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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all