Leather’s Thrillers Fire Kindle Rivalry With Stieg Larsson

Stephen Leather
Stephen Leather, one of the U.K.'s most successful thriller writers. He says he has added thousands of sales by publishing his books online. Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Two names dominate the Kindle U.K. Top 20 for electronic book sales: Stieg Larsson -- the late Swedish author whose “Millennium Trilogy” has sold 53 million copies around the world -- and Stephen Leather.

Stephen who?

Leather, 54, is a British thriller writer who has sold about 2.5 million books in more than two decades. He’s a former journalist who worked on the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and the Times and other newspapers before becoming a full-time author. The idea that propelled him to the pinnacle of electronic sales came last August after Amazon.com Inc. opened a U.K. Kindle store.

“I heard that the Kindle was about to become the most gifted Christmas present of all time: On Christmas Day, hundreds of thousands of people would be opening their presents and discovering that they had a Kindle,” he said over a lunch of fish soup and steak pie at Corrigan’s Mayfair.

“When you buy a Kindle, there are no books on it: It’s just a device for downloading them. So it occurred to me that if I could get books ready on the U.K. store, I would benefit from the huge growth we’d see on Christmas Day,” said Leather, who was born in Manchester and retains his northern English accent.

(It’s fair to say that Leather has a reputation for being enterprising. When we worked together in Hong Kong on the South China Morning Post more than 20 years ago, he was writing novels while the rest of us were spending our nights in bars just talking about becoming writers. He’s also not publicity shy: He’s talked about his sales online, attracting the attention of the Observer and other newspapers.)

Internet Buzz

Leather repackaged three books he was giving away on his website and put them on Kindle at Amazon’s minimum price for independent authors, 71 pence, which equates to $1.15. He persuaded his publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, to put another of his books, “Hard Landing,” online. Leather started Internet discussions about the books to create buzz and generate sales.

“The Kindle U.K. store had only just opened and the forums were quite small,” Leather said. “If you started a thread about your books, that would stay on the main forum page for two days, three days. Try it now and you’re off that main page in an hour because there are so many new threads. It worked: Within two weeks, I had three books in the Top 20 out of 600,000.

Click, Click

“On Christmas Day, I had Nos. 1, 2, 5 and I think 12 or 14 -- four in the Top 20,” he said. “Everybody opened their presents and what do you do? The first book you buy will be your Stephen King, your Jeff Deaver, your John Grisham, Stieg Larsson -- who had numbers 1, 2 and 3 before I started -- but you buy the new Stephen King, you’re talking about seven quid (pounds) and suddenly in the Top 20 you see four of my books all priced at 71 pence (49 pence for Hodder’s) and people were buying all four, click, click, click, click.

“On Christmas Day alone, I sold 7,000 copies. Boxing Day (Dec. 26), I sold 5,000. Now, in March, I’m still selling those three books between 1,100 and 1,500 every day. The whole of December, I sold 44,000 of those three and total earnings from my e-books were about 11,000 pounds for one month.

“This is the beauty of the business model: It’s a small amount of money but because you’re selling so many -- for the ones that sell for 71 pence I get about 20 pence, 22 pence -- when you’re selling as I am now, 1,200 say, it’s about 8,000 pounds a month.”

(Sales of Leather’s books are dwarfed by those of the American writer Amanda Hocking, who dominates Kindle in the U.S. Leather, who is in touch with Hocking via Facebook, said that she sold 450,000 books in January alone.)

Download Wave

Leather said he’s riding a wave of book-downloading and his sales of what he referred to as “dead-tree books” also have risen. His latest thriller, “Midnight” -- part two of a trilogy -- is up about 7 percent on the predecessor, he said.

As of March 9, Leather held the No. 2 and 3 slots on Kindle U.K. with “The Basement” and “Hard Landing,” with “Once Bitten” at No. 10. Larsson occupied places 4, 5 and 6.

“Stieg’s got a problem because so many people have read his books and he’s not writing anymore,” Leather said. “I am pulling in readers who have never read my stuff. I’ve never read anything by Stieg. I can’t read them because I’d steal from them. I don’t plagiarize but I always use what I read.”

“The other thing is, I can’t read a thriller for pleasure anymore because I know the tricks. I know that if somebody puts a gun in a drawer on page 15, somebody’s going to take it out and shoot somebody before the end of the book. You just know, because why has it been mentioned otherwise?”

Stephen Leather’s latest book, “Midnight,” is published by Hodder & Stoughton with a cover price of 12.99 pounds.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)


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