Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part I
- Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part I
- Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part II
Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part I of II
by Rebecca Rowland
For writers and publishers, a silver lining glimmered from the shadows of the Covid-19 pandemic: reading, once a slowly dying pastime, increased dramatically. During the initial months of quarantine, the time adults spent on reading nearly doubled (The Guardian, May 2020), and horror as a genre “flourished” during the time of lockdown (The Conversation, October 2020). Independent presses have always been the celebrated underdogs of the publishing industry, the channels through which lesser known writers could find opportunities to showcase strong, edgy work that may have otherwise gone unread. However, independent publishers are by no means a free-for-all showcase: with this newest Renaissance in horror fiction, the competition to be included in an independent publication can be fierce. I spoke with fifteen owners of independent horror presses about the pros and cons of managing such an industry livewire, as well as what insider tips they could reveal on how speculative fiction writers can rise to the top of their slush piles.
Although each noted the industry’s ups and downs, all of the owners I spoke with agreed that producing independent horror is a labor of love. “The feeling of getting a book out there and helping to find its audience is amazing. When you see a positive review, it makes it all worthwhile,” stated Chrissy Brown of Caab Publishing Ltd. Open calls for press-sponsored anthologies garnered some of the best experiences. Dawn Shea, owner of D&T Publishing, noted, “I love reading all the different takes on an idea. It is amazing, some of the things that people think of when presented with a subject,” and Sirens Call Publications’ Lee Andrew Forman reiterated her sentiments: “My favorite part of curating a collection is reading the stories, seeing the imaginations of so many different authors creating completely different works based on the same theme [and]…the stories that speak to me are the ones I don’t expect. I like to be surprised.” Cameron Trost of Black Beacon Books summed up the experience nicely: “It’s like being an archaeologist, except the anthologist is bringing treasures to the light for the very first time, potentially offering to thousands what has only been glimpsed by the author and a select group of family, friends, or fellow writers. Choosing stories that complement each other, while ensuring diversity in terms of setting and plot, can be quite the balancing act. Just as a museum with endless rows of identical pottery will soon bore the visitor, the anthology needs to display unique pieces in a harmonious way.”
Managing a business that operates outside of the big corporate machine allows more freedom to publish and promote writers who do not fit the traditional horror author mold. Both Azzurra Nox of Twisted Wing Productions and Jill Girardi of Kandisha Press devote collections to Women in Horror each year. A smaller operation means less red tape, and gifted writers can be given consideration beyond whether they are well-known enough to be company cash cows. As technology has evolved, so has the ability of small presses to elbow their way into the fight for a space on the shelf. “Globalization is great because the ability to exchange information with a few clicks has destroyed gatekeepers and opened doors for anyone with internet access, allowing opportunities otherwise unavailable to underprivileged or marginalized groups or ideas,” pointed out Transmundane Press’ Anthony S. Buoni. “In theory, we’ve freed ourselves from big money manipulation and media programming.”
In as much freedom as being an indie press allows, the lack of funding from parent companies sometimes means having to make difficult choices. Paradoxically, while independents have the wiggle room to accept a broader range of writing styles and themes, they may not have the staffing, funding, or name recognition to bring every worthwhile project into fruition. “The terms ‘horror’ and ‘dark fiction’ cover such a vast array of topics that one reader may prefer haunting or ghost stories, while another may only read serial killer or fictionalized crime novels. As an independent publisher, it’s difficult to build a steady stream of returning readers that want the level of variety we receive in manuscript submissions and are willing to purchase them. Unfortunately, that pigeon-holes small publishers into having to turn down works that we simply don’t have a built-in market for,” explained Nina D’Arcangela of Sirens Call Publications. “I feel like the biggest challenge that independent presses face is being as visible as a large press. It is hard to get your name out there when you don’t have a large following, or the monetary means to do special projects that garner a lot of attention,” agreed Shea. On a similar note, “the biggest challenge is getting your drop in the ocean to make ripples,” noted Trost. “It’s a catch-22; to sell books, you need to rival the marketing machine and reach of the big publishers, but to do this, you need money, and to make money, well, you obviously need to sell books. The technology is there, opening doors for us, but encouraging readers to be curious and adventurous remains a huge challenge.”
One erroneous assumption about indie presses is that “small” equals “less.” “The biggest challenge independent presses face is that they are all lumped in together, and many readers have preconceived ideas about the quality of the publication they will receive,” noted Sinister Smile Press’ R.E. Sargent. His company partner, Steven Pajak, agreed: “I echo R.E.’s comments. One of the ways we make ourselves stand out among the rest, at first glance, is our covers. We put a lot of thought and effort into creating stunning visuals to rival those of larger publishing houses. Inside the covers, our work is extensively proofed and edited and designed to reflect the highest quality and standards we expect for our readers.” Independent does not mean shoddy; it does not mean inferior. It simply means that the presses operate outside of the mainstream, and as releases in recent years have shown, their publications more than hold their own against the big market’s.
In many cases, dark fiction press owners started their companies because they themselves were, and remain, dark fiction authors. Once upon a time, they spotted the holes in the mainstream fabric and decided to create environments where dollar signs weren’t the only thing driving new literature. “I had a really big agent in New York City and it was a very frustrating experience, so I wanted to create a place that was author-centered rather than sales-centered,” explained Michael Aloisi of AM Ink Publishing. At times, a press owner’s own work may appear in their publications alongside those of outside writers who competed for slots, but successful owners are willing to separate, if not sacrifice, their own pieces for the sake of the project. Buoni tries “to get a solid draft of my story or at least a comprehensive outline before reading the subs. That way, it keeps my idea separate from what’s coming in.” D’Arcangela agreed with him, adding, “One of the most difficult parts of being a publisher is having a piece come in through submissions that is close to a piece that I, or one of the others is writing. One of the worst outcomes I can imagine as a publisher is to have a submitting author believe a concept or story-scape that they submitted has been misappropriated by a member of the publishing team.” Her press partner Forman explained, “Sometimes pieces I’ve written with care have had to take a back seat for the sake of the authors we publish. We pride ourselves on putting authors first.”
Wearing both hats requires some diligent juggling. Girardi pointed out that “probably the biggest challenge would be the inability to view your own story with the same critical eye as those by other authors.” Managing an anthology or magazine is already an enormous task, and “since all the deadlines are self-imposed, one has to be a self-starter in order to be both the editor and contributor; otherwise, you will fail,” added Nox.
Not every press owner includes his/her work in its multi-author volumes, but even when s/he does not, every editor leaves at least a subtle mark on the curated release: it arrives on a reader’s bookcase imprinted with that publishing house’s values, preferences, and energy. “I’ve always said if I put a book out and no one bought it, at least I would have a book that I loved. It’s basically a collection of horror stories to suit my taste, so those with similar taste to me will enjoy the book most,” explained Kevin J. Kennedy of KJK Publishing. “Putting an anthology together is a guilty pleasure because in a way, you’re doing it all for yourself. Obviously having readers like it is a huge bonus.”
One of the best ways to get an inside scoop on what tickles a specific press editor’s fancy is to read previous publications the house has released. However, at times, a writer may submit a truly engaging story, but it doesn’t jive with the others in the line-up, and the press must pass on it. Writers should not take this personally, as it is often just the luck of the draw. Filthy Loot’s Ira Rat explained, “I view anthologies as a Tetris-like puzzle of creating an overall enjoyable reading experience. I often pass on stories that I thought were good that just didn’t fit in with how things were shaping up.”
Beyond evoking serendipity, there are a few tricks to standing out when your submission is one of hundreds in an open call. Continue reading the second half of this piece to get an insider’s peek at those tricks.
In the meantime, want to know more about the small presses mentioned here? Visit their websites:
AM Ink Publishing (Dark Ink) https://aminkpublishing.com/dark-ink
Black Beacon Books https://blackbeaconbooks.blogspot.com/
Caab Publishing Ltd https://www.caabpublishing.co.uk/
D & T Publishing https://www.dandtpublishing.com/
The Evil Cookie Publishing http://theevilcookie.com/
Filthy Loot http://www.filthyloot.com/
J Ellington Ashton Press https://www.jellingtonashton.com/
Kandisha Press https://kandishapress.com/
KJK Publishing https://www.kevinjkennedy.co.uk/index.php/category/books/
Sinister Smile Press https://www.sinistersmilepress.com/
Sirens Call Publications http://www.sirenscallpublications.com/
Transmundane Press https://www.transmundanepress.com/
Twisted Wing Productions https://azzurranox.com/
Rebecca Rowland is the dark fiction author of The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight and Pieces and the curator of the five horror anthologies by Dark Ink Books, the latest of which, Unburied: A Collection of Queer Dark Fiction, releases June 1. She is an Active member of HWA and her short fiction regularly appears in an assortment of independent venues. For links to her latest work and social media, to send her a friendly hello, or just to surreptitiously stalk her, visit her painfully pedestrian website, RowlandBooks.com.