Friday, July 3, 2009

Horror Novels: Meat and Taters or Salad and Perrier?

As some of you may know, I've been trying to break back into the mass market paperback game for some time now... for a couple of years, in fact. I'm mostly doing it for the benefit of my fans; for those who can't afford to plop down forty or fifty bucks for a signed limited edition, but want to read my novels on a regular basis.
Putting them back out in paperback is the best way to do that. It satisfies my old fans and conjures up alot of new ones who haven't yet had the opportunity to read a Ron Kelly novel of Southern-fried horror.

But it's proving to be a much tougher row to hoe than I first thought.

It's not because today's horror publishers don't take to my fiction. They all seem rather pleased that I'm back behind the keyboard again. And it's not because I write Southern fiction or in-your-face, roller-coaster type horror. Rather it's a problem that wasn't a problem at all back in the old days.

Recently, I sent a manuscript of HELL HOLLOW to the leading mass market paperback publisher of horror filling the bookracks today. I had high hopes of HH making it into paperback, since pre-orders for the hardcover limited have been brisk and everyone seems to be looking forward to reading it, especially since
it is my first published novel in nearly thirteen years. But then I got the email last week, giving me a very polite and dignified rejection. I wasn't devestated like I would have been in the early days. After all, I have alot of irons in the fire right now with several different publishers, unlike my time with Zebra when I had all my eggs in one basket. A rotten basket whose bottom dropped out unexpectedly and made a big ol' gooey
mess of things. But then most of you know that tired, old story already.

Anyway, why was HELL HOLLOW passed on this time around? Well... because it was too long.

That's right. When I sent a follow up inquery a couple of months after I'd sent it in, the editor emailed me back and said "It looks great... it's just the length we're concerned with. Exactly what is the word count anyway?" So I did a quick word count and sent the answer back to him. "124,000 words." Then, a few days later, another email. "Sorry, but we usually top off the novels we currently publish at 90,000 words. To publish a novel this huge would be a little more than we could manage. Paper costs are high due to the economical crisis and we just couldn't justify releasing a book with such a large word count." Then later on, another email, suggesting that I: a) edit the book down to 90,000 words or b) wait until the economy improves and submit it again later on.

This rejection, due to the word count, was rather surprising to me. After all, I'd cut my teeth in mass market paperback publishing back in the early 90's writing those big ol' thick horror novels. And I was encouraged to do so. Zebra pretty much requested that my novels be around 350 to 450 pages. They wanted big hoss-like books on their rosters: the kind you could prop a door open with or that your kid could sit on at the supper table in place of a booster seat. And the fans seemed to have a great hunger for those meaty horror novels. Four hundred pages weren't nothing back then. Stephen King was writing 800 to 1,000 page whoppers and the horror fans were eating them up. It gave the writers plenty of room for character and plot development, along with multiple scares throughout, ending with a dynamite keg of a climax. It was just the norm back then. Go and check out the shelves of a used bookstore (if you can locate one these days) and take a look at all the chunky horror novels put out in the 80's and 90's. Then look at today's horror novels and, in comparison, they look... well, kinda puny.

Now, I'm not saying that today's horror novels are puny in content. Most of them pack as much of a wallop (or more) than most of those horror novels that houses like Zebra, Liesure, Pocket, or Tor put out back in the heyday of the horror boom. Folks like Brian Keene, Tom Piccirilli, Bryan Smith, and Edward Lee are writing novels that give readers effective horror within a limited page count. So, is that what today's horror reader wants? A quick read? Or is that something that they have been conditioned to expect in today's publishing world? A two hundred page book for seven or eight bucks, where they were getting four hundred pages for four or five bucks back when the horror novel was so plentiful and entire horror sections were proudly displayed in most of the brick and morter bookstores?

I don't know... maybe I'm totally off base here. Maybe that is what folks want these days. Time is so limited in today's world that readers want to sit down and consume a novel in a day or two, rather than a long-time commitment of three or four days. It's just that folks seemed mighty excited when they found out HELL HOLLOW would be weighing in at a hefty 500 pages. Like they'd been force-fed salad for an awful long time, when they really had a hunger for a big ol' plate of meat and taters.

So... what am I going to do? Am I going to sit down and edit down my steriod-pumped novels? Books like FEAR, BLOOD KIN, and HELL HOLLOW? No, I'm not. To do so would be a slap in the face to my loyal fans. Why should my readers get a novel of original length in hardover, but get a shorter watered-down version in paperback? Well, quite simply, they won't be given that opportunity. I'd never go to that length simply to break back into the paperback market.

Thank God for the small press, for if not for them, I would more than likely not be publishing (or even writing) today at all. They have the confidence and insight to see that it isn't the page count that makes the book special, but the quality of the storyline and characters. Will I continue to write collosal novels like the ones I wrote back in the 80's and 90's? Probably not. The novel ideas that I've come up with following my return to the horror genre are more stream-lined that the ones I wrote back then. In fact, I'd say my next novel, A DARK AND BLOODY GROUND, will weigh in at around 85,000 or 90,000 words. But then, if I do planned sequel novels for FEAR and BLOOD KIN, they will likely be back in the 120,000 plus range. It just depends on what the storyline warrents. And, ultimately, it comes down to providing an enjoyable and memorable journey for the reader. In my opinion, that's all that really matters.


KentAllard said...

I agree the word count has to follow the author's vision. Some stories work best as short lean novels, others need room to breathe. I'm glad you stuck to your guns about cuts. I've read a couple of novels that were cut down for the mass market, and they just didn't work without the original material. Then again, the day of the longer horror novel was pretty much "my' day, too.

Unknown said...

Why not self-publish under a pen name? We have many authors who have done this and found a whole new outlet for work that doesn't neatly fit into catalog niches.

Sage Evans

: said...

Said company will reject such a great work from a great author, I guess, so they can keep pumping out 85% crap.


Hunter said...

Hear, hear, James!

Rick McCammon had the same issue when he wrote Mister Slaughter. Back when he thought Simon & Schuster would publish it, they expressly told him that they wanted only around 400 pages. Speaks the Nightbird and The Queen of Bedlam were just "too long." Even though fans loved the length of both of them, and a few have already expressed dismay that Mister Slaughter will be fewer than 500 pages.


Brad M Saenz said...


I personally LOVE the longer novels that have all that room to stretch out, but with that said, if it's an author whose work I love (nudge nudge wink wink), I would read the book regardless of length.

Ronald Kelly said...

That's what I believe. If an author is to be given full-reign of his work, he must take it to the limits of his imagination. My next novel will probably be much shorter than my others, but who knows? This crazy imagination of mine might cut loose and we'll have ourselves another door-stopper on our hands. lol!