The publishing house that Stieg Larsson built

When Quercus bought 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' it was a tiny firm in a rented office. Yesterday, from its West End HQ, it revealed record sales of £15m a year

When a backstreet publisher based near Baker Street, London, bought the rights to an obscure Swedish crime novel written by an unknown author who had died years earlier, it struggled to get it on to bookshop shelves.

Mark Smith, who founded Quercus in 2004, became so desperate to shift copies, which some retailers refused to stock, he gave them away to people reading in parks – and planted dozens of more on the back seats of taxis and on Tube trains. "At that stage we were giving away more than we sold," Smith says. "It was getting pretty nerve-racking."

Fast forward to the present day and Smith's nerves have been calmed by news that the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy has helped his independent publishing house, which has since moved to its own rather-more-opulent offices on Bloomsbury Square, has recorded a huge jump in profits. Revenues at Quercus almost trebled to £15m in the first six months of 2010 from a year earlier and the company's share price jumped from 12p to 74.5p.

"Before Larsson, we were constantly having to prove ourselves. As a new start-up we weren't high up agents' lists and had to work really hard to convince authors to sign. It was difficult," Mr Smith says. "Everyone dreams of signing the next blockbuster, the next Harry Potter – and we did. I've had colleagues who have been waiting 25 years for such a hit."

The Millennium Trilogy, which started in 2005 with the release of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has sold millions of copies and made Swedish author Stieg Larsson a household name. His books have all topped fiction charts in the UK and the late author is the first to sell more than a million Kindle ebooks through Amazon. Movie deals, including an upcoming English remake set to star Daniel Craig, have helped turned Quercus into Britain's fastest-growing publisher, emulating the success of Bloomsbury, which rocked the industry when it signed J K Rowling and the Harry Potter books.

Quercus started life modestly in 2004 after Mark Smith and Wayne Davies defected from Orion Publishing Group. Suitably, for a company that would later publish a phenomenon in crime fiction, they rented a small office round the corner from the fictional premises of Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street.

"I wanted to start my own business and foolishly thought it would be easy," Smith recalls. The company focused on non-fiction books that could be nicely illustrated. Its first success was Universe, followed by Speeches that Changed the World.

But Smith had an appetite for risk and two years after launch moved into fiction, signing 10 titles from first-time authors. One of its early successes was The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, a mystery set in the snowy wastes of Canada in 1867. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2007, driving it up the bestseller charts and allowing its publisher to expand. What had been a staff of 15 people has since grown to 40.

The turning point for Smith came when he recruited Christopher MacLehose, who had a reputation as a master at finding foreign fiction by writers such as Henning Mankell and Haruki Murakami and turning them into English language hits.

MacLehose's first signing was a Swedish crime thriller called Men Who Hate Women written by a journalist who had died in 2004. The deal handed Quercus the global English language rights for the book that would turn into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson's books had already "gone crazy" throughout Scandinavia, Mr Smith said, with sales hitting 3 million in Sweden and outselling the Bible in Denmark.

But British publishers got cold feet. "That Larsson had passed away was a problem, as publicity is very important in getting a new book off the ground," Smith explains. "There are tough themes in the book and many were put off by the title. It's also rare that a European success translates into the English-speaking market." While he regrets never meeting the author, he admits that "if he was alive, we probably would never have snapped up the rights".

The hardback edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to cause much of a stir when it was published in January 2008, selling around 8,000 copies. "The paperback that followed in the summer did okay but was nowhere near as popular as elsewhere in Europe," Mr Smith added.

The publisher failed to get the books into prominent positions in the shops, and some refused to stock it. One prominent retailer, who Mr Smith declined to name, said its customers "don't like authors with funny names".

The company was desperate to push the title and its employees were forced into drastic measures to get copies into the hands of the public, including the give-aways on trains and buses. Those proof versions are now probably worth fortunes.

The modest marketing approach worked; The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second in the trilogy, became the first translated book to top the hardback best-seller charts. "People started reading the book and talking about it in 2009," Smith says. "That's when it gained momentum." The third book's hardback edition sold 225,000.

Sales are expected to soar further after next year's Hollywood treatment but Smith already has his sights on his next big Scandinavian crime novel, Three Seconds, a thriller written by a journalist and a former criminal.

"The Millennium Trilogy has created a halo effect," Mr Smith said. "We are being approached by more authors and agents, and have been getting books into supermarkets and other places where we struggled before. Larsson put us in the map in many ways; we are not a small independent any more."

Arts and Entertainment

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible