The power of uncertainty

The Eden Book Society was a publisher of horror which only distributed its books to a private list of subscribers. Established in 1919, all of its books were written under pseudonyms; you can’t buy them and nobody really knows how you got to be a subscriber. There are whole forums online of people tracking these books down and trying to build a complete list of them. For horror collectors they are the ultimate prize: the collection enjoys an almost mythological status.

Last year, Dead Ink announced it had acquired the rights to the entire Eden Book Society backlist. Over 500 works of original horror were now ours to reproduce and finally make available to an eager and passionate audience. When we announced the acquisition, author Nina Allan wrote on her website...

“For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Eden Book Society is that even though it existed right through until the internet age, there is still remarkably little information about either the society or its authors to be found online. There is no complete list of titles, for example, and this in spite of the efforts of various ardent Eden fans to put one together. Virtually every reader or writer of horror fiction you run into at conventions or film festivals or book events will have a story to tell you about an Eden book that particularly affected them.”

You could almost taste the buzz in the horror community that grew around our announcement, which was a good thing as we’re a small press and in order to begin reprinting these books we were going to have to raise £10,000 on Kickstarter. Fortunately, an article appeared by one of the great horror legends themselves, Ramsey Campbell, where he reflected on his first visit to New York in the 1980s and his introduction to Eden...

“I’d been a guest of the first World Fantasy Convention and now was staying with Manly Wade Wellman and his wife Frances in Chapel Hill. I believe I’d enthused about some of the rarities on Manly’s shelves, which led me to ask if there was work in our field he wished he had collected. Manly cited the Eden Project, of which he’d apparently learned from no less a luminary than Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales.”

But there was always something odd about the Eden Book Society, always something not quite right... and that’s probably because the Eden Book Society had never existed. It was a fabrication.

Ink to paper

I should explain... Dead Ink is a small press operating in a small niche. We invented Eden because we were frustrated by the process of starting from scratch with every book and there was no way of creating a sense of momentum that carried across year-to-year.

So the concept was simple, if a little ambitious: we would create a series of books where the marketing was an inherent and self-propelling quality of the premise itself.

To achieve this I turned to the times in my own life that I felt possessed by the need to engage with something that I had never actually seen. I have always been a horror fan. I think for most horror fans it is something formed in childhood, and what sticks out to me about my memories of horror is not the books and films themselves but the uncertainty and mythology that surrounded them.

In school, when we heard about the film “Candyman”, we had more fun and excitement knowing that we couldn’t watch it—and instead spread rumours about it and dared each other to stare in the mirror saying “Candyman, candyman, candyman”—than we ever did when we eventually saw the film itself. Eden was an attempt to re-create that. To bring a sense of uncertainty and withhold information so as to leave a thread loose that must be tugged.The first thing that we did was recruit writers to pen the first year of books: Andrew Michael Hurley, Alison Moore, Aliya Whiteley, Jenn Ashworth and Richard V Hirst, Sam Mills and Gary Budden. We sold them on the idea and got them to sell it to their peers. Across the internet the word Eden began to appear.

To harness it we created an equally vague website that only asked for an email address. Being a canny lot, horror readers immediately picked up on what we were doing...Without us having to ask, readers began to do our marketing for us. They did this because quickly they realised that the history of Eden was folklore—it was long, it was confused, and it was unverified. This meant only one thing: they could add to it.

Nina Allan’s statement— “Virtually every reader or writer of horror fiction you run into at conventions or film festivals or book events will have a story to tell you about an Eden book that particularly affected them”—became a self-fulfilling piece of mythology. It is perhaps particularly interesting because I’ve never spoken to Nina Allan. At the time that she wrote that line I had only spoken to the Eden authors themselves, of which Nina isn’t one. All anyone had to go on was the premise and from there, like rumours in a playground, the story and the marketing, grew.

This column is based on a presentation given at The Bookseller’s Marketing & Publicity Conference on 26th June.