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Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers

Becoming a Published Horror Writer: Industry Tips from Puzzle Box Horror

If you talk to most horror writers, it is more than a hobby to them. Some aspire to become a famous author, who will have their books converted to screen plays. Other writers love the potential of selling a horror screen play that may become a series, to networks that are buying up original content like crazy. Entertainment leaders like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

Every once in awhile you will hear this amazing story about how a talented horror writer met the right connections and was able to move and shake their way to the desk of a publisher, talent manager, and their copyrighted work was purchased. For a lot of money. Happy writer. Happy production company. Happy horror fans.

But how often does that really happen? What is the process for a horror writer to get their work noticed or have the rights to their work bought by a large production company? Do you actually need to publish and sell a horror novel first, before you have a chance of pitching the rights to your creative work to a film company?

At Puzzle Box Horror, our team has a lot of experience in marketing and relationships with horror authors and indie film makers. If you are at the stage where you would like to get serious about having your work published and making an income from horror writing, we would like to share a few tips to help get you started.

Publishers Will Not Throw Money Down Unless You Have Built An Audience

No matter how talented you are, a publisher is not going to bite or buy in to a product that does not have an audience. That is a hard fact that many writers struggle to understand. Why wouldn’t publishers want to snap up your work, package it up into a novel and start selling it for a profit? That model has not been predominant in the industry for over ten years.

The average cost of launching a new book? It can be as much as $25,000 to an average of $60,000 or more depending on the size and resources of the commercial publisher. When your book has been accepted and you have signed a contract with a publisher, there are a series of steps and services that happen to your original work, before you will see your book distributed on the shelves.

The process of launching a new book with a publisher can take an average of 18 months or longer, and will include the following steps and services:

  • The setting of the target date for retail distribution. You are issued a payment by check after endorsing your contract with the publisher.
  • Professional proof reading and editing for first revisions.
  • The manuscript is then sent to the sales and marketing departments for another revision. This is where changes are proposed to the novel, to tweak it for marketability. This can also be a long process as authors tend to object to changes, and it becomes a negotiation process. The copyeditor oversees this process and helps consolidate edits and reviews.
  • The cover design will commence about 6 months before the release of the book.
  • Galleys or ARCs are advanced copies and excerpts that will be sent out for getting book reviews of the work about 6 months prior to release. Authors are also provided with the advanced copy to start marketing efforts as well, podcast interviews, social media teasers etc.
  • Marketing and sales plans go into effect about 3 months before the book is published. This includes setting up interviews, live book signing events, tradeshow attendance, press releases and more. The pre-launch reviews will be received with favorable reviews used to accelerate the promotion of the book.
  • About 8 weeks before the book is published, the author will receive a copy. The finished novel goes into distribution and the writer begins to earn residual payments per volume of book sales.

In short, a whole lot of people and talent goes into every commercially published book. And it is expensive for publishers to complete the process and make sure each book has a successful launch. Publishers will not take a risk on a new author that does not have audience and personal branding established. They use the size of your audience as a measurement of the potential commercial sales of your book.

No audience? You are unlikely to attract a commercial publishing deal. There are no assurances that your book will be a best seller, but with strong personal branding and an established audience, it is the jump start that publishers need to feel confident about investing and absorbing the cost of selling your novel.

Be Careful About What You Self-Publish if Your Goal is to Be Picked Up by a Commercial Publisher

One of the biggest mistakes talented horror writers make, is self-publishing. The process of building an audience and authority authorship (recognition of your name or pen name) can be time intensive. It can take years before you build a substantial audience that would make your novel(s) attractive to commercial publishers and that is frustrating.

You want the recognition, the money, and the fame now (not years from now), particularly if you have been working on your fiction for a long time. By comparison self-publishing is so affordable! For less than $20 (USD) and a small royalty to the printer, you can start selling your own self-published novels or collections of horror short stories or micro-fiction work.

The approach to self-publishing with the intention to build a brand name is not entirely wrong. In fact, if you are already working aggressively on your branding as an author, some pieces of self-published work can escalate the growth of your readership. Add your books to your website and start generating some revenue for your creative work.

However, anyone who has self-published will tell you that the revenue (while it is pretty exciting) is not exactly enough to quit your day job. There is a price sensitivity to self-published books. If you plan to offer them on Kindle for instance or digital download, the average price might be $4.99 to keep your price competitive with other new releases. And if you plan to sell print on demand, and keep the book under the $9.99 price threshold, you may make between $3.00 to $5.00 per copy.

The most important consideration is what to choose for self-publishing. One of the strategies that has worked very well for horror writers (including the legends like Stephen King) is to produce short horror story collections.

Give the audience a little taste of your writing style, themes, and macabre mastermind, and build a fan following with your short stories. And save the novels for commercial publishers; that is where the real money is in terms of royalties and residuals. And they will not be interested if you have already self-published the same work, because it complicates copyright, and it is not a ‘new’ book if it has already been circulated as an author-published piece.

Want some tips on building your personal brand and authority authorship? Watch for our upcoming articles as we share strategies for horror writers that work and free resources you can use to start building your audience of readers and fans.

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Featured Indie Horror Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers Lifestyle

Interview with Award Winning Author and Teacher Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is an award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 150 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

Christmas Horror Book Cover

PB: We talk to a fair amount of new writers – What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?
RT: Great question. I think one of the most important things to understand is your voice. So—what kind of stories are you trying to tell, what are your strengths (and weaknesses), and what excites you when you write? It’s the first assignment I give my students in my Short Story Mechanics class. You need to understand the genre (or genres) you write in, your influences, and contemporaries that are doing similar things. You learn by reading those authors, by finding “your people” and their audiences, as well as publications. It’s all connected. I started out writing more neo-noir and thrillers but then shifted into fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I still do both. The main difference between the new-weird speculative work I do and neo-noir is often realism vs. supernatural. As far as those weaknesses I just mentioned, study those voices that do it well—whether that’s setting, plot, character, or dialogue. Read, read, read. Read books and stories, read the “best of the year” anthologies, and then fill your head with images via film and tv, such as the amazing work at A24 Films these days. Take a few classes if you need to. I took quite a few, with authors I loved and respected (such as Jack Ketchum and Stephen Graham Jones) and THEN got my MFA. It all helps.

 PB: A lot of aspiring horror creators think about making the leap from day job to becoming a writer. In fact, I also transitioned from the corporate world and great salaries to chasing my passion for storytelling in multiple formats with puzzle box – Tell me a bit about the transition you went through as I imagine it was a difficult decision to make moving from a known career into the unknown world of writing and teaching fiction? Any advice there for others in this position?
RT: It’s very difficult. I spent 25 years in advertising as an art director and graphic designer, and woke up one day and realized I was very unhappy. If you want to make the shift, understand it takes years to do it right. You first have to find your voice (see my previous answer) and hone your craft. That alone may take 1-5 years. Write, practice, and publish. I encourage authors to write short stories until they figure out who they are, and what they are going to write. Once you start getting work published, push to get your stories into the BEST markets. Until you can start doing that, getting pro pay, and setting up a network and presence, I wouldn’t quit your day job. Once you get to that level, make sure you have a social media platform, and presence—that will all help to build your name, reputation, brand, etc. At that point, you probably want to write a book and find a small press or agent. I’ve published 150 stories, three novels, three collections, ran a press, and a magazine and I still teach and edit. I’d say my income is all related—all a part of the industry—but my actual stories and novels probably only account for half of my income. So be prepared to teach, to write a column, to edit, to do more. Very few can make six figures as an author. But man, it’s the most fulfilling work I do. And my teaching helps others, and I learn a lot in the process as well. I was reading those “best of the year” anthologies anyway, and it helps me too, but now I really pay attention. It’s all connected. 

PB: One of your classes is writing a novel in 365 days, how many students have completed that and have any been published?
RT: We’ve only been doing this two years now, so the total number of students is 24. Two are done and actively shopping—Joseph Sale and Erik Bergstrom—and their novels are amazing. I expect them to get published. There are quite a few from the first year that are putting the final touches on their work, making a last pass, etc. This year’s class—all eight students are really doing well, and I expect them to finish on time, and start submitting next year. Hard to say how many out of the 24 will make it will publish, but I’d say at least half. Quite a few of my students who have gone from Short Story Mechanics to Contemporary Dark Fiction to my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop have published, gotten into pro markets, have gotten nominations, have won awards, have written novels, and landed agents. Really proud of them all.

burnt tongues book cover

PB: As a published writer, teacher, and entrepreneur do you feel that indie writers stand a chance in being successful vs finding a publisher? 
RT: Depends on what you want to do, but yes, it can work both ways. I find that quite a LOT of the best work is being done at smaller, indie presses. The big five (or whatever it is now) will certainly get you more money, into brick and mortar stores, and have teams of people to help you. Working with the editors at Alibi (a Penguin Random House imprint) was a TON of work, so many rounds of revisions, but I knew that Disintegration and Breaker were TIGHT when they came out. I felt so supported. When Breaker got a Thriller Award nomination I was floored. So yes, I’d actually encourage authors to connect with indie presses first, and then write that first book and publish short stories. It’s a great community, so many supportive people, and when you finally DO break out, you’ll have a lot of fans excited to pick up your work. It’s so rewarding.

PB: Finally, we’d love to hear a writer quick tip for creating suspense from you?
RT: Suspense it tricky. When I talk about it in terms of what a HORROR story is, this is what I say. There is the terror and then the horror. Think of it as the suspense, the hints, the clues, the anticipation—that’s the terror, the emotion you create before we see it. The horror is the actualization, the fulfillment of it, the dropping of the veil, the unfurling of the creature, the physical manifestation and consequences. I talk about it a lot in my column, which you can read here: https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-using-terror-and-horror-to-tell-powerful-stories

 CD is a magazine, and the exact issue is not online yet no. They are BIG, circulation of 10,000. PRISMS is just starting to get a cover and all so they aren’t online yet either sadly. I did have a co-written story in Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11, which is out now. Had a few things in books last year as well—a novelette, “Ring of Fire” in The Seven Deadliest anthology, and a story, “The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation” in the Shallow Creek anthology. You can find links to those all here: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B0036EYNDC

PB: What can you tell me about the upcoming arctic horror novel? (one of my favorite settings!)
RT: I was just on Twitter saying it was The Thing if written by Jeff VanderMeer, set in New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville). It’s about a sin-eater, and the way that he protects his portal, set in a place much like Barrow, Alaska where it goes dark for 60-90 days. I’m still trying to figure it all out, but I want to approach it from a place and time that is outside of our current narrative, so it’s not 2020 Alaska, but based on a similar location, culture, and weather, of course. A friend of mine lives in the arctic and is giving me some great nuggets, just working on finding the right angle, so it can be original. I’m looking at several books for inspiration—Annihilation, Come Closer, All the Beautiful Sinners, and many short stories set in this climate.

PB: What inspired you to go artic with the next novel?
RT: I live in Chicago, so I’m familiar with the cold. Obviously not on the same level, but I felt I could tap into that sensation and reality. I wanted isolation, and was fascinated by the Barrow, Alaska darkness. What might flourish in the dark? What happens before and after the dark? And the idea of a sin-eater and a group of people holding the world together through their actions and sacrifices appealed to me.

PB: What/who are some of your major influences?
RT: I grew up on Stephen King, then the beats in college, later getting into more indie work. My MFA was a big influence, literary dark horses, and then the new-weird movement. And then all of my contemporaries, the authors I’ve published. So while I love King, and Clive Barker, and Jack Ketchum, I also love the literary voices of Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, and Haruki Murakami. The most recent authors that are a heavy influence of my work would probably be Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Hodge, Livia Llewellyn, Alyssa Wong, Brian Evenson, AC Wise, Usman Malik, Steve Toase, Kelly Robson, Kristi DeMeester, Damien Angelica Walters, and so many others. For films, I’ve really enjoyed what they’re doing at A24 Films, my top five being Hereditary, The Witch, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Enemy. 

PB: Anything else related to life or writing you care to share? 
RT: For the authors out there, figure out what you have, what authority, what experience, that nobody else has going for them. Maybe it’s where you grew up, your culture, your mythology, your job, or what you’ve seen. Weave that into the genres you love, and then swing for the fences—take chances, surprise your audience, be innovative while delivering what your promise, in a way that’s satisfying. There’s only one of YOU, so tell your stories with heart, and passion, and intensity. 

You can find Richard on twitter and at his personal site https://whatdoesnotkillme.com/