One of the greatest pleasures in reading is discovering a new author whose work blows your mind. For example, I had such an “Oh, shit” moment recently, when I finished reading Ania Ahlborn’s phenomenal debut horror novel, Seed. I was pretty late to the party, since by the time I read the book the author had already hit it big, released a bunch of other novels, and even signed a deal with a New York publisher. I found out about Seed from her AMA on Reddit.
Seed’s slow burn was so fresh, and its ending so surprisingly gruesome and horrific, that I found my expectations shattered. Here was an indie horror book, originally self-published, from an author I’d never heard of before, that – while familiar enough to be accessible – gave me such a strong hit of fresh nightmare fuel, it made me remember why I’d fallen in love with reading horror in the first place, after years of finding too much of it stale and lame.
I realized that the reason I’d grown a bit bored with horror for the past few years was because all the really good horror had been flying under my radar. So, I started reading more indie horror, and discovered an entire underworld of scary stories so good they shook even my jaded old genre hipster self enough to feel scared again.
Here are the top five reasons I think you should read indie horror.
1. It’s a place for new ideas
By its very definition, indie horror is the place in the genre where the squickiest, far-out plots are going to naturally distill to, since big New York publishers are businesses, and their primary concern is the dollar. The Big Five are typically not going to invest a lot (or any) money in books that are overly experimental or disturbing, especially those from unknown authors. Sure, murdered girl stories and stories featuring spilled entrails have been mainstream for decades. But the truly disturbing stuff is rare to find on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, simply because major publishers don’t really put it out, if an agent even chooses to represent it in the first place (or it’s coming from Stephen King). For the most part, major publishers like to play it safe, not just with who, but what they publish, and this can keep up-and-coming horror writers in the shadows.
The rise of indie publishing, though, has destroyed this barrier of entry. Where a famous Big Five author not want to kill off his main characters in horribly disturbing ways, or write about a subject that is truly shocking (and what, these days, is still shocking?) an indie author has no such limitations. The possibilities of the story are as dark and disturbing as the author’s mind can create, leading to stories that can scare and satisfy us in ways the more familiar, mainstream-friendly stuff just can’t.
2. It’s a place for under-represented voices
Again, since there are no barriers of entry into the world of indie publishing, there is equal access for everyone, regardless of race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual orientation. Since the topic of diversity in anything is a guaranteed minefield for all kinds of butthurt, and there is no way to play it safe without offending someone, I’m just going to be upfront that before Seed, I had never read any horror by a woman that had actually scared me. The closest thing I could think of was Tanith Lee’s excellent short story, The Gorgon, but that didn’t scare me as much as it left me deeply unsettled (and still does to this day).
I had never given it much thought. But, after finishing Seed, I realized the reason I’d never been scared by a female horror author was mostly due to a deficiency in exposure. The vast majority of horror authors I’d read were male. Sure, Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson are famous. Ellen Datlow is about as prolific an editor and essayist in the genre as can be. But they are exceptions that prove the rule, that until the advent of indie publishing, there just were not a comparable number of women writing horror as men.
Now, I have no idea if that is because there was some secret cabal of evil white males conspiring to keep women and minorities out of horror fiction, or if it is simply because, until recently, women simply weren’t consuming (and creating) as much horror as they are today. I have zero interest in debating that topic. What I do know is that, like all facets of publishing, the genre has changed. Anyone can write and publish a horror story today, leading to a genre that has become much more diverse, and thus has far greater potential to scare us by providing countless new permutations on the familiar tropes.
3. It’s cheaper
As an avid reader, I spend a lot of money on books – anywhere from $20-$60 per month just to get my fix. For those less addicted than me, it might not be so bad, but shit, comeon – that’s craft beer prices.
If I buy more self-published than traditionally published horror books, which are typically priced 50% lower than those put out by major publishers (an average of $4.99 versus an average of $9.99), I can either buy more books each month, or have more money for beer.
Really, there’s no downside.
4. It helps up-and-coming writers break in
A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear self-published writers get shit on: “It’s just writer’s masturbation.” “No one’s going to read it.” “It’s only self-published because a publisher wouldn’t take it.” “It probably sucks.” “No, it definitely sucks.”
Nowadays, with the blockbuster success of indie books like Wool, The Martian, Wayward Pines, and the aforementioned Seed, that criticism has mostly dried up, even if you still see it floating around odd corners of the Internet, or hear it from your weird rosé-drinking aunt who still tries to get you to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The snobbiest of book snobs will get criticized off their own blogs for saying there are no good self-published books. The rise of ebooks and self-publishing has been a people’s revolution of the book world, and while it has come with the necessary flood of utterly irredeemable dog poop that any revolution brings, it has, for the most part, been an absolute blessing to readers. Books are cheaper and more easily accessible than ever before, and for the first time in history, we, the writers hold the keys to the kingdom, not some guy or gal who wears a suit and goes to luncheons.
That said, more books in the field, means more competition. An indie author needs a lot more than just a good book to stand out from the crowd. They need beautiful (or beautifully disturbing) cover art, a pitch-perfect blurb, and whatever incalculable amount of luck is necessary to receive the kiss of life from the Internet Gods and go viral.
For every indie horror book you purchase, you are helping that author get one sale closer to their book reaching critical mass and being able to sell itself through word-of-mouth and Amazon’s algorithms. Even if the book wasn’t perfect, you are putting a tiny bit more possibility into an otherwise unknown writer’s pocket, which will allow them go that much farther in continuing to chase their dream. There really isn’t a better deed you can do if you care about books.
5. It will surprise you
Even writing something that sucks involves countless hours of hard work. To write something good, multiply those countless hours by a hundred. People should be rewarded for their work, and although no one is entitled to success in chasing a dream, none of us really want to live in a world where achieving that dream is impossible, especially after buckets of sweat, blood, and tears have been poured into our labors of love. Indie authors take on a much bigger risk in putting their stories out there than authors who go with a traditional publisher. They don’t get an advance to recoup their expenses, either for the innumerable unpaid hours they spent writing, or for the easy-to-quantify costs like cover art, copy editing, layout and design. All of that stuff is the writer’s investment in creating a book that will make at least a few readers happy.
So, why not reward their risk with a tiny bit of your hard-earned money? Best case scenario, you discover a new author whose work blows your mind or scares the hell out of you. The greatest surprises I’ve had in the last year were books by indie authors. And the worst case? You buy a book that sucks and you’re out a couple of bucks. That $3 to $5 you will spend on an indie horror novel is only about as much as you would spend on a craft beer at your local pub, and it will provide you with many hours more entertainment, unless you a very slow drinker, in which case, I wish I had your problem.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my debut horror novel LURK, which Underground Book Reviews compared to the work of “a young Stephen King.” You can read the first chapter of the book for free here.