Nikki Kelly is a 20-something who lives in London, works as a personal assistant in children’s television, and writes fantasy fiction in her spare time. She may also follow such Wattpad alumni as Brittany Geragotelis, Beth Reekles and Abigail Gibbs, as the next author to get a book deal after serializing her work on Wattpad, an online writing community that attracts 16 million visitors every month.
Kelly is bubbly, enthusiastic and lively to talk with, especially when discussing Lailah, the unpublished teen paranormal novel she began serializing on Wattpad in December 2012. Since then the book has attracted well over a million reads on Wattpad, nearly 3000 comments and 12,000 votes from legions of what appear to be teen fans praising the book and often asking her when they’ll be able to buy a published version of the story. Kelly would love to be able to give them an answer and with a little luck that just might happen.
Since Lailah was first posted on Wattpad, the manuscript for the book has been read by at least 6 agents who are considering representing her. But like so many of the determined young writers on Wattpad, Kelly hasn’t been sitting around waiting to hear from the agents. After researching agents likely to be interested in her genre (and following the likely candidates on Twitter to get a sense of their taste), she also reached out to publishers on her own. She’s managed to convince three U.K publishers—editors at Voyager, Orbit and Random UK have had the book for several months—to read the manuscript and consider signing the book.
PW spoke with two of the agents, Stephanie Thwaites of Curtis Brown U.K., who said she was “still talking” to Kelly about the novel, and Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Agency. (Lyon also represents Wattpadder Brittany Geragotelis, and her Life’s a Witch series, which sold to S&S.) While Lyon passed on representing the novel, she praised Kelly and said she “wants to see more” from the young writer. According to Kelly, the three publishers still have the manuscript to Lailah and have yet to make a decision.
In a phone interview, Kelly told PW she wrote Lailah, the first in a series of paranormal novels that will be part of her Styclar series (an anagram of the word crystal), over 18 months and began serializing the completed novel on Wattpad. Lailah is the story of a supernatural 17 year-old young woman of mysterious origins who finds herself nursing an injured, gruff and apparently evil—though irrisistibly handsome—vampire called Jonah. Lailah’s chance encounter with Jonah leads her next to Gabriel, an Angel descendent, and she is drawn into an epic battle between what she calls the Pureblood Vampires and the Arch Angels—all the while worrying over her conflicting attraction to the dark gothic allure of Jonah and the heroic light-filled embrace of Gabriel.
Of course, angels and especially vampires are two of the most popular topics of fiction on Wattpad, an online community dominated by teens, especially teen girls who love to both read and write about the vampires and their steamy encounters with, well, teen girls. But that’s where Kelly’s publishing problem begins, she said. Kelly says the characters are called Angels and Vampires, but they are really “interdimensional aliens,” who travel back and forth freaking out the humans over the centuries. But publishers, Kelly said, suffer from “vampire fatigue,” and agents don’t believe they can sell the work. Kelly says agents keep telling her “we really love the book, but the word vampire would scare away publishers.”
“There’s a couple of writers on Wattpad we’re looking at,” said Thwaites, an agent at Curtis Brown London, among them Nikki Kelly. "We're talking to her," Thwaites said. She also praised online writing communities like Wattpad noting that they can be “quite liberating for young writers who can write whatever they want and see if people like it. Traditional publishing can be a discouraging place to start.” But Thwaites also acknowledged that publishers lists were full of paranormal YA teen-oriented fantasy works and they were looking for other things, “timing can be everything,” she said, “publishers have a bit of paranormal fatigue but its hard to argue with the reception the category gets on Wattpad.”
“My assistant and I read her work and both of us really enjoyed it,” said Lyon in a phone call from California. “We passed on the novel but we want to see more.” Lyon also said that publishers lists are “full of paranormal.” Lyon said publishers want “New Adult, Contemporary nonparanormal stories centered on angsty love relationships. YA paranormal is ebbing, though not online.”
“We want to see more of Nikki's work,” Lyon said, “she could be the next one. She can write and tell a great story. She’s got all the pieces.”
Both agents noted that while they were impressed with Kelly and her work as well as the opportunities available through online writing communities like Wattpad, they understood why publishers were wary about signing a deal. Content on Wattpad is free—no one has to pay to read anything—“it’s writers reading writers,” Thwaites said, “and doesn’t necessarily reflect the wider market.” And while she has more than a million reads, other Wattpad writers that signed book deals had even more—Geragotelis had more than 15 million reads for Life’s A Witch. “Transitioning readers used to paying nothing to for-pay publishing is a problem,” Lyon said, “even if Wattpad authors sell, publishers want to know if readers will make the jump from, say, 99 cents to $3.99. They don’t know.”
Nevertheless, while agents are saying the publishers are cool to still more vampire teen novels, Kelly told PW, “the agents fed back saying that vampires are a hard sell, as yet none of the three publishing houses have rejected,” the book.
Maria Cootauco, Wattpad engagement manager, told PW that Kelly approached Wattpad in late 2012, “because she knew we had a huge reading base and she wanted to get exposure for Lailah.” Cootauco verified that Lailah has about 1.1 million reads and said, “Nikki did her research into Wattpad,” pointing to the popularity of Vampires and fantasy fiction on the site and especially Wattpad’s ability to serialize works (among other features, the Wattpad app notifies followers when a new chapter has been uploaded).
Cootauco said self-publishing stars like Amanda Hocking as well as veteran authors like Margaret Atwood use Wattpad to do short projects that promote their works or put them in touch with a new generation of would-be writers. And she said that publishers are paying attention to Wattpad writers after a spat of recent book deals. “Publishers can see the number of reads and take the temperature of a writer if their book is doing well,” she said about young writers like Kelly. “The book is a safer bet if the writer can prove their popularity.”
“Nikki’s a go-getter, like Brittany, she replies to every comment and she’s got thousands,” Cootauco said, “and that’s really appealing to readers and helps grow her fan base.”