the average modern reader. In these cases, it may get out there years later, after you’re dead, or never at all. On the other hand, your stuff could need some work, but if it hits the mark with subject matter, it can still blast off into outer space!
You can always write for the market, but even that’s risky because what an audience wants is ever-changing. So, you might spend two years writing a book that doesn’t come from the heart—or even one you hate—and STILL be out of synch when you’re shopping it around, much less when it finally gets published.
Which is why, so far as CONTENT goes, I believe your best bet is to hone your craft, write something you care about that also overlaps with what at least a few gatekeepers and readers might want, and pray to the dark gods that sooner or later you’ll pen the right story at the right time.
As important as your CONTENT is, a lot of getting published, finding an agent, and/or having your book make the rounds in the horror fiction community is about who you know, or your CONTACTS.
Most writers who want to get traditionally published must submit query letters to publishers and agents. That’s the equivalent of finding an attractive stranger in the street, chatting with them, setting up a date, and becoming intimate partners. It happens every day, of course, but it’s quite the challenge.
A more surefire way to get published and/or find an agent—or set up a date!—is by becoming a known entity inside a circle, as in your CONTACTS. It’s not what most of us want to hear, but it’s simply how human nature works a lot of the time: You’re either part of someone’s “in” crowd or you’re not.
So how does one develop such CONTACTS? Some try to find the most influential members of a community and subtly (or not so subtly) apply lips to butt cheeks. Others find writers with similar or slightly more experience and publication under their belt and offer something of value. But unless you’re let inside a given clique, you shouldn’t get your hopes up for much quid pro quo.
Because the truth is, many if not most (though certainly not all!) of your CONTACTS will be measuring you up in terms of whether connecting with you will benefit them. This can come in terms of your writing, of course, but also who you know, your identity, and how well you navigate the system.
Instead, I recommend simply putting out good karma for other authors—no matter their status—without ever expecting much in return.
If a book is written in a forest and there’s no one around to read it, does that make you an author? Of course it does! But if finding an audience is at least part of your goal, you’ve got to put your stuff out there.
The definition of CONTEXT is “the circumstances in which an event occurs.” For horror fiction authors, CONTEXT is how your writing gets out into the world, i.e., marketing and promotion.
For most of us, book marketing and promotion is a thorny wilderness to navigate in which it’s all too easy to get lost. I won’t get into details here because there are endless paths to take, some better than others, and a lot of time can be wasted running into dead ends. (If you do need a guide, consider Denver Horror Collective’s HORROR AUTHOR MARKETING, facilitated by yours truly!)
However, your title and cover are the low-hanging fruit of CONTEXT. Because the reality is that despite the old maxim, most people DO judge books by their covers. Eye-catching imagery tends to reel in more readers than anything subtle, while a bold—even outlandish—title tends to hook the attention far better than something obscure.
I’ve repeatedly seen authors whose books might not have as high marks in CONTENT, but who work CONTEXT really well, selling way better and getting far more reader reviews than those whose CONTENT is top notch, yet who drop the ball on marketing and promotion. And, of course, CONTEXT is further enhanced by the right CONTACTS.
So, this has been my subjective take on the way a book gets out into the horror world. While we’d all love for it to be just about the art and nothing but, we must remember that publishing fiction is a business, first and foremost. Which means if you’re a writer, you’ve got to jump through certain hoops if you want to find an audience and get sales. And if you’re a reader, these are the factors typically determining which books end up in your hands and which probably never will.