When Keith Houghton bought his four-bedroom detached house earlier this year, he did a rare thing for an author: he paid cash, with earnings from his books.
Keith who, you may ask? Houghton is one of a handful of so-called “hidden” bestsellers: his self-published crime thrillers are ebooks, sales of which are not monitored by the UK’s official book charts (if they don’t have ISBNs, which self-published titles often don’t).
Houghton made his money over the past six years by selling more than 500,000 books, chiefly through his Gabe Quinn series of thrillers. In a world in which traditionally published authors struggle to make £7,000 a year from their work, it is no wonder Houghton says: “I feel like I have won the lottery.”
And he is not alone. A handful of writers who top the Kindle charts, including LJ Ross and Rachel Abbott, have also defied rejections from publishers and agents to knock out seven-figure sales for their brand of crime and thriller writing. This, in a market where it only takes around 3,000 sales to top the hardback charts.
Houghton’s story is typical of many self-published writers: after notching up more than 100 rejection slips, the Lancashire-based computer repairman decided to self-publish his first Quinn novel, Killing Hope. Mending computers in Leigh may have made him seem an odd fit for hardboiled crime set in LA; at first, readers seemed to think so, as he struggled to sell even a handful of copies online. So Houghton gave them away instead. Within a day, Killing Hope had been downloaded 25,000 times.
“I was stunned,” he recalls – although his shock was as much at the thought that he had given away £25,000 in profits. “But once it reverted back to being paid for, it started to get traction in the charts and within three months, it had sold in to six figures,” he says. “I’m still quite shocked.”
For avid reader and former City lawyer Ross, writing was a distraction during her maternity leave. After her genre-crossing crime novel Holy Island was rejected by 15 agents, she had a couple of potential offers on the table. “But when I looked at the terms of the contract, my husband asked if I had thought of publishing through Kindle, because the terms for authors seemed far more favourable,” she says.
Her husband was not wrong: while the average traditionally published author earns only about 7.5% of the cover price on every book sold, Amazon’s self-publishing division, Kindle Direct, pays 70% of sale price. So independent authors who know how to push themselves can take home £1 a copy. For writers such as Ross, whose sales over five books have now topped 900,000, this is a tidy sum.
She also enjoys the freedom her independent status gives her. “As a writer, I feel uninhibited about what I write,” she explains. “I like that. I can write what comes to mind.” Reading her work, it does seem unlikely her stories would have got past the average editor. What would a publisher do with a crossover of The Wicker Man and Inspector Morse? Where would a bookseller place a novel that spans crime, romance and humour?
Agent Lizzy Kremer says the freedom to write outside genre norms was why agents and publishers once kept a close eye on self-published authors, as digital downloads were effective tests for readers’ appetites. Amazon had identified the “gap in the market for authors writing books that publishers didn’t feel able to publish”, explains Kremer, whose clients include The Girl on the Train writer Paula Hawkins. This meant that interesting work without the obvious commercial potential that publishers require as a guarantee suddenly had a chance.
But there is a caveat. To be a self-published bestseller demands authors become more hustler than ink slinger. Abbott, one of Kremer’s few self-published clients, was 59 when she published Only the Innocent, the first of seven psychological thrillers that have collectively sold more than 2m copies. But the Mancunian is no typical late starter: she was already a multimillionaire after the sale of her media company 17 years ago, so she not only had the time to devote to writing and publicising, but the nous to do it using her own 27-page marketing plan. “I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week for three months. I worked through book bloggers, wrote articles and question-and-answer pieces, and asked people to review the book,” she recalls.
It is hard to imagine that many writers would be able, never mind prepared, to make such a commitment. Even Abbott has not kept it up: in the US she has published two of her books with one of Amazon’s traditional publishing divisions, Thomas & Mercer – a crime and thriller imprint that now handles all the extra tasks Abbott handled herself, from jacket design to editing.
Abbott, Houghton or Ross may be a dying breed, though. As Hollywood once co-opted the independent cinema boom, conglomerate publishers have rushed into a digital book market that was once ruled by individual writers armed with no more than a PC and an idea. As a result of their influence, Kremer says, the market has become “the domain of the derivative”: the biggest self-published titles – often thrillers – are all beginning to look awfully familiar.
For an industry that is supposedly the playground for risk takers, it is a sad thought that self-publishing may in the future be dictated by the same thinking that drives the traditional publishers: prioritising risk avoidance over experimental and unique writing, always scrambling to keep up with rivals by pumping out imitations of every “surprise” success: Gone Girl, Fifty Shades, The Da Vinci Code and The Girl on the Train.
As Kremer says: “It is often the market outliers that become the biggest hits, those books that come out of leftfield and offer something readers have been unconsciously waiting for”. How many of those will be by “hidden” authors? That remains to be seen.