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The Dreaded Horror Section Debate
By Scott Nicholson

Do horror sections in bookstores help sell the books?

The question is as old as the 1980s, when horror became a distinct marketing genre, and probably will never have a satisfactory answer. I posed the question to several writers and bookstore workers, and the consensus opinion was pretty much the one I’ve adhered to: it depends. While horror sections, in those rare cases where they do exist, often seem small and limited to the genre’s biggest names, they are not necessarily the ghetto they are made out to be, even if, as author
Jon F. Merz says, “the horror section is usually stuck in the back of the store, right next to the Menudo fan club books and the employee bathroom.”

Personally, I enjoy it when I go to a bookstore and see all my own novels together, no matter which section. I get a secret delicious thrill when I discover a horror section, and make a case study of the authors and number of books represented. The best horror section I’ve ever seen, outside of specialty stores, was at a Books-A-Million in Greenville, S.C.There must have been 60 feet of head-to-toe shelves, with old mass market titles I’d never seen anywhere else, and I was proud to see my books among some of my friends and favorite authors. But it was also nice when a row of my books were alphabetically snuggled up against a rack of Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling The Time Traveler’s Wife in the “General Fiction” section. Did any of her fans buy my book? Maybe not, but I can be sure at least one or two picked it up, maybe people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a designated horror section.

Douglas Clegg, author of The Priest of Blood and nearly 20 other books, is a former Barnes & Noble employee, so he can see the situation from both sides of the aisle. “I don't think there's one correct solution,” he said. “I will say that with the advent of horror sections in chain bookstores, the genre has generally been perceived as selling less well than before there were horror sections. On the other hand, there are poetry sections in some stores, sometimes even anthology sections, and I have to wonder if a variety of volumes of poetry or anthologies sell better than the horror genre. So, it's a toss up.”

Poppy Z. Brite says the problem comes when the label becomes affixed to an author, no matter what that author is writing. Like Clegg, she has written outside the boundaries of what is generally considered horror fare, but is also unashamed of the label. “Once bookstores think they've figured out where your stuff should go, I don't think many of them examine each new book to see if it really belongs there,” Brite said. “And of course there's the problem of wanting all your books to be shelved together, so that people can pick up your whole oeuvre if they want to. If it were left up to me, which it never will be, I guess I'd prefer to be shelved in general fiction. But there are problems with that too.

“I am not bothered by, say, Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, or Exquisite Corpse being shelved in the horror section. After all, they are as much horror novels as anything else. Wormwood and Are You Loathsome Tonight? can go either way. Plastic Jesus doesn't belong in horror, and The Value of X and Liquor certainly won't belong there.”

Merz, author of six books including The Fixer who recently started Maelstrom Press, said, “I think the prevailing idea of horror sections is not necessarily good for the industry. On one hand, store managers think they're doing the fans a favor by making it easy to find horror books, but horror lovers tend to be very cognizant—they'll find the books wherever they're stocked. I don't know too many people who walk into a bookstore and think, ‘You know, I feel like some horror today.’ People are looking for a good read—regardless of genre. If your cover or copy catches their eye, you make a sale. In that regard, I'd prefer having my books out in the general fiction section mixed in with everything else. It gives the author a chance to reach readers who might otherwise stay away from horror.”

Eric Frazier, until recently the owner of Frazier’s Books, a general independent store in North Carolina, said, “Because of our market size, many categories are not large enough to require ‘sections,’ so we tend to use broader categories in our signage, and then we group books within a section—hopefully in a manner that becomes self-evident to the browser. We have 10 linear feet (the bottom row of two five-foot fixtures) of ‘Horror,’ which for us means anything with psychological or supernatural suspense elements. I do think that designating a section as ‘Horror’ may have the effect of limiting rather than expanding the readership. I notice that lots of publishers just put ‘Fiction’ on the spine of books that I would consider to be in the horror genre.”

A Barnes & Noble bookseller who is also an author, though not in the horror genre, said a specific horror section helps readers find a specific book, and some customers ask for such sections. She asked not to be identified, but said a knowledgeable store clerk can put more books into a reader’s hands than a horror section would.

“As far as I can tell, having a specific horror section doesn't really appear to affect sales of a book,” she said. “You would think it would, but in truth, a writer will generate more sales for his horror novel if it is characterized and shelved in the fiction section. Customers will look for those types of books, and horror fans will ask a book seller to help them find their favorite author or recommend somebody new. That also helps the author, because I can hand sell the book and my recommendation is worth more to most customers than a nice cover or a review in a magazine.”

M. Stephen Lukac is a longtime manager of a Waldenbooks in Pennsylvania as well as the author of Oogie Boogie Central. Very few Waldenbooks stores have horror sections, but Lukac said the books can do fine without them, provided the staff cares about the genre. His tactics show why a bookstore clerk can be a horror writer’s best ally.

“I do a nice little business in horror fiction, thanks to my unabashed pimping for friends and my chosen night job, but I can't find the space for a dedicated section, and even if I did, it would be populated with the standard King, Koontz, Rice trifecta, with some Leisure, Pinnacle, etc., filler,” he said. “I don't think it matters.”

Lukac said good placement and an identifiable brand more than offset any lack of a specific section. “Our genre has something going for it that the others don't—distinctive covers and distinctive titles. A horror fan knows what to look for, and, in my experience, will spend as much time as it takes to find it. The Leisure and Pinnacle and most mass market titles don't have a long enough shelf life to make a huge impact buried in the section, no matter which section they're buried in. That's why I tend to feature everything like this at the store front or on endcap displays. In my store, it works, but I've trained my customers over the last 10 years.”

Brite said, “I guess I'd still prefer to be in general fiction, where all my books can go more or less appropriately. But I don't think the horror section is inherently evil. It probably helps the sales of lesser-known writers and helps readers find new names. That's in a best-case scenario, where stores actually carry and shelve books by these new names.”

I generally believe horror writers are better off out there competing with the other writers. A good story will find readers, no matter what the content. After all, a lot of Stephen King fans think they don’t like horror books. One area where most agree is that the books eventually have to be good enough to sell themselves, or at least whet the readers’ appetite for more, or it doesn’t matter where the books are kept.

“As for me as a writer, I don't care which section I'm in,” Lukac said. “Sure, a dedicated horror section will increase my chances of being bought by a horror reader, but decrease the chance that a non-horror reader might pick up my book. Throw all the fiction in the mix and let everyone battle for supremacy. Once I get them to take their first taste, they usually come back looking for seconds.”

-copyright 2005 by Scott Nicholson. Originally published in Insidious Reflections. Contact for reprint permission.

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