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 she contacted 12 agents with her genre-crossing crime novel Holy Island, 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.