A screaming success: Launching an indie horror publishing company

Guenther Primig and Nadir Catalano

Once strictly the preserve of traditional publishing houses, bringing a book franchise to market that will actually sell is now within the grasp of indie publishers in our digital world.

The global book market is anticipated to hit $49billion by 2024, with self-publishing representing the fastest-growing segment, but with no barrier to entry it takes far more than good writing to turn a creative project into a sound business model.

This is something that rising publisher Barksin has kept firmly in mind since its launch three years ago. A collaborative endeavour bringing together seasoned digital communication strategist Nadir Catalano and his friend, author and screenwriter Guenther Primig, has since become a pan-European collective dedicated to establishing the Gwenna Luna brand of classic-meets-contemporary horror stories in print and, going forward, in other mediums such as streaming TV.

As Barksin launches its second Gwenna Luna anthology of short, shocking stories—The Graveyard of Gwenna Luna—Business Matters caught up with Nadir to learn more about their strategy to become a screaming success in the publishing world.

What excites you most about the Gwenna Luna brand?

Gwenna Luna is the result of the combined effort of an independent team of creatives and professionals. Together we managed to put together a high-end, high-quality editorial project, and we did it on our own. We all had nothing to lose and a lot to give, and I think it shows.

You have big plans for the Gwenna Luna brand going forward. What can you tell us?

Absolutely! The audiobook for the first book of the series has just been released—it was super exciting to experiment with this type of media. In the meantime, we are working on the final touches for The Graveyard of Gwenna Luna, the second book of the series, that will be released in fall 2021 – and we are already talking about a third instalment.

In the meantime Guenther has been approached to develop a script for a Hollywood movie based on one of the stories from the first book—and we truly believe that the project has a lot of potential in that arena. Our first love is publishing, but we also have this little dream of bringing Gwenna to the big screen.

The Gwenna Luna series has been independently published. What have been the commercial and creative advantages of going down this route?

Full control over all the creative aspects would be the main advantage of going independent. We managed to publish the book that we wanted, without having to compromise. Also not having to find and relate to a big publishing house gave us the freedom to skip some steps and put our book on the market as soon as it was ready, as well as getting in touch with our potential audience directly. It’s been a test and learning process, and we are fully in charge of it.

By having our product out there we are collecting first-hand feedback. We can observe how readers are reacting to the book, and what targets and markets are more interested. This way we can make more informed choices about the next steps, both creatively and commercially.

Ultimately, owning 100% of the rights and the intellectual property of the project, we can be more flexible in making decisions and adjustments.

What are the challenges of independently publishing, and how are you overcoming them?

Going independent requires patience, time and some money to invest. We were all aware when we started this project that it was going to be a long road. When you publish an independent book, your creation will immediately get lost on a virtual shelf presenting hundreds of thousands of other books. It takes time (and some technicalities) to create visibility, reach readers, gain followers and accumulate reviews.

When you go live with the first book, you start from 0—and then you start capitalizing on each little step of growth that you manage to achieve. Entering this competitive arena you need to be aware that the first two, three publications will be an investment. Luckily enough we all have other jobs, and we could invest money, time and expertise in Gwenna Luna, creating the right conditions for it to grow organically. And so far, we are very happy and pleased with the results.

What is the market like for horror fiction? Do you foresee potential for strong commercial growth?

We think it’s a genre that never goes out of fashion, but we wanted to approach it with a more modern and contemporary touch. We see a growing demand for entertainment based on horror and ghost story anthologies: movies, TV Series, podcasts. Think of big hits such as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Lovecraft Country, American Horror Stories or Fear Street. There is a hunger for horror in this ‘story’ format. And all of these projects have something in common: they are strong stories but, most of all, they are strong brands that can be adapted to different media. When we started working on Gwenna Luna this ‘horror story fever’ hadn’t started yet—but is a nice confirmation that our initial intuition was right.

What is your role in bringing the Gwenna Luna brand to life?

I’d say “brand” is the keyword! Coming from the digital communication field, branding and storytelling are major parts of my everyday job routine. And even when I’m working on more creative and independent projects, I still believe that a good story, a recognizable package and a set of well-communicated values can help reach more people and create that kind of emotional link.

I always say to my clients and partners, “When you go digital, people are not there waiting for your product, regardless of how good it is. No one will be automatically interested just because you think it’s good”. Branding for me is a way to fill in that gap. It’s about wondering, “How will my product make people’s life better? How can I get their attention? How can I tell them that we share the same beliefs? How will I make them feel seen, understood?”

When the author, Guenther Primig, first asked me to work on this project, he had this series of incredible ghost stories that didn’t have a connection between them. I knew his work already and thought it had a very good commercial potential. Therefore I gave him a challenge: what if we create a strong character with a strong story to glue together all of this incredible material? Someone that people can relate to, that can add that extra emotional and personal perspective to the stories, and that can be the starting point for something a bit bigger than a single publication. I was a bit worried at first, because I’ve worked with creatives before and I know how sensitive they can be regarding their own creations. But my suggestion immediately resonated with Guenther, and actually gave him the input to be even more creative with his writing. We had to wonder who do we want to read these stories, and to what type of character would they relate to? This is how our anti-hero, Gwenna, was born.

The other part was to create an appealing, high-end product and package. I’ve been working with top brands for the past 15 years, and I wanted to apply that way of working to this project. My philosophy has always been, “No matter if just one person sees your product, that one person must be happy with it and want to share it with others”. And that’s how I approached  this project.

How long have you been working on the Gwenna Luna brand, and how has this all come together into the product we see now?

We started working on this project in winter 2018, and the first book, horror anthology The Dark Book of Gwenna Luna: Six Dreams of the Supernatural, was online one year later. It was a long process. When Guenther asked me to work on this project, I immediately thought there was a very good commercial potential. But I had never worked on digital books before, so the first step was to do some research on the market in order to understand what was the best strategy. I didn’t want to be naïve or overconfident approaching a completely new field.

In the meantime, Guenther started working on the Gwenna Luna character, her story, and  the frames for the first anthology.

Then we moved forward to give a face to Gwenna and the other characters from the first book. We decided to collaborate with Rory Midhani, a British artist living in Berlin whom we both knew and appreciated. Rory did a wonderful job in translating Guenther’s stories into visuals.

The last part was to create a branded image for the first book and, overall, for the Gwenna Luna project. We decided to work with Peterman, a Milan-based communication agency. I’ve worked with them in the past for other high-end commercial projects, and I knew they knew how to do branding  in a tasteful and creative fashion. They worked on the logo and the designs of the first book.

After some months of work, what was just an idea was a fully realized book, and we all couldn’t be happier with the final product.

As a collective, what would you say is your shared business philosophy and driving force?

We all come from different professional backgrounds, and we are all successful in what we do. Gwenna Luna is a creative output where we can experiment and capitalize with what we’ve learned somewhere else, in an independent and creative environment. We all approached this project putting our ‘A game’ in, but also knowing that this time we were at the steering wheel. We all wanted to tell a story, to do it in the best way, and we all agreed on the fact that ultimately it had to be interesting for our potential readers out there.

What has the feedback for the Gwenna Luna series been like so far?

In terms of numbers, we are happy and satisfied with how things are rolling. It was not easy, but without any support we managed to distribute over 2,000 copies of the book worldwide. It’s like a snowball effect: you start from 0 and every review, every share, every comment will bring more visibility and, consequently, more sales. Sales are accelerating as we go on, so we’re picking up steam.

What we didn’t know was how people were going to react—and that has been overwhelmingly good. Reviews are very positive, and readers are getting in touch with us saying how much they loved the book, the Gwenna character, and the single stories. That’s what really makes us think that we are onto something very good.

What would you define as business ‘success’.

It may sound cheesy, but if even one person reading this book felt seen or understood, that’s a big success for us. Then, obviously, we wouldn’t mind a Gwenna Luna Netflix series.

The Graveyard of Gwenna Luna: Six More Dreams from the Dark Book by Guenther Primig is published Barksin and is available now on Amazon, priced £7.28 in paperback, and £4.36 as an eBook. The Dark Book of Gwenna Luna: Six Dreams of the Supernatural is also available on Amazon, priced £7.28 in paperback, £2.30 as an eBook, and £12.07 as an audiobook. For more information visit www.GwennaLuna.com or follow Barksin on Instagram at @gwennaluna.