Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part II

  1. Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part I
  2. Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part II

Inside the Mind of an Independent Horror Publisher, Part II of II


by Rebecca Rowland


Beyond evoking serendipity, there are a few tricks to standing out when your submission is one of hundreds in an open call. According to the fifteen independent press owners interviewed for this piece, originality and a gift for the craft—both in terms of mechanics and of story-telling—are what makes them swoon.

“Originality,” stated Chrissy Brown of Caab Publishing Ltd. “If we cannot guess the ending then we love it. If a character goes off the wall but it makes perfect sense once explained, our brains light up and we adore the piece. We do not like to feel the characters are just going through the motions or only there to be filler. We like meat on the bones and depth to the story.” Stuck in a rut? “Read more outside of your ‘comfort genre’ and/or the genre that you write in,” advised Filthy Loot Press’ Ira Rat. “There’s an unintentional homogeny that settles in and then shines through when all you’re reading is one style.”

Beyond standing out from the crowd, take the time to polish your prose. “Top notch writing is highest on my list of things that speak to me when reading submissions. Even a basic story, if extremely well written, will get my attention,” noted Sinister Smile Press’ Steven Pajak. “I want great writing,” agreed Cameron Trost of Black Beacon Books. “This means you know how to tell a gripping story, and it means you have a working knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the English language. If you don’t, study up before writing your story…you wouldn’t build a house without knowing the basics of carpentry, so don’t write a story without brushing up on grammar and punctuation.” Once you have those nuts and bolts in place, sand, buff, and lacquer your cadence. “What grabs my attention and makes me want a story in our anthologies is the prose itself,” stated Pajak’s company partner, R.E. Sargent. “When it is extremely well written and has almost a poetic flow to it, it immediately catches my attention. Then as long as it meets theme and isn’t full of plot holes, or doesn’t fall on its face at the end, it’s pretty much an instant ‘Hell yes’ from me.”

You can think up amazing ideas for stories, but until you transform those ideas into words, you’re not a writer. Nearly all of the press owners interviewed listed exceptional writing ability as the number one factor in assessing submissions. “Use all your tools and take me away. I can tell when someone cares about their craft by commanding language, making it active, and using scenes instead of telling. Writing, like music, is moments, slices of life that dance to the beat of the senses, not against the natural flow,” explained Anthony S. Buoni of Transmundane Press. “Believe in the lie you’re selling so I can fall for your deception, too.” Know where you want your story to go, and don’t waste your words getting there. “I have a low attention span, so stories that immediately punch you in the face with some type of action or detail keeps me interested,” advised K. Trap Jones, whose press, The Evil Cookie Publishing, specializes in splatterpunk and extreme horror. “I don’t like to wait for something to happen.”

More than anything, it seems, “what really matters is the voice of the story,” Twisted Wing Productions’ Azzurra Nox pointed out. “If the author is a good storyteller then you as a reader will be engaged to go on this journey with them. I can tell right away, sometimes from the first page if I’ll enjoy a story or not, because there’s no amount of originality that can compensate for a story that doesn’t have an engaging tone or voice.” Jill Girardi of Kandisha Press added, “I love it when authors leave a piece of themselves in their stories. Not necessarily modeling the main character after themselves, but leaving some of their essence on the pages. It really draws me in when even the most grisly horror story has something personal in it that hits you in the heart and brings you close to your own pain.” J Ellington Ashton Press’ Catt Dahman expounded, “The best writers can sell their stories as real, even if not plausible. There are writers, and there are story-tellers. Each had an audience. When I get a story that is written by a story-telling writer, I grab it. That’s gold. If I can’t hear a voice within the story, it’s a hard pass.”

On the flip side, there are surefire methods to ensure your submission ends up in the rejection folder. Some deal-breakers were specific to the press owner, everything from “asking for content changes after ARCs are printed” and “emailing me after a week of submission to ask if they’ve been accepted or not” to submitting “stories with toilet references or toilet humor: I practically beg submitters not to include them, and they do it anyway” and “when a writer centers their work around [being] a struggling writer. The idiom ‘write what you know’ is often taken too literally.” But time and time again, the biggest mistake a writer can make is to blow off the most crucial part of composing a solid story: editing. Most of the independent press owners noted that “bad punctuation and grammar” almost always resulted in an automatic rejection. They advised writers: “check for double spaces, check for closed speech marks, and please check for a change of tenses,” don’t use “wonky font[s],” and “don’t fight me over every word or punctuation mark change [we make].” Pay attention to how you format your document: one owner disclosed, “I have rejected for hard returns because they are so difficult to format.” Independent presses may have fewer full-time staff members dedicated to copy-editing, but they also often receive a deluge of submissions. “Don’t send in a work full of errors and hope the editor will fix it. Someone else will have sent in a story that isn’t riddled with errors. Spend time on your story,” advised KJK Publishing’s Kevin J. Kennedy. “If you are trying to knock out three stories a day and going for volume, someone else spent a few weeks writing theirs and went for quality. Pick the anthologies that you fancy and focus on getting into those.”

The second biggest mistake? Not following directions, whether it be in terms of a call’s theme, requested submission format, or stated acceptable length. The press owners were in agreement on this matter as well. “Authors who either don’t pay attention to the submission guidelines, or think they should be exempt,” those “who obviously didn’t read the submission guidelines” or the ones who send in “stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the anthology theme” are major pet peeves, as are authors who submit or query their manuscript when guidelines specify that a house is not currently accepting submissions. “Many small press owners are juggling lives outside of their normal publication schedule. They may be too busy to give the work a proper consideration, or struggling with their own projects that often go neglected to bring other work to life,” explained Buoni. “Forcing your book on a press that isn’t taking subs is unprofessional. If you are blindly sending your book to every press out there, don’t take it personal when they don’t respond or tell you they aren’t interested in an entry.” 

Demonstrate you’re a good writer simply by being a good reader…of the press’s submission instructions. “Publishers list guidelines for a reason, whether it’s how they like to read (fonts, format, etc) or how they sort the emails (subject lines, attachments, etc). It’s important to follow the guidelines for the simple fact that it really serves as the first impression,” noted Jones. Read the call or publishing house’s requirements, then REREAD them. Self-edit your story judiciously, or better yet, partner up with a fellow writer for a pair of fresh eyes on the piece before sending it. Although independent presses are lauded for giving their writers the individualized attention big conglomerates do not, as Chuck Palahniuk so eloquently states in his magnum opus, Fight Club, “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap.” Unless you want your story to end up on the fast-track to that heap, be a team player.

Finally, on the subject of playing nice, always remember, speculative fiction may be flourishing, and it may be a great time to be a writer interested in joining an independent press’ growing family of authors, but you must always be aware of your public persona. A few months ago, I happened to stumble across a review of an anthology where a story of mine appeared; the review was from one of the other writers in the collection. Surprisingly, the author left an unapologetic, scathing review of the collection simply because he was unhappy about the order of the stories. Was the placement of his piece worth burning his bridge, not just with that collection’s publisher, but with others who might catch a glimpse his diva-like tantrum? “If you engage in drama and negativity on social media, it will come back to haunt you. Presses talk,” warned Dahman. “The worst thing an author can do is to tear down another press; it makes me wonder if it’s worth the risk to accept the author.” 

Working with an independent press can be a writer’s delight for a lot of reasons. Most of the owners recognize the importance of shining a light on underrepresented voices and storylines that might be experimental or even controversial. Keep in mind what goes on in the minds of those independent press owners, but above all, “Be open to both positive and negative feedback, and keep writing no matter what,” stated Sargent. “The more we write, the better we get.” 


Want to know more about the small presses mentioned here? Visit their websites:


AM Ink Publishing (Dark Ink)

Black Beacon Books

Caab Publishing Ltd

D & T Publishing

The Evil Cookie Publishing

Filthy Loot

J Ellington Ashton Press

Kandisha Press

KJK Publishing

Sinister Smile Press

Sirens Call Publications

Transmundane Press

Twisted Wing Productions


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,


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