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Don D’Auria: The Ins and Outs of Genre Evolution 

By, Vince A. Liaguno

The demise of the horror fiction has been reported almost since it began. But the reliable – albeit often unfairly dismissed – genre has endured valiantly, cycling through numerous evolutions and emerging to terrify readers generation after generation.

It’s impossible to consider the current state of the horror genre without bringing Leisure Books into the discussion. With 24 titles churned out each year now, the Dorchester imprint is the largest mass-market horror publisher in the industry. And the man in charge of bringing venerable dark scribes like Brian Keene and Jack Ketchum and those glorious Richard Laymon reprints to local bookstore shelves each month is the affable Don D’Auria, the farthest thing from scary one could get. The publishing veteran – who sharpened his editorial pen at Bantam and Harlequin before landing at Leisure in 1995 – is largely credited with resuscitating the horror genre after it flatlined in the 90’s. He brought a much-needed maturity to Leisure’s horror titles of the day, moving from teen-oriented fright fare to a more grown-up offering. The approach paid off, and Leisure increased its number of annual horror titles in gradual increments from eight to twelve to eighteen to the two dozen it publishes today.

His secret: respect for a frequently disrespected genre.

Dark Scribe Magazine recently sat down with the busy New York-based editor to discuss the current state of the horror genre and why so many seem to have a hard time with that much-maligned H-word. (Sprinkled throughout are sneak peeks at upcoming Leisure covers!)

Dark Scribe Magazine: With bookstores dismantling their dedicated horror sections, are reports of the genre’s demise premature — or is this part of an evolution?

Don D’Auria: It’s all evolution. Nothing’s dying here, it’s just changing. When bookstores dropped their horror sections they didn’t stop buying horror. Horror is still on the shelves. They just (for the most part) stopped putting it in specific, named sections. The downside is that it’s become harder for readers to discover new authors, since they now have to browse the whole fiction section. The upside, according to the stores, is that the stores are actually freer now to buy more horror, since they don’t have to worry about finding space in a small section filled with Stephen King and Dean Koontz books. So it’s kind of a tradeoff. And don’t forget, Borders still has an excellent horror section, and a lot of the time Barnes & Noble still groups their new horror together on their center spin racks. But in any event, horror existed long before there were horror sections in stores, and horror will still be around without the sections.

Dark Scribe: Why does horror get such a bad rap?

Don D’Auria: People often generalize and think all horror is the same. Some of the most visible horror movies and books tend to focus on things that many people generally consider bad, stuff like violence, gore, sex, death, insanity or the Devil. Everything that parents want to protect their kids from seems to be the whole point of so many horror movies and books. Plus, a good percentage of horror has traditionally been aimed at teenagers, which reduces it to “kid stuff” in the minds of the adults. And so much of it looks cheesy or silly, whether it is or not. Think of all the cheap horror covers from years ago that had skulls or skeletons on them, with blood-dripping “horror” lettering. Or all the low-budget horror movies that are “so bad they’re good.” Non-horror fans see those cheesy covers or terrible, low budget movies and think that’s what all horror is like.

Dark Scribe: Even Leisure avoids the ‘horror’ label on the spines of its titles. Is horror now a bad word?

Don D’Auria: Not at all. If horror were a bad word, we’d stop publishing it, not just change a tiny word on the spine. We’re not trying to hide the fact that we publish horror. I think if you look at our covers, it’s pretty clear these are horror novels. That’s a lot more visible than the word on the spine, a word that the vast majority of average readers never notice. The people who do notice the word on the spine, however, are bookstore clerks and buyers at the wholesalers and distributors. Many buyers have pre-set levels for buys in various genres, not just horror. Many of them have high, standard or low romance distributions, for example, or the same kinds of levels for horror or science-fiction. But their buying levels for general fiction tend to be higher. Just to give an example, a high horror buy for one wholesaler might be 5,000 copies, but a high fiction buy could be 12,000 copies. We want to maximize our chances for getting that 12,000 copy order. So by changing the label on the spine from horror to fiction, we’re telling the wholesale buyers that this isn’t a category horror title that should get the genre order number. It’s fiction so it should get a higher buy. We’re able to sell more copies of the book into the marketplace that way. And with most of the bookstore chains eliminating horror sections in their stores, we no longer have anything to gain there by keeping the horror label on the spine. The bookstore clerks mostly shelve horror in the general fiction section anyway. So we had nothing to lose at the chains, we could increase sales at the wholesalers, and the average reader wouldn’t notice a difference.

Dark Scribe: How important has the Internet become to Leisure’s mission as it relates to its horror line?

Don D’Auria: Extremely important. All publishers these days have to focus more and more on the Internet simply because that’s where so many readers are. We’re doing more advertising on websites lately and providing them with exclusive content. We’re getting involved with Facebook and Twitter. We’re working with authors on blog tours and generating buzz campaigns. We’ve also made a big move into eBooks recently, making sure our new titles are available for Amazon Kindle or Sony eReader or iPod applications like Stanza. Publishing is changing a lot these days, and Leisure is changing along with it.

Dark Scribe: What’s the biggest difference between what you were reading [in terms of submissions] when you started at Leisure back in 1995 versus what you’re reading now?

Don D’Auria: The submissions themselves haven’t changed. People have always been writing great horror. The things that have changed are the number of the submissions and where they come from. I’m seeing many more submissions now than I did back then, and I’m seeing many more coming from agents. Back when I started, horror was considered a dead genre and no agent would touch it. Writers were writing horror but they couldn’t get agents to represent them because agents thought they couldn’t sell horror to publishers. Nowadays agents have seen that horror is selling after all, so they’re representing horror authors again. And agents aren’t afraid to call a manuscript horror anymore. In the old days they used to describe a horror manuscript as dark fantasy or supernatural thriller, anything but horror.

Dark Scribe: Any trends right now in horror fiction that you’d like to see end?

Don D’Auria: Honestly, no. I think in general horror is in a pretty good place right now. I’m seeing lots of different things. It seems the trend for zombies has faded a bit, so I’m staying away from that at the moment. The big trend that’s coming up is werewolves and shapeshifters, but I don’t want to see it end. It’s just getting started! Maybe in two or three years I’ll be ready for a new trend to replace the werewolves.

Dark Scribe: So you’re reading through a pile of manuscripts —all from unpublished authors. Which one grabs your attention and makes its way to the top of your list?

Don D’Auria: The one with the best cover letter. And by that I mean the cover letter that does the best job of making the manuscript sound new and interesting, but also the most professional and the best written. Not the most gimmicky. My introduction to the manuscript and the author is through the cover letter, so it definitely helps if it’s well researched, professional and not riddled with typos. Once I’ve made it past the cover letter though and started reading the actual manuscripts, the one that catches my attention will always be the one with the best writing, one that draws me right into the story and isn’t a retread of a dozen other books.

Dark Scribe: How do Leisure readers inform your editorial choices?

Don D’Auria: The biggest way is through sales. If readers buy a lot of one author’s books or a certain type of horror, I’ll try to publish more of them. To put it simply, I try to buy more of what sells and less of what doesn’t. So in a very real way, every time they pick up a book or pass one by, the readers are telling me what should go in the Leisure horror line.

Dark Scribe: How well has the Leisure Horror Book Club been received? How many subscribers do you have now?

Don D’Auria: We started the Horror Book Club as a way to make sure readers are able to get our new horror titles every month at a discounted price. It took off just about as soon as we started it, which meant readers liked what we were doing. That was one of the ways we knew expanding the line was a good idea. We’re up to a few thousand subscribers at this point and growing. And I’m very pleased to see that the club has an extremely low drop-out rate. Folks seem to like what they’re getting, and these days I’m sure the discount is a big plus too. The book club is only $12.50 for two books, and that includes shipping. That’s $6.25 per book instead of the $7.99 cover price. In an economy like we have now, savings like that can make a difference.

Dark Scribe: We’ve heard that you’re also an avid horror reader. Taking off the editor’s cap for a moment, who are some of your favorite genre writers working today? What was the last non-Leisure horror book you read?

Don D’Auria: Right now next to my bed I have a copy of August Derleth’s anthology Sleep No More. Despite the title, it makes great bedtime reading. There are some wonderful authors in there. Some obvious choices, like Lovecraft, M. R. James and Clark Ashton Smith, but there are a few hidden gems too. I’ve always liked that “classic” style of horror. I haven’t yet finished Let Me In (retitled Let the Right One In for the paperback and the movie) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, but what I’ve read so far I really liked. My favorite contemporary horror writers (aside from Leisure authors, of course) are some of the ones you’d probably expect: Stephen King, Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell. Also Patrick McGrath, Michael Slade, Thomas Ligotti, James Herbert and Brian Lumley, just to name a few that come to mind. There really are so many, and a lot of it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. One of the great things about horror is that it has so much variety in it.

Dark Scribe: Where do you see the horror genre going in the next 5-10 years? What are your predictions?

Don D’Auria: Based on the recent surge of talented newcomers that I’ve seen in my submissions pile, I’d say we’re about to enter a new period of horror, a rebirth in the sense of young, fresh voices and new discoveries. It’s actually very exciting. In 2008 and 2009 I’ve published or will be publishing more new writers in the Leisure line than ever before. Extremely talented folks like Nate Kenyon, John Everson, Wrath James White, Gord Rollo and Jeff Strand. And there are more coming up who I can’t announce yet because the ink isn’t dry on the contracts. Add these names to others who have come up in the past few years, writers like Brian Keene, Sarah Langan, Bryan Smith, Sarah Pinborough, Joe Hill and W. D. Gagliani and you’ll see there’s been a lot going on for a genre that people keep worrying is dying.

Dark Scribe: Do you have a particular title coming up on Leisure’s 2009 release slate that you’d especially recommend to readers? Perhaps a writer whom readers should watch out for?

Don D’Auria: One event that I think folks might want to watch for in 2009 is the first ever Leisure horror contest. We’re still working out some details, but the general idea is that we want to encourage new writers. With all this new talent out there, as I mentioned before, we want to find the best of it, so we’re going to have a contest to discover the best previously unpublished writer. Watch our website for announcements and details soon!

One title I’m particularly excited about is Pressure, the debut novel for us from Jeff Strand, coming in June. Jeff is already known for his humorous horror, but Pressure reveals his dark side and it’s going to blow people away. He is one hell of a writer. In general, 2009 is going to be a real powerhouse of a year for us. In just the first six months alone we’ll have books from John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow, L. H. Maynard and M. P. N. Sims, Brian Keene, Bryan Smith, Richard Laymon, Edward Lee, Gord Rollo, Ray Garton (Bestial, a sequel to his werewolf novel, Ravenous), John Everson, Graham Masterton, Jack Ketchum and Jeff Strand. And the second half of the year is just as good. Some pretty exciting stuff!

2009 Dorchester Publishing Schedule

March 2009
DARK MOUNTAIN by Richard Laymon
CRIMSON by Gord Rollo

April 2009
GOLEM by Edward Lee
BESTIAL by Ray Garton

May 2009
DEATH MASK by Graham Masterton
SACRIFICE by John Everson

June 2009
COVER by Jack Ketchum
PRESSURE by Jeff Strand

July 2009
THE SHORE by Robert Dunbar

August 2009
URBAN GOTHIC by Brian Keene
FAR DARK FIELDS by Gary A. Braunbeck

September 2009
FLESH by Richard Laymon
WOLF’S GAMBIT by W. D. Gagliani

October 2009
DEPRAVED by Bryan Smith
FEEDING GROUND by Sarah Pinborough

November 2009
THE 13TH by John Everson

December 2009
GHOST MONSTER by Simon Clark

Posted on Monday, March 9, 2009 at 12:43PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment

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