Meet the bestselling author you’ve never heard of.
Former barrister LJ Ross is one of a generation of novelists who have ditched their day jobs and self-published online.
February 10 2017,
If you were to name Britain’s most successful novelists today, who would you choose? Ian McEwan perhaps, or Hilary Mantel, or Kazuo Ishiguro or Zadie Smith. If you like crime, Ian Rankin or Val McDermid. For something more commercial, how about David Nicholls or Paula Hawkins — she seems to be doing quite well. And let’s not forget about LJ Ross.
Who? Quite. It was Ross who in 2015 knocked Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train off the No 1 spot in the Kindle bestsellers charts with her first novel, Holy Island. Since then she has sold more than 750,000 books, making her one of the platform’s bestselling authors — late last year she was selling more than 10,000 books every day. For anyone who doesn’t read ebooks, her name won’t mean a thing, because Louise (LJ) Ross, the “queen of Kindle”, is self-published.
What’s the worst-case scenario? I upload it and nobody likes it?
For years self-published authors were discredited as amateurs who lacked the talent to land a traditional book deal. Increasingly, however, more and more novelists choose to publish their work themselves, not because they have to, but because it offers a better deal.
Ross was a barrister who wanted a career change and ended up writing a book. Now she is the writer of a string of “cosy” romantic suspense thrillers, which hardly sound like the sort of books to rival the psychological thrillers that so dominate the charts. She describes them as “old-fashioned whodunnits” in the vein of Agatha Christie, starring her hero DCI Ryan.
Ross, 32, has a gentle Northumberland accent and is softly spoken. As she explains her success to me, her tone is somewhere between surprised and apologetic. She could have gone down the traditional publisher route — she had received “some really nice feedback and an offer or two”. However, when a contract came through, she couldn’t bring herself to sign it. “I don’t know if it’s the bullish former lawyer in me, but I kept looking at it and thinking: ‘Why am I not signing this?’ ” she tells me over coffee in London. So she took a different path.
The “J” in LJ Ross stands for James, the name of her husband, who was the first to suggest she publish her books through Kindle Direct Publishing. Amazon’s ebook self-publishing platform, so the sell goes, gives authors control over the publishing process, from the content of the book to its design and price, and allows them to earn up to 70 per cent royalty on sales.
“Even with just a cursory glance, I could see it was hugely more favourable to authors and there was no question of relinquishing that creative control. There was absolutely nothing to lose. What’s the worst case scenario — I upload it and nobody likes it? Well, there’s nothing lost and we just keep trying.”
The former BBC journalist turned writer Alex Gerlis turned to self-publishing after knockbacks from publishers
On January 1, 2015, Ross hit “publish” on Holy Island. By May she had knocked The Girl on the Train off the No 1 spot in the Kindle bestsellers chart and her books have stayed in the Top 20 pretty much since. While Ross won’t say what she’s earning, she admits, with typical understatement, that “it has worked for me” — to the extent that she has been able to give up her job to write full-time, and she and her family have moved to a beautiful house in Bath. You can do the maths: 750,000 copies sold at about £3 to £4 is a healthy sum. Of course, because Nielsen BookScan, the trusted source for book sales, does not include Kindle or other ebook sales, she’s never counted among the year’s bestselling titles.
It’s easy to be snobby about ebooks — and there are many reasons why you might be: the quality is extremely variable and relies in part on a reader being willing to take a punt on a few; and books can be given away to boost their position in the charts. A good book isn’t necessarily one with complex plots and beautifully crafted sentences. Over the past few years ebooks have launched the careers of EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey), Lisa Genova (Still Alice), and Andy Weir, whose novel The Martian became a film starring Matt Damon.
In Amazon’s Kindle ebook chart, the bestselling books are, no surprise, psychological thrillers, including one Girl on a Train [see what they did there?] by AJ Waines. Cynical marketing? Not at all: the twist to this tale is that the former psychotherapist had published her novel a couple of years before Hawkins’s similarly titled book. She then benefited from its huge success. “I’m making more money than I ever have before,” said an excited Waines after her book suddenly shot up the charts. Readers must have enjoyed it too because it has remained up there and has nearly 950 four or five-star reviews.
Independent publishing has also allowed communities ignored by traditional publishers to flourish. I speak to Clare Lydon, who tells me that she is part of a flourishing group of lesbian romance novelists. “The stuff that tends to get published with lesbian protagonists in the UK tends to be literary or historical fiction, ie Jeanette Winterson or Sarah Waters. What I write is chick lit with lesbian protagonists,” she tells me. “Traditional publishers focus on protagonists who are white, straight — they are risk-averse and they think lesbian fiction won’t sell as much. And if you slap the word ‘lesbian’ on a book, they’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a market for it, because there is.” Lydon, who published her first novel in 2014, is proof of this: she has published six novels that have sold about 50,000 copies.
Self-publishing also worked for Mark Dawson, who became disillusioned with traditional publishing after his early novels flopped. After receiving a five-figure advance from a major publisher for his first two books, he was surprised when neither were promoted. So the former lawyer decided he would have more success if he did the work himself.
Dawson writes, among other things, a series of novels about an assassin named John Milton. Though “writes” feels like too gentle a word for Dawson’s output: since 2012, he has produced 24 books. He typically punches out 3,000 words a day; on a very good day he can produce as many as 7,000. And in 2014, which he calls his breakthrough year, he published “about one million words, a bit more than the Harry Potter books”.
In November 2014, Dawson left his job to write full-time, because why would you be a highly paid lawyer when you could be an exceptionally well-paid author? “In January, I was making about what I made at work — £3,000 to £4,000 a month after tax. Towards the end of the year, it was in the high five figures every month. By the end of the year, I was earning in the high six figures [a year] — it wasn’t miles off £1 million.”
Writing his books has become “like a cottage industry”: he pays an editor, proofreader and cover designer to check his books, and because of the close contact he has with his audience has built up a team of early readers, many of whom are experts in the subjects he writes about, who check the book for accuracy and realism.
Such is his success that Dawson also runs courses under the brand Self Publishing Formula to help others make it. “I gave a talk at the London Book Fair a couple of years ago and someone asked me how long I spent writing every day. I said: ‘Half and half: half the day is spent writing, half marketing.’ And she said: ‘So you’re not a full-time writer then?’ Which I think is the stupidest comment I had heard all day.”
If you’re going to be a success, you “have to be two people at once. You have to be the writer and get the words down, then you’ve got to know to take off your writer’s hat and put on your business hat. And this is why self-publishing is not for everybody.” You also have to lure readers in: “I give away quite a lot of stuff,” he says. “If you sign up to my mailing list, you get the first two books in the Milton series free — you need to shoot them a pill to get them to sign up. But I know that when you start reading my books they’re quite ‘hooky’ and I have lots of other books for you to buy. Readers on average buy ten of my books.”
Then there’s his Facebook page, where he keeps his readers up to date with his books and what is going on in his life. “You want to take someone from being a customer to being a reader, then a fan and in the end you should consider them friends.”
Ross chooses to publish her work via Kindle because it offers a better deal and more control.
Not everyone who succeeds has Dawson’s level of self-belief. The former BBC journalist Alex Gerlis was inspired to write his series of espionage thrillers after he reported from Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Years later, when his agent sent his first book to publishers, the feedback they received was, “We like the book very much much but we already have a Second World War espionage thriller on the books and we don’t think there’s room for another.” The market, it turned out, could handle it. Rather than wait, Gerlis and his agent found an alternative by publishing through Kindle. His two books have become a word-of-mouth success, selling nearly 100,000 copies; he tells me he earns about £1 a book.
For many readers, myself included, there is still a suspicion around books that seem to be self-published. How are you meant to separate the good from the bad? Gerlis, who prefers the term independent author to self-published, suggests that many ebooks succeed because, ultimately, good writing will out. Plus, the process his writing goes through isn’t all that different to that which a printed book would go through. His meticulously researched work not only passes through an agent at Curtis Brown, the company that represents John le Carré, Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, but an editor and proofreaders too. The only difference, as he sees it, is the final platform. Would he ever want to have his books published by a traditional publisher? No, he tells me. He’s found a formula and it works — why break it?
For the ebook sceptics, there are, increasingly, digital-only publishers who are “professionalising” the process. Among the more successful British businesses are Canelo and Bookouture, which was founded in 2012 by Oliver Rhodes, who used to be the head of marketing at the romance and women’s fiction publishing house Harlequin.
I speak to Michael Bhaskar, Canelo’s publishing director,who believes that traditional publishers too often made digital publishing an afterthought. “They would always prioritise the print edition and we felt that for loads of genres that was wrong,” he says. “We wanted to create a publisher that really took digital publishing seriously and would have that dedication at its core. We could do all the good things that a traditional publisher would do — offering strong marketing, good editing and book jackets.”
Because there would be no printing costs, warehouse costs or returns, they could “also offer a better deal to the author as well”, Bhaskar says. The publisher offers authors royalties of 50 to 60 per cent. With a traditional publisher, you might get an advance of a few thousand on your book and royalties of about 10 per cent.
As any author knows, in that way you need to sell a lot of books to make ends meet. Only this week Donal Ryan, the Irish novelist whose The Spinning Heart (2012) was longlisted for the Booker Prize, confessed that he earned only about 40 cents (34p) a book and that he had to return to his job in the civil service to pay his mortgage.
When ebooks started to come out, Bhaskar says, people believed that the sort of books that had succeeded in print would also succeed as ebooks. Not so: “What we don’t see working very well in the ebook world is nonfiction and literary fiction. Neither of those have really ever taken off. What you see is commercial and genre fiction that really does work. We’ve actually discovered an unexpected market for military thrillers.” It wasn’t what he had expected, but the readers voted with their wallets and Canelo was able to adapt quickly to corner the market with authors including Sean McFate (yes, that is his actual name), Ben Coes, Will Jordan and James Barrington.
This makes ebooks sound like a shortcut to wealth and riches, but that isn’t the case. For all the protestations that good writing will triumph over bad, writers have a competitive and saturated market to contend with. There are more than four million titles in the Kindle Store, compared with about 600,000 six years ago.
“There is that myth that you write a novel, put it out there and it will just take off. It’s so rare that that happens,” says Bhaskar. “It is possible to make a lot of money from digital publishing, but it is also true to say that it is harder now than it was a couple of years ago. There’s more competition and it’s a tougher proposition. What you see less of now are self-published writers just suddenly breaking out.”
Not everyone needs to break out. As Dawson says, “I may be in the 1 or 2 per cent of authors making good money, but there are so many people now earning enough through ebooks to pay the bills or the mortgage, and take their wife out to dinner every now and then.” Which, as many struggling authors would agree, is a pretty happy ending.
Self-published author Mark Dawson splits his day between writing and marketing his work.
So, are they any good?
John Sutherland casts a literary eye over two digi-novels
Holy Island: A DCI Ryan Mystery (The DCI Ryan Mysteries Book 1) by LJ Ross
Holy Island is the first of a now five-strong Ryan series. One reads it making automatic comparison with more famous novels — not always to LJ Ross’s detriment.
The hero is cut from the Rebus model. Ryan (his forename, like Morse’s, is teasingly withheld) is a shattered policeman. Late in the novel we learn that Ryan’s last confrontation with a cunning serial killer, “the Hacker”, ended in personal disaster. He’s PTSD with a DCI badge. Echoes of the TV series The Fall. Ross is, like the best mystery writers she keeps company with, good at withholding information.
The narrative opens, punch-in-the-face style, with a young woman being killed. Ritually, it would seem.
The naked corpse — abused, but not sexually — is left in an apparently patterned way, in a ruined priory. It is not any old priory. It is on the Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne. It was on this island that Christianity took root in the Dark Ages.
Lucy’s death is the first in a train of serial killing (the term can be used, the novel informs us, only if there are three or more victims). The victims seem to have been executed, for mysterious reasons, by a cult. Or have they?
Call in the symbologist. The echo here, one need hardly point out, is Dan Brown — the murders do not merely require solution, they require decoding. Has paganism reared its ugly, goatish head again where 1,200 years ago, it was extinguished?
Ross interweaves the crime story with a thick strand of romance. Ryan’s old love reappears on the scene as a forensic physician. Along the way there’s quite a bit of CSI thrown into the Holy Island mix.
Large claims have been made for Ross on the strength of this debut novel. Let’s hope she catches up with the hype that has been lavished on her.
The John Milton Series, Books 1-3 by Mark Dawson
John Milton is a burnt-out British special ops agent — ex-SAS, scarred, fortysomething. And a recovering alcoholic. He’s tired of killing for Queen and country. Particularly when it involves innocent women and children. He’s a man without family, friends or loyalty. Deep down, though, he’s a good guy in a world getting worse all the time.
He defects. But violence, and the need to deal with it, won’t let him go. “Terrorism” is now the air we breathe. And his hush-hush unit has decided to terminate John Milton, once their best man, with extreme prejudice. Call it honourable discharge.
This “starter” bundle, as it’s called, opens with a novella, describing Milton when he was still serving. It’s set in North Korea. A team of Kim Jong Un’s cyberterrorists need to be dealt with. From 1,000 yards away with a sniper’s rifle (faint echoes of Netflix’s Shooter come to mind).
The three full-length Miltoniads follow the undercover hero as he stomps down domestic terror in Hackney, during a hot summer of black-gang riot (The Cleaner); narco-terrorism in Mexico (Saint Death); and through political-mafioso shenanigans in San Francisco (The Driver). All the while Milton’s former comrades are hot on his tail. The formula is familiar. Third-generation 007. But one of Mark Dawson’s unusual strengths is locale. He’s good at it.
It’s impossible not to think of Lee Child’s super-selling Jack Reacher. Yet the strategies of the two celebrators of modern, lone-wolf vigilantism are strikingly different and worth a moment’s reflection.
Reacher comes to us in blockbuster form with hugely expensive build-up. Dawson hosepipes us, books coming at us like streamed TV episodes. The temptingly cheap e-versions of his fiction are visibly recruiting an affiliation group that may, in a year or two, build into something impressive. Who knows; Tom Cruise may think of optioning.
John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London