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SO YOU WANT TO BE A HORROR WRITER?

February 2000
By Paula Guran

Stephen King is probably the best-known writer in the world as well as being one of the best paid, taking in $30-$40 million a year. An entire wing of Anne Rice's fabulous New Orleans mansion houses her extensive doll collection. Dean Koontz reportedly receives nearly $6 million advance for North American and book club rights ALONE to a novel. Thomas Harris's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS sold more than eleven million copies since its publication in 1988. Clive Barker and Peter Straub both have quite respectable incomes.

So you want to be a multi-millionaire horror writer? Okay, you aren't greedy, but obviously horror writers must do pretty well if those Big Names are rolling in the dough?

Dream on. The dream of being a bestselling horror writer is more likely a nightmare than the fantasy of financial success and literary fame you may think it is. Many of the authors you admire have yet to achieve the goal of living solely by what they earn as writers. Some keep a "day job" by choice -- a career they love or one that enhances their creative efforts -- but for most writers, either a regular job or a spouse who earns the daily bread is a financial necessity. For others, the hard-earned sobriquet of "full-time writer" means living a far less than middle-class lifestyle. Even relatively successful authors have "good" years of reasonable to good income and just as many "bad" years of very little return.

And for horror writers the financial situation is grim indeed.

Horror -- despite mega-buck-making Hollywood hits and a few bestselling authors -- is not a hot publishing market. It's also one that is hard to break into on a professional level. Horror reached a market high in the eighties and then declined. There simply aren't that many books published today and most of those are produced by established writers for figures that don't make the headlines or many mortgage payments.

The Haunted Laptop When you sell a novel you get an "advance." That means you get paid a certain agreed upon amount against what you will eventually earn in royalties (your small percentage of each book sold). For a first novel in horror expect to see no more than a $5,000 advance these days, Of course there are exceptions -- folks that receive far more -- but for an unknown novelist with a paperback original the advance will can be even lower. (The Horror Writers Association deems $2000 as the minimum "professional" advance for a novel.)

Normal paperback royalties for a beginner are 6% on the first 150,000 copies, and 8% thereafter. Except there is no "thereafter," since almost nobody sells 150,000 copies. In fact -- most new writers never see anything...EVER...more than their advance.

With a hardback a more experienced, better-known author can get straight royalties (perhaps)of 8% for the first 7500 sold, then 8% on the next 2500, going to 10%, above 7500. That's about as high as it goes unless you are Stephen King and can make your own deal.

Horror -- outside of the top sellers -- doesn't sell a lot of copies, but not always because the buyers aren't there. The shelf life of a paperback book these days is brief. Even if a book is selling fairly well, if it's not selling "well enough," publishers would rather write off the loss and pulp thousands of copies than to keep it on the shelf of your local bookstore.

Michael Marano, who last year won both the International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Award for his debut novel DREAM SONG, provides some frontline perspective: " I have read that only one novel in 20,000 gets published. Add to that I have sold a first horror novel, and that it came out as a hardback and is now in paperback. I'm no statistician, but the odds against me must have been astronomical."

"Now, let's get some perspective. If I could take back all the time I devoted to the novel, and devoted it to building a career which started as a McDonald's employee, I would be rich, compared to how I now live. At McDonald's all those hours would have earned me at least minimum wage. I'm sure if you take my advance money from DAWN SONG, figure out how much I earned writing it in terms of an hourly wage, it would add up to maybe a penny an hour. I began writing the novel in earnest in 1990 (building it up from an abandoned short story I wrote in 1989). McDonald's promotes people. If I'd started cooking fries in 1990, by now I'd be managing a McDonald's at a pay scale of 45 to 60 grand. I have a feeling that all the members of the Horror Writers Association AND the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America who make that much from writing alone could easily fit in a living room."

And, of course, there's no guarantee that you will ever sell a SECOND novel.

Publishing has become a profit-oriented industry that is no longer extremely concerned with what was once the "average" genre author -- the "mid-list" writer. Mid-listers had faithful, if not huge, audiences and sold well enough over time. But that approach is, for the most part, no longer seen as profitable. Moreover, for a variety of reasons there are fewer paperback originals (often the first chance for a genre novelist) published overall these days.

And horror? It's hard to figure out how many horror books are even published in a year -- both because horror is a hard-to-define category and because in the general scheme of things its market share is infinitesimal so no one much keeps track. LOCUS magazine (which defines horror fairly narrowly) counted 95 new horror novel titles for 1999, and 21% of those were Young Adult titles. They counted five horror first novels.

The LOCUS totals also include books from some small presses. The small press usually isn't a path a completely unknown writers can take, but first novels from established short story writers occasionally appear there. Deals vary widely: some established authors may get a professional level advance, or there may be no advance, just royalties (usually higher than those for mass market.) At BEST a combination of perhaps 300 hardback limited editions at $35, 700 trades at $15 even at 10% will only get you $2100 -- and THAT might take several years to see IF it sells out. The same percentage for 500 fancier limiteds sold for $50 retail will net you $2500, again IF it sells out.

What about electronic publishing in its various forms? It may be part of the future for horror writers, but right now it's not part of the present money-making picture.

As for short fiction markets -- professional anthologies these days are few and the horror field simply has never attracted enough periodical readers to support a truly professional level all-horror fiction magazine of any sort. There have been and remain a handful of semi-prozines paying at least a minimum pro rate (three cents a word or more), but that's certainly no way to earn a living. The competition is tough and story slots are scant.

"I'd like to say, 'Follow your dream,' but that's not enough," Says Marano. "You are not entitled to realize your dream... it is not a right, no matter what the motivational speakers want you to believe. You have to look at your dream as a goal, one that's going to be hard to achieve -- like finally paying off your student loan -- and you have to be professional. Most people who say they want to write really just want to quit their jobs. Piffle. When you write, you gain another job. You need to keep records, you need to learn how to negotiate contracts, you have to keep track of expenses. One quarter to half of my time as a professional writer is occupied with records keeping, letter writing, faxing, marketing, and things like that. It's part of the job. Hard work, in the creative realm and in the realm of professional conduct, will make you a writer. If you're not willing to do the work, then just dowse yourself in patchouli, sit in your local Starbuck's, scribble in your precious leather-bound blank book, and bemoan how tragically unfair the world is because publishers aren't coming to you with contracts in hand. Oh, yeah, and make sure your black sweater is frayed in all the right places. Clove cigarette, anyone?"

Now that you've faced up to the facts, do you still want to be a horror writer? Do you promise you've realized the odds against you and the difficulties you will face? Do you accept that just because Theresa Terror and Malcom Macabre have managed to get a book (or several) into print that they would do better when it comes to an hourly wage pushing fries than pounding a keyboard? Do you understand the reason that multi-million dollar deals make the news is that they are, indeed, NEWS and not the norm?

Okay. You are still determined, so we've gathered the advice for you to follow from a few editors:

ELLEN DATLOW is fiction editor of SCIFI.com and has co-edited THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR for thirteen years. She's edited numerous horror anthologies and has four anthologies coming out in 2000: VANISHING ACTS (sf), BLACK HEART, IVORY BONES (her last adult fairy tale anthology, with Terri Windling, A WOLF AT THE DOOR (a children's fairy tale anthology with Windling), and THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR: THIRTEENTH ANNUAL COLLECTION (with Windling). "If you want to be a horror writer ," says Datlow, "do NOT confine your reading to horror. Read everything you can get your hands on--including nonfiction. But do read horror fiction pre-Stephen King--there are several decades of excellent horror writing before King was even born....Also, don't give up. Keep submitting your work to editors."

GORDON VAN GELDER edits horror and other books for St. Martin's Press and is the editor of the prestigious digest THE MAGAZINE OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY (which publishes SOME horror). He agrees with Datlow, "The one thing I would suggest is that beginning writers should read widely in the field and pay a lot of attention to form. A lot of submissions I get at F&SF are from people who seem to have read only Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and while I like both writers and think they deserve their popularity, the horror field is broader and deeper than just their works." Van Gelder mentions paying attention to form because he's noticed that a lot of new horror writers haven't really studied the differences between short fiction and novels and they don't seem to appreciate that a story idea won't necessarily work at novel-length or that an incident from a novel won't hold up as a story. "The forms are different, he points out, "and the only way I know to teach the differences is to get people to read widely in all forms."

DON D'AURIA is the editor of the horror publishing line for Leisure Books, the only publisher in the industry currently with a program dedicated specifically to horror novels. "Most importantly," he says, "write what you love, not what you think someone else wants to publish; this will usually come through in your writing. Next, familiarize yourself with the market for your work. Check out the various publishers, see what they publish, and find out their submission guidelines. One easy thing to do is to look at who publishes some of your favorite writers. Don't forget the small presses and magazines; they're a great way to break in and get some publishing credits. Finally, persevere. So often getting published is a question of hitting the right editor at the right time. So keep submitting, don't give up. Remember why you're doing this in the first place."

RICH CHIZMAR, whose small press Cemetery Dance Publications publishes some pretty big names (like King and Koontz) and who also edits foremost horror fiction magazine, CEMETERY DANCE, sums it up: "My advice is simple: read, read, read. Write, write, write. Work hard and be persistent."

And good luck!


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