The end of the line: Lothian’s ‘Dark Suspense’ novels

In early 2006, there was a hushed level of excitement amongst Australian horror buffs. The biggest publishing development in more than a decade—Lothian Books’ ‘Dark Suspense’ line of Aussie horror novels—was about to bear fruit, with the first four mass market novels to hit bookstores within months. All the signs were there for what would have been a ‘welcome home’ of sorts for the horror novel in Australia, with a major publisher committed to a dedicated and long-term line of books. But a spanner (or three) was thrown into the works, and what could have been a renaissance of Australian horror turned into a flash in the pan. Those fans and horror authors watching the drama unfold are still bewildered by what happened, two years on.

The publishing game boils down to risk management. Editors crunch the numbers, calculating print runs and author advances based on similar, previously published books. Historically, with the very notable exceptions of authors such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, horror has struggled to sell well in Australian bookstores. This is wholly due to some dodgy marketing, a lack of understanding of the genre from publishers, and the tide of exceptionally bad Stephen King clones that flooded bookshelves in the 80s and early 90s.

In the 2000s, the horror genre, as established by marketing matrices and category analysts, had become the pariah of fiction genres. Consequently, almost all publishers now release horror books under labels such as ‘Thrillers’, ‘Paranormal fiction’, or ‘General fiction’.

So when Lothian Books’ senior editor Teresa Pitt announced an open call for horror novels in 2005, she was flying in the face of publishing tradition. Lothian, perhaps best known for their children’s books at that time, were gambling on unknown authors writing in a nearly-extinct popular genre. A bold move, but Teresa had help from Robert Hood, one of Australia’s leading horror authors, who was recommended to her as an adviser by Lothian author Gary Crew.

Publishing bravery

According to Robert Hood, the mood while putting the line together was optimistic.

“Teresa [Pitt], with great openness and insight, thought it was a good time for it—I think she was looking to try something that might be made to work that no one else was attempting.” Robert said.

“We talked about why there had never (to my knowledge) been an imprint of horror fiction in Australia, and very little horror publishing as such. I collected data on past sales of Australian horror novels—it wasn’t very encouraging—and presented every argument I could think of to encourage this to happen. As you can imagine, I was very excited. No one had been this open before. The last time I had a discussion with a major publisher about publishing Australian horror (some decade or so before), the publisher had said, ‘I’m not interested. No one has done it before. Too risky. If one of the other publishers does it, and it works, then I’ll think about it.’ Publishing isn’t about bravery, clearly.”

Once the brains trust at Lothian Books approved the line, they chose to proceed with four novels per year, with the first four to be published in the middle of 2006. The ‘H’ word was a stumbling block, though, as Robert says, “The imprint would not be described as ‘Horror’ but as ‘Dark Suspense’—this on the advice of many wise people, including author Garth Nix, who said, ‘It can look like horror, it can be horror, but don’t call it horror. Booksellers won’t be interested.’”

As to be expected with a new line of previously untested authors, initial sales were likely to be low.
“Peter Lothian, however, wasn’t daunted. He actually said he was willing to try it and work to build the market. He didn’t expect huge profits at the outset. Besides, he liked niche markets.” Robert said.

The lucky four

Despite a short (three month) open reading period in late 2005, Robert and the Lothian team were surprised to receive around 60 horror manuscripts.

“I can’t be specific, but there were really good novels among them that were rejected based on a somewhat conventional view of what constitutes a horror novel. In the end, we tried to ensure that the four novels, while being within the genre, were representative of a wide range of ‘types’. I think we achieved that very well.

“The line-up included a werewolf thriller (Carnies by Martin Livings), a full-on naturalistic and physically confronting gorefest (The Mother by Brett McBean), a bit of outré weirdness with an experimental structure (Prismatic by ‘Edwina Grey’ [a conglomeration of David Carroll, Kyla Ward, and Evan Paliatseas]), and a supernatural romance (The Darkness Within by Jason Nahrung [with Mil Clayton]). There was a terrific ghost story/sex thriller that I think would have done well but which divided opinion rather too much. Another was a strong vampire novel that had lots of potential but needed work. There were many manuscripts that were well on the way—I often wonder what has happened to these.”

Robert, as one of the few published horror novelists in Australia, was keen to have a manuscript of his own published (given the lack of opportunities elsewhere) but felt that “to publish my novel would be seen as a dubious conflict of interest as I was on the committee—so at the last minute, my novel was disqualified. That was okay. There was always next year.”

Or so he thought.

Takeover madness

While the four selected novels were being developed by Teresa Pitt, disaster struck in the form of a corporate takeover. Rampaging US publisher Time Warner acquired Lothian Books. Although assurances were given to keep Lothian’s publishing schedule and staff, a second corporate takeover swept all those promises away. European giant Hachette Livre tightened its grip in Australia by buying out Time Warner. In just a matter of weeks, ownership of Lothian Books changed hands twice, and everyone, including the authors of the Dark Suspense novels, were left scratching their heads.

Out of the dust, a serious blow struck the Dark Suspense line. Senior editor Teresa Pitt was sacked in the ensuing corporate restructure.

Prismatic co-author David Carroll said this takeover period “was a trying time.”

“We fully expected the book to simply be dropped at any moment, and we were upset at the sacking of Teresa Pitt, who created the horror line to start with. But apparently they decided it would be easier to just release what they already had rather than cancel them outright,” he said.

Fortunately, the Dark Suspense novels were not axed, but as often happens in publishing, without the editor to champion the books, the line limped into bookstores.

“Teresa had a genuine enthusiasm for the project, and I’m certain that if the books had remained at Lothian with her, the company would have been behind us one hundred percent, pushing these books wherever they could. But when Lothian was bought out, it was clear that our new publishers [Hachette Livre] weren’t as keen on the books as Teresa had been. Which was absolutely fair enough, of course; they didn’t commission the books, they just inherited them,” said Carnies author Martin Livings.

Or as Brett McBean, author of The Mother said, “The Dark Suspense line was Lothian’s baby, but Hachette was the hesitant, put-upon foster parent. They published the books (and I’m grateful they did), but that was about it.”

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Three of the four novels (excluding Jason Nahrung’s The Darkness Within) were branded under the Dark Suspense banner and slated for a release date of June 6, 2006 (6/6/06). In the weeks before the first three novels were published, the death blow for the series was finally struck.

As Robert puts it, “Why was the imprint cut? Simple. The books weren’t selling well enough. Yes, you heard correctly—books that weren’t even edited yet, let alone published, were not selling very well. What this meant, of course, was that pre-orders were low—a situation that Lothian had anticipated and had planned to actively work on changing.”

Low pre-sales was the ideal excuse for Hachette Livre, who could legitimately wash their hands of Lothian’s horror experiment, albeit in a way that fulfilled the prophecy of doom that horror does not sell. Given the chance, and more importantly, marketing support, who knows where the horror genre may be today had the Dark Suspense line succeeded?

Martin was happy to see his book make it to print, but he believed more could have been done by Hachette’s sales and marketing team.

“To Hachette Livre’s credit, they really got the Dark Suspense books out there into all the major bookstores. But the marketing for them was virtually non-existent,” he said.

Although David said, “we were told that with the takeover, the new owners wanted to get back to what they were known for, so as not to dilute their brand”, his Prismatic co-author Evan Paliatseas was not convinced, believing the lack of marketing support was “cowardice by the new management, in essence.”

The bottom line, according to Jason Nahrung, was that, “Australian horror has long been the preserve of small press and Lothian made a bold play. Our hope was that our four books of the series would lever open a door for other writers of ‘dark suspense’. It seemed a shame that didn’t happen.”

Judging a book by its cover

Despite the collusion of factors against the success of the Dark Suspense novels, the authors agreed that their books were surprisingly popular with readers.

“I think Carnies sold pretty well. It covered its advance, which I wasn’t expecting, considering that horror traditionally doesn’t sell terribly well, plus it got little or no publicity from the publishers,” Martin said.

In the novels’ favour, the three books released in June 2006 were given stark but striking themed covers.

“I also think, setting aside the question as to whether that really is a skull on the cover, that the spines were wonderful. Magenta on black really stands out in a bookshelf. And choosing ‘Grey’ for our pseudonym got us into some interesting company: in one shop in Canberra, we were next to Kate Grenville,” Kyla Ward, the other third of ‘Edwina Grey’, said.

Perhaps capitalising on the paranormal romance sub-genre’s surge in popularity, Hachette Livre chose to hold back the release of Jason Nahrung’s The Darkness Within, which had strong supernatural and romantic leanings, until early 2007. Although contracted as a Dark Suspense novel, The Darkness Within was published as an independent paranormal fiction title.

“Hachette gave the novel an excellent cover and wide distribution within Australian bookstores. It was a hell of a thrill for Mil and I to see it in shop windows in Melbourne on release, and in the airport when we flew home from the launch at the Continuum science fiction convention in 2007. The original print run was 4000 copies and it sold more than half, I believe, in the first three months. It is still kicking around on book shop shelves, and a German edition is due out in December,” Jason said.

All four Dark Suspense novels received critical acclaim and positive reviews. The novels were nominated for every Australian speculative fiction award—the Australian Shadows Award, the Ditmar Award, and the Aurealis Award—with Prismatic winning the latter. The novels would have undoubtedly scooped these awards if not for Will Elliott’s excellent dark fiction debut in the same year, The Pilo Family Circus.

The lessons learned

Robert believes, nearly three years on, that a major publisher could find more success than Lothian Books with a line of ‘Dark Suspense-like’ horror novels.

“I think a dedicated line of mass-market Australian horror novels is totally viable, more so than ever. The horror scene is more vibrant than it was then and more visible to a wider public (through various books and anthologies, BLACK magazine and the various Aussie horror films that have been doing well worldwide). The Dark Suspense books showed that it could work to a degree without much promotion or patience from the accountants. I also think the standard of manuscripts submitted would be even higher now, especially if some advance notice was given to potential writers. But it all depends on the publishers having the will to make it work… and the patience to work toward building a strong market,” he said.

“[A new horror line would be] vastly better if it maintained itself for years instead of as a one-off run and built up a product name and continual marketing budget,” Evan agreed.

From his Dark Suspense experience, Brett reckons, “writing is hard but publishing can be a bitch.” However, he sees potential for the uniqueness of the Australian horror ‘voice’.

“I would remind publishers that some of the biggest selling authors write horror: Stephen King, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker. Also, trends may come and go, but the public are always hungry for good scary stories. I would add that Australian horror has a wholly unique flavour (a little like pork, actually) that can’t be found in American or British writing. We have our own way of looking at the world, our own humour, our own landscape and history to draw from.”

Jason was more cautious about the success of a horror novel line today.

“As the economic conditions worsen, there might be a turn towards darker escapist fare in literature, but the word horror is a problem. Would a series of books united only by a sticker labelling them Australian horror work? Somehow, I don’t think so, because each story would appeal to different readers, but those readers might be turned off the whole set by the one story they don’t like. Obviously, die hard horror readers would revel in it, but there aren’t enough of them—I’d be happy to be proven wrong on that score—to support such a scatter-gun approach.”

The Dark Suspense legacy

While history may prove the Dark Suspense line to be a mere blip on the literary radar, the books are currently the benchmark for horror fiction in Australia.

Regardless of whether a new publisher picks up on the lead started by Lothian Books, Martin was philosophical about his publishing experience and its impact on his career.

“When I submitted Carnies, I never expected it to get picked up. I purely did it to have the experience of submitting a novel to a publisher, something I’d never done before. So when they accepted it, it was a complete shock. So I think the big lesson I learned is, don’t be afraid to try. The second lesson I learned was that I wasn’t nearly as good a writer as I thought I was: my editor taught me that one! And the third lesson? Books don’t sell themselves. Getting them onto the shelves isn’t the last step, it’s the first. Getting them off the shelves? That’s the hard part!”

“The people at my day job took me seriously after [the novel was published]. Which may or may not have been a good thing—I notice they don’t ask me what I did on the weekend any more,” Kyla said.

All of the authors are currently working on their next projects, so the future of local horror looks dark (but in a good way). Martin is working on the sequel to Carnies, provocatively titled Bitches; Jason’s agent is shopping around an Australian vampire novel to publishers; Brett has completed a dark coming-of-age novel and his short story collection Tales of Sin and Madness is due out soon; and Kyla is working on a paranormal romance, David on his next column for BLACK, and Evan is hanging out for the next deadline announcement.

And at the end of the day, four good novels were published, and in the wash-up, that wasn’t a bad result for Australian horror.

By Shane Jiraiya Cummings

First published in Black: Australian Dark Culture #3, 2008

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