Hilary Boyd's first novel, about a romance between 60-somethings, has slowly climbed to the top of Amazon's bestseller chart
In 2011, however, her luck seemed to turn. Independent imprint Quercus published her novel, Thursdays in the Park, a romantic tale of a 60-something granny, Jeanie, who encounters the man of her dreams, Ray, by the swings in the park while she looks after her grandchildren. Boyd's Jeanie struggles with the reality of a husband who has withdrawn from the marital bed and the temptation of life with a new partner. Her message: vigorous young grannies do behave impetuously. They face the same heartrending choices – should I leave him or not? – as the rest of us.
Unfortunately the publication of Thursdays in the Park was followed by yet more disappointment. There was one good review in the Daily Mail, which declared Boyd to be "as canny as Trollope at observing family life, and better than Trollope at jokes". Otherwise, says Boyd, "nothing happened". The first edition of her first published novel sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
So far, so normal. Most writers in Britain never get reviewed, sell badly and earn less than an M&S checkout clerk. A year later, in August 2012, when the publishers reissued the novel in a mass-market edition, they did not even change the marketing and recycled the same heartshaped tree on the cover. Simultaneously Quercus launched Thursdays in the Park as an e-book. No one was paying much attention to the Kindle audience for gran-lit.
Boyd, like many would-be writers, had kept going with journalism and non-fiction commissions. For years she wrote a Mind, Body, Spirit column for the Daily Express, and published books on health-related subjects such as depression, step-parenting and pregnancy. She was wearily familiar with the constraints of the book trade. What happened next, however, was something fresh: a parable of the e-book revolution.
"I got this email," says Boyd, "telling me I was No 18 in the Amazon UK bestseller charts." Somewhat mystified, she watched it climb to 11, to four, and then to … number one. It's been there for the last four weeks, outselling Ken Follett and EL James. Indeed Thursdays in the Park has now achieved an e-book sale of more than 100,000 copies. Translation rights have been sold in France, Sweden, Finland and Germany. The first novel that secured just one review has clocked up more than 70 notices. Charles Dance is negotiating to write, direct and star in the movie.
Boyd, married to film director and producer Don Boyd (Aria, Scum and War Requiem), is struggling with something else: how to explain her sudden success. "I've no idea at all who's buying it. Not a clue. All I can say is that sex in the park beats sex in the basement." Iain Millar, a spokesman for the publishers, seemed equally baffled. "It's word of mouth," he said, which explains nothing.
Hilary Boyd believes she has stumbled on a new readership. "Old people falling in love and having passionate relationships is not a story that's had much exposure before, but I'm in no doubt that the market's out there." That "grey market" of baby boomers hitting retirement, which has contributed to UK cinema successes such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is behind a new trend in book sales. Thanks to digital technology, tales from the passionate park bench are finding a new audience among the Kindle generation.
Such developments cast an autumnal glow on the latest industry news. Last month Penguin merged with Random House in a defensive alliance against what many publishers see as the threat of Amazon. Boyd does not share these anxieties. "I'm very happy with Amazon," she says. "If it wasn't for the Kindle, my book would not be selling. It's all rather incredible. I have a freedom pass – and a two-book deal with Quercus."
Boyd rebuffs any comparison with Fifty Shades of Grey. She insists her second novel, Tangled Lives, which came out in August, has very little sex. But she is just finishing her third, Straight to the Heart, about a middle-aged nurse who falls in love with a mountaineer. This, she concedes, with sly mischief, will be deeply romantic: "I'm going for broke."