A Tiny Minneapolis Publishing House and the Horror Novella They Can’t Keep on the Shelves
Eric LaRocca's 'Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke' is gruesome, haunting, and huge on Twitter and TikTok.
8:22 AM CDT on September 10, 2021
A gruesomely beautiful book has bombarded my Instagram feed for the last few months. Its cover features a painting of a person resembling a gory, melted crayon—a stark contrast to the pleasant pastels and scenery typical to book posts on the platform. The image is often paired with an equally haunting line: “What have you done today to deserve your eyes?”
The book in question is Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, a 2021 title from author Eric LaRocca. It’s a short horror story that takes place exclusively online, in chatrooms of the early 2000s. One lonely woman sells a family heirloom to another, and the two dive into a whirlwind of toxic self-disclosure. Critics agree: It’s not for the faint of heart.
That hasn’t stopped it from going viral. It may have even helped.Things Have Gotten Worse has sold more than 20,000 copies, making it by far the most successful release to date for Weirdpunk Books, the Minneapolis-based DIY horror imprint that published it.
Founded in 2015 by Emma Alice Johnson and Sam Richard, Weirdpunk Books initially focused on anthologies like The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg and Blood For You: A Literary Tribute to GG Allin.
In 2017, Richard’s wife Mo unexpectedly passed away. Mo was a huge supporter of the press, and after some time away, Richard returned to complete the anthology Zombie Punks Fuck Off in 2018. Shortly after, Johnson parted with Weirdpunk, leaving sole ownership to Richard.
Last year, with Richard at the helm, Weirdpunk started publishing horror novellas. Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, released this June, was the indie publisher’s seventh short and spooky release.
So why—and how—did this independently published epistolary novel gain so much recognition? Their next best-selling title has sold around 500 or 600 copies. It’s a question Weirdpunk gets from other indie writers and publishing houses all the time. And Richard… well, he doesn’t really know.
“Here's the hard truth: I have no idea,” he says. “Well, I have some idea, but the answer has less to do with anything I did.”
Richard says author Eric LaRocca is “an amazing writer” on the rise. He points to the “incredible and haunting” cover, which he thinks drew lots of readers in, especially on platforms as visual as TikTok or Instagram. And he adds that the story has an interesting premise.
“But beyond that—and those are all things I can say about any of the authors I've worked with and titles I've published—I just think it hit that wind that every author and publisher hopes to hit.”
That wind, here, could more accurately be called “the algorithm”—but before we get there, let’s talk about that hard-to-forget cover. It’s a painting by Kim Jakobsson called Passing Oxygen, which Richard and LaRocca agreed “was perfect.”
“At [the time of the pre-order announcement] we also revealed the cover, and it kind of blew up on Twitter,” Richard says. The release was gaining traction only a few days after the announcement, though he adds that the sales didn’t start to spike for another week or so.
“The pre-order was only in the Weirdpunk Store, so it grew there for a couple of weeks, but everything got really intense once it was available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and whatnot. And then it just didn’t slow down.”
The cover may have sparked the initial interest, but the popularity really started to swell once Book Twitter, Bookstagram, and especially BookTok got a hold of it.
Social media spheres have proven to massively affect best seller’s lists and publishing trends—for better or worse—but so far TikTok seems to be the platform that really moves books. Some Barnes and Noble locations have started setting up tables for BookTok’s popular titles, and there’s a “BookTok” section on their site. “There is no corresponding Instagram or Twitter table, however, because no other social-media platform seems to move copies the way TikTok does,” the New York Times reported earlier this year.
Still, Weirdpunk isn’t the sort of publisher you’d expect to get so much attention. The posts gaining the most traction on my timeline are ones featuring Sally Rooney novels, memes, and merch, or things like Madeline Miller’s Greek mythology retelling from 2010, The Song of Achilles. (On TikTok and Instagram, that’s one often accompanied with sobbing selfies.) There’s the raunchy rom-com One Last Stop, discourse over countless classics like The Bell Jar and Lolita, and a swarm of readers encountering titles like The Virgin Suicides via Instagram book clubs in the vein of “The Hot Girl Book Club” and “sad twenty-something book club.”
LaRocca’s novella has thrived online in spite of that. The most-liked TikTok under the #horrorbooks tag is 3 Books Guaranteed to Disturb You, with 260,500 likes. “This is a book that made me almost lose sleep,” the poster promises. “It follows these two women that engage in this BDSM relationship in 2000, so between emails and IMS, and has one of the most haunting endings I've ever read. This one will mess you up for sure.”
“This was like 100 pages—I read it in an hour,” @booksinthefreezer says. “I just could not put it down.” One of the most repeated phrases from folks reviewing LaRocca’s novella is “what the fuck did I just read?”
Some reviewers have called it “lesbian trauma porn” written by a cis man, but participants in that discourse often misgender LaRocca, who is queer and nonbinary and writes queer characters in a genre they didn’t feel represented in growing up. LaRocca is on TikTok too, where they acknowledge: “People seem to either love it or hate it.”
LaRocca's point about queer representation is important for Richard and Weirdpunk, too: "Representation in horror—that's a whole big thing for me. I'm bi, Emma is trans, and though she's no longer a part of the press, the spirit has always been queer due to who she is." He adds that their novellas are mostly written by LGBTQ+ writers.
As I was writing this story, yet another tweet about Things Have Gotten Worse went viral: “Have absolutely zero input on the quality of the book itself but this a hell of a cover/title combination.” Weirdpunk quickly sold out their inventory.
Bookstagram and Book Twitter are weird, passive-aggressive, and often performative corners of the internet. But these are communities that sell a fuck ton of books.
A slick publicity strategy and a big marketing budget can sometimes reel in a flock of new readers. The unpredictability of TikTok and Twitter—where virality is due to some incalculable alchemy of timing and circumstance—works in favor of small presses like Weirdpunk. Their marketing plan for this book? Send a few copies to reviewers who were excited about it. It’s what they always do.
The premise of Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is enticing; its back-cover promises “sadomasochism,” “obsession,” and “death.” The chatroom setting strikes a chord of nostalgia and gets at the weirdness that was (and still is) corresponding with strangers online. The novella starts dark and keeps you guessing, and it’s short—the kind of slim volume you can pick up and read in a few hours.
If I had to guess why this is the first Weirdpunk release to gain so much attention, I’d guess those attributes are part of the formula for success, along with its striking cover and that ominous title. The well-circulated promise to feel changed after reading it—grossed out, unable to sleep—probably pulled in some curious readers. There are always bonus points if tears and/or fear are involved. (It’s physiological: The rush of being scared raises your adrenaline and leaves you with a sense of calm and relief.)
The trick for Weirdpunk now will be turning that interest into ongoing support. Loyalty to a publisher can look like subscribing to the newsletter to stay on top of author events and new releases, retweeting or sharing their content to spread the word, or participating in a “sub club,” a yearly or seasonal book subscription. Indie publishers have a lot to gain by going viral, but it’s a hard thing to do with any kind of consistency.
Richard says Weirdpunk’s newfound success is surreal. “I keep telling people that we hit punk gold, as that's what it's jokingly referred to when punk albums sell 20,000 copies.”
Part of him knows that eventually the sales will start to fade, but they just… haven’t yet. “It's a little scary, too. Like it means that this weird thing I've been working on for years is capable of growing beyond the small, amazing sphere of fans that we have.”
Richard is taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to his newfound success. Despite having more eyes on Weirdpunk, he plans to continue conducting business as usual, though he might up the number of subscriptions for 2022 novellas from 30 by a bit.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is available on Weirdpunk’s store, as is its most recent release, To Offer Her Pleasure by Ali Seay, and the rest of their short horror and anthology titles. A “multi-stabber tarot” deck—something Mo worked on for years that was lovingly finished by Richard and her friends and family—is available on the site as well. Eric LaRocca’s debut short story collection The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales was recently published by Off Limits Press, a woman-owned boutique horror press.
And in November, Weirdpunk is accepting submissions for an upcoming anthology titled Stories of the Eye, edited by Sam Richard and Joanna Koch. They’re seeking horror stories “that explore the complex relationships between artists and models. Go beyond the male gaze. Show us the queer gaze, the disabled gaze, the un-colonialized gaze, the intergalactic gaze.”
Go ahead: Send them your weirdest. It just might be the next book to blow up the algorithm.
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