Stephen Leather is a name to reckon with. Just look at his self-published eBook sales stats, which put traditional publishers to shame. In the latest in a series of interviews exploring the shifting ground in publishing Pulp Pusher spoke to Leather about outselling Lee Child, and more besides.
PULP PUSHER: You seem to have landed the title 'self-publishing pioneer', do you like the tag or does it feel like a distraction from your previous publishing successes?
STEPHEN LEATHER: I think it’s a fair tag considering that I’ve been the most successful self-publisher in the UK. No one has sold more self-published eBooks than me in the UK. And Lee Child is the only British author who sold more eBooks than me on Kindle worldwide last year and 1) he doesn’t self-publish and 2) most of his sales were in the US. I don’t think it distracts from my mainstream success at all – it’s just that I have found an alternative way of reaching readers.
For those coming to your work for the first time, give us a quick bio ...
Former journalist turned writer with more than thirty novels under his belt. Check out my website, www.stephenleather.com I have written 25 novels which are published by Hodder and Stoughton. Of those 14 are stand alone thrillers, eight are in my Spider Shepherd undercover cop series, and three are in my Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series. I have also self-published two novels in Thailand (as paperbacks and eBooks) and a further four books solely as eBooks. I have also published eight short stories as eBooks. My self-published eBooks are Once Bitten (a vampire novel), The Basement (a serial killer novella), Dreamer’s Cat (a science fiction murder mystery) and The Bestseller (a crime novella set in the world of ePublishing).
There are a few brand-name authors (Jackie Collins springs to mind) who are now looking at self-publishing but what prompted you to take this route long before the others?
I saw it coming and not many writers did. I knew that the number of e-readers in the United Kingdom would double on Christmas Day 2010. One in twelve adults in Britain would be receiving an e-reader as a Christmas present and I realised that they would be looking for cheap eBooks to buy.
What I did was to put three of my unpublished books – The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat - on Kindle in late October. I spent November and December marketing the books so that on Christmas Day I had all three in the Top 5 of the Kindle Bestseller list. Come Christmas morning some three million people got a Kindle as their Christmas present – and that’s why I sold 7,000 copies on Christmas Day, another 5,000 on Boxing Day, and 44,000 in December as a whole.
It was a total one-off and will almost certainly never be repeated. It happened because back then there were very few writers self-publishing. Plus I was selling them at the lowest price that Amazon would allow. Plus I was able to produce a professional product - well written, well-edited and with well-designed covers.
You've enjoyed remarkable success with your eBooks - tell us a little about that.
I’ve sold more than half a million eBooks, but that is split between my self-published eBooks and the eBooks that my publisher Hodder and Stoughton have been selling.
In 2011 I sold more than 150,000 copies of The Basement through the UK Kindle store, more than 80,000 copies of Once Bitten and almost 20,000 copies of Dreamer’s Cat. Hodder have sold more than 120,000 copies of the eBook of Hard Landing, the first in the Spider Shepherd series, plus another 40,000 or so of my backlist.
Amazon then took over The Basement and Once Bitten and published them through their Amazon Encore imprint. Early this year The Basement topped the US and UK Kindle charts.
It's safe to say the old stigma attached to self-publishing seems irrelevant now but did it concern you at the outset?
Never. I’ve always been a big fan of self-publishing. I really hate the way so many of today’s self-published writers call themselves “Indies” , as if they were ashamed of calling themselves “self-published”. I try not to use the term “Indie”. There’s nothing wrong with describing a book as “self-published”. Books that were self-published include Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of things Past, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Beatrix Potter’s The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.
I’m a writer and my mission in life is to write – and sell – as many books as I can. I really don’t care how those books are sold. I don’t know anyone who has as many legs to their publishing career as me. I self publish paperbacks in Asia, printing books and delivering them to retailers. I have a traditional publishing deal with Hodder and Stoughton. I self-publish eBooks through Amazon and Smashwords, and Amazon publish five of my books. That was quite deliberate – it’s a bit like going to the roulette table and betting on zero, double zero, black and red. Whatever happens, I’m going to win. It works for me because I have a backlist of thirty novels and am capable of producing three or more novels a year. It wouldn’t work for everyone. In a way the timing was perfect for me – I’m old enough to have a long backlist but young enough to be able to produce a lot more books. A young writer starting out doesn’t have a backlist, and a writer at the end of their career doesn’t have the energy to do what is necessary to succeed in the new world of ePublishing.
How did your traditional publishers take to your ePublishing ventures?
I was lucky in that Hodder and Stoughton have been very supportive from the start and they were quick to realise that success in the eBook market would spill over to increased sales of my Hodder books. That is exactly what has happened – selling cheap (but good) eBooks has brought in thousands of new readers who have gone on to my the rest of my books. In effect my low-priced eBooks have been a marketing tool, though it’s fair to say that they have also turned into a decent revenue stream, too.
The self-published books of mine that did really well – selling 350,000 eBooks in total – were The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat. But Hodder and Stoughton did just as well with my first Spider Shepherd book, Hard Landing, selling around 150,000 copies of the eBook.
Some of your successes were with books that had been rejected traditional presses: do you see that as a failing on their part?
Not really. The three books – Once Bitten, The Basement and Dreamer’s Cat – were really novellas and therefore unlikely to be published traditionally. Even if Hodder had published them I doubt that they would have sold many.
How do you think the traditional publishing world is coping with the shift towards eBooks?
Not well, so far. I don’t think they understand pricing for example. They don’t get that readers are not happy about paying more for an eBook than a paperback. And they don’t understand the importance of marketing. They think that the key to success is still an article in The Guardian’s book pages and it’s not. Those days are gone. The readers have moved to the internet and if the publishing companies don’t follow they will lose them.
Is publishing in a healthy state?
They’re still making money. People are still buying books. Whether that continues to be the case remains to be seen. For sure the publishers that don’t adapt will go to the wall, there’s no question of that. Ditto bookstores. And that’s especially true for agents. The ones that don’t adapt will die. Writers are the ones most likely to benefit from ePublishing because for the first time they can pretty much deal direct with readers. To be honest it’s not ePublishing that I fear it’s the fact that a growing percentage of our country don’t – or can’t - read books. That’s the real threat that writers face.
How do you feel about agents moving into publishing?
Agents are getting desperate, which is why they are looking at publishing eBooks. Agents aren't publishers, so no writer should think about using an agent as a publisher. They don't have the skills or the staff.
And what about the sale of translation rights, we need specialist agents for that unless you're looking at authors taking on the translating side too, is that an option?
So far as eBook translation rights go, you can deal with overseas publishers yourself. No need to pay an agent 15 per cent!
:: Find out more about Stephen Leather at: http://www.stephenleather.com/