Ian Rankin: when crime really does pay

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From packed auditoriums in Dubai to topping the British bestsellers’ list for multiple weeks with his latest novel, Scottish author Ian Rankin has been a constant draw with crime fiction fans for over two decades.

Industry magazine The Bookseller reports that Rankin was the first ever Scottish writer to pass the £50 million ($65 million) sales mark in 2012 and only the seventh British author at the time to ever pass the milestone.

The dizzying sales have continued, with seven titles topping the bestsellers list and 35 editions selling more than 100,000 units each.

It took a long time before I was making a living wage from writing. And it takes a lot of guts to try and be a full-time writer these days

While he now enjoys regular, continued success, Rankin says he can remember the exact moment when he realised he was no longer a jobbing writer but was a popular author.

“Every six months, you get royalties from books that have been published. It suddenly went from a few thousand pounds to a few hundred thousand pounds within six months. I remember I was in Canada or America on tour, and my wife phoned me up and she said ‘your royalties’ statement has come in and I think there’s been a mistake; it’s six figures’. I phoned my agent and said ‘I think there’s been a mistake. I think there’s a point dot in the wrong place here’. Then he said ‘no, that’s real’.”

A proper career

The cheques continued to come in and continued to cash six figures, but Rankin is philosophical about how difficult it was in the early days to make a living from the written word.

Rankin’s hand prints on the Royal Mile in his home town of Edinburgh, Scotland

“Well, you know, in the early days, I never thought it was a potential career. To start with, it was a hobby, then it was a paid hobby. I mean, for my very first book, The Flood, I got paid £200 ($262), and that was that. It sold a few hundred copies.

“It took a long time before I was making what you would call a living wage from writing. And it takes a lot of guts to try and be a full-time writer these days, I think, without any other strings to your book. A lot of writers will work in the media or they’ll work in academia. You’ll be teaching creative writing, all that kind of stuff.”

Born in Cardenden, western Scotland in 1960, Rankin’s father owned a grocery shop and his mother worked in the local school canteen. It was his dream to study literature at university and his parents were surprised, expecting him to take up a trade, but Rankin believes his working class background meant he wanted to prove himself without taking any handout from government agencies.

I think partly what led me to crime fiction was the fact that you could make a living from doing it, unlike literary fiction

“What was important to me growing up with a working class background in Scotland was that people would want to buy my books; it wouldn’t be sponsored by the state or subsidised by it. Crime fiction back then wasn’t [supported], it was commercial fiction. You sold or you died. You weren’t going to be propped up by any Arts Council grants.”

Wifely support

Things didn’t start with a bang and Rankin remembers how tough the first few years were and the persistence it required to continue. “I think partly, what led me to crime fiction was the fact that you could – I thought you could – make a living from doing it, unlike literary fiction. So that was the start of it, but my wife would support me in the early days when the books weren’t selling very well. I was always on the verge of being dropped. But slowly, surely, I kept my confidence and an audience grew. It was mostly booksellers and librarians telling people, ‘oh, if you like that author, you’ll also like this guy, Ian Rankin’.”

After graduation, Rankin went through a number of menial jobs, including working as a grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine and even a taxman. “I was writing weekends and evenings. And you know, thinking up stories on the tube on the way to work in the morning in London and stuff like that. In 1990, after four years in London, – mywife and I got married in ‘86 – she persuaded me that if I want to be a full-time writer, we couldn’t afford to live in London.

Rankin at the 2019 Emirates Litfest, with Georgina Godwin, Harriet Muncaster and Keith Stuart

“She had this dream of living in France, so we moved to France and rented the house and that was when I became a full-time writer, but not making enough money to support us. I mean just barely getting by. And then the kids came along and suddenly it was even more panic. I was having panic attacks and stuff. But there was nothing else I wanted to do and nothing else I was qualified to do. So I stuck at it.”

Rebus is born

The Scotsman got into his stride when he began writing the Detective Inspector John Rebus stories, a detective novel series based in and around Edinburgh. The novels regularly involve murders, suspicious deaths or disappearances, with Rebus investigations often leading to corruption, poverty and organised crime.

“I guess a turning point probably was when I published a book called Black and Blue, which was the seventh Rebus novel. Up until then publishers, weren’t very excited about me. I was selling what’s called a midlist author – selling enough copies to make a tiny profit for the publisher. but not enough to get them excited.

You go on tours to the States and it went from really cheap, bog standard motels to suddenly three-, four- and five-star hotels

Black and Blue won the 1997 CWA Gold Dagger Award for Fiction, for the best crime novel published that year, and suddenly the spotlight was beckoning and his publishers began to take more notice of him.

“The publisher went ‘oh, hang on a minute, Ian knows what he’s doing’. I thought, ‘hang on a minute, I know what I’m doing’. They put some more money into promotion and marketing. They got the branding right, they got the look at the jackets right. It didn’t look like every other crime novel on the shelf.

“And you know, a couple of weeks after that, I started to hit the bestseller list. But it was a long process. It was a long time coming and I’m not sure these days that a publisher would stick with an author for that amount of time.”

Actor John Hannah essayed the titular role in the first TV series of Rebus, based on the Inspector Rebus novels

With the six-figure advances now rolling in, Rankin admits that things did change for the better. “Well, we got a big house and bought a nice car and we could go and get holidays. Our youngest son is disabled, so we could buy him any and all equipment, and the bathroom and the house could be tweaked to be suitable for him as he is in a wheelchair. It was just a seismic shift and I must say that I like it a lot better than being poor.”

Eventually, Rankin says he got to the point where he was earning more money than he could spend, so it was time to start giving back. “We set up a charitable trust. I’m not going to tell you what it’s called because we do it anonymously and we can give to good causes without them necessarily knowing it’s me doing it… What else can you do with the money? If I leave it to my son, he will just spend it,” he laughs.

Business Class access

With national and international success, it meant that Rankin was now a powerful and influential figure in the publishing world – a brand name you could say – and with it came more leverage when dealing with publishers and editors.

As a writer, you want that anonymity. You want to be able to sit in a room and study people and maybe, make them a character in your next book…

“Yeah, yeah, I guess it did. I mean I still get edited and an editor will still say, ‘I don’t think that’s very good, you can do better’. It’s not like they are going to pander to you. But, I got a much bigger say in, for example, the look at the books, the branding, the cover design, I could say yeah or nay to tours and events. I could say ‘I’ll go and do that but you’re going to have to fly me Business Class’. The first time I flew Emirates, I said I wanted to fly Emirates Business Class, which was a trip to Australia, and they did it. That’s when I knew I had a bit more power than I used to.

“You go on tours to the States and it went from really cheap, bog standard motels to suddenly three-, four- and five-star hotels. That’s when you know you’ve made it a bit better than you did,” he racalls before reining himself and acknowledging that it can all go as quick as it came.

“But then you reach a plateau, maybe if your book doesn’t sell well it’s going to be back to tourist class and three-star hotels and motels. I see it with bands all the time, bands that were selling huge arenas to playing small venues.”

Rowling in it

Rankin famously lives in the same area in Scotland as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, an example of someone who has earned success but has taken it to the next stratosphere. “And yet you know the first [Harry Potter] novel wasn’t hugely successful… Again, it wasn’t overnight success for her. And she was incredibly level headed when the success came. And I think she’s dealt with it brilliantly.”

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling is one of Rankin’s celebrity neighbours in Edinburgh

Rankin says he has seen Rowling’s experience up close and he doesn’t envy that level of author superstardom. “It’s made her life tough. It’s hard for her to go out in public, she has to have security. The thing I like about being a novelist is I’m fairly anonymous. Maybe not in Edinburgh though; in Edinburgh, a few people know who I am, but I’m not as recognisable as someone who is on TV or reads the news or the weather.

“As a writer, you want that anonymity. You want to be able to sit in a room and study people and maybe, make them a character in your next book, or wonder what their life is like. You can’t do that if everybody knows you are doing it.”

Of course, Rankin has experienced some TV exposure as 13 of his Rebus novels were turned into a TV series for ITV between 2000 and 2007, initially staring actor John Hannah as Inspector Rebus in the first series, with Ken Stott taking up the mantle for the last three seasons.

A turning point probably was when I published a book called Black and Blue, which was the seventh Rebus novel

While radio productions, presentation work and theatre have also been added to his CV, Rankin says he has avoided going down the endorsement route. “I’ve not done endorsements at all. I don’t go and do adverts and things like that and nobody’s trying to buy my Twitter followers. I know that happens occasionally to be a brand ambassador. Maybe people know I can’t be bought. I wish they would try though.”

Looking to the future, Rankin has settled into a life of being able to write when he wants to, not because he needs to make ends meet and avoid another panic attack over how he will pay the bills. “I am slowing down now. I am writing a book every two years instead of every year. My wife thinks I should be winding down a bit. I’m going to be 60 next year. She’s saying ‘maybe don’t sign another contract, write a book when you feel like it but don’t feel compelled to write a book’.”

Good advice, but we’re sure Rankin’s millions of fans around the world, from Dundee to Dubai, will be hoping he ignores it, and that the Rebus saga continues to live on for many years to come.

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