When A Pound of Flesh, Sophie Jackson’s prison romance, went online in 2010, it had no publisher, no cover design, no editor, and no publicity—and, at 517,000 words, the tale of a literature tutor who falls in love with an inmate was almost as long as War and Peace.

Yet, earlier this year, traditional publishers entered a bidding war for the right to publish it and her next two books. Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster in the U.S., and Hodder Publishing in the U.K. emerged as the winners in what Jackson’s agent calls “a significant deal.” Rights to the trilogy have now sold in eight countries and the first book in the series will appear in the U.S. in June of 2015.

The interest from publishers is understandable—Jackson’s A Pound of Flesh has been viewed more than four million times on FanFiction.net and it has over 21,000 user reviews (including a rave from a Quebecois grandmother who read the book in French using Google Translate). Not bad for a schoolteacher who says she had no literary ambitions growing up.

A Twilight Fan

As a teacher in the northwest of England, Jackson says she enjoyed reading but had never thought of becoming a writer. All that changed when some students loaned her a copy of Stephenie Meyer’s novel Twilight. “They begged me to read it, which I did, from cover to cover in a day,” says Jackson. After reading (and rereading) the trilogy she says she was hooked. And she wanted to know more.

That’s when she discovered FanFiction.net—an online repository for stories inspired by everything from the Bible, Les Misérables, Anne of Green Gables, and Watership Down to Hasbro’s My Little Pony characters and the television show Family Guy.

“I read tons of fics,” she recalls. “Some were good, some were insanely good, and I decided that I wanted to write something, too.” Jackson eventually posted a chapter from her very first fanfic and got 11 reviews—which gave her the courage to continue. “From then, I wrote whenever I had a free minute.” Six years later she had published numerous fanfics including more than 500,000 words from what would become A Pound of Flesh—and amassed a following any traditionally published author would envy.

“Twilight Fanfic Fandom”

Though authors like George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice have called fan fiction an infringement of copyright, others, including J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, have embraced the genre as a kind of flattery. To those unfamiliar with FanFiction.net and the genre it specializes in, it may seem incredible that Jackson’s prison romance has been read more than four million times without ever being available in bookstores or reviewed by any mainstream media outlets, but the book is just one of millions of titles in dozens of languages on the site.

“FF.net was the first site I came across,” Jackson says of her decision to publish her stories there. “It was easy to use.... I knew that the majority of Twilight lovers would be on there, so my work would be seen by people who shared my love for the characters.”

A few popular fic authors recommended A Pound of Flesh, which brought in more readers, she says, and the book was eventually featured on various blogs devoted to the genre. It also won a number of “fandom” awards, including a few for the steamier scenes, and the “Potential Bestseller” prize—which Jackson admits she hopes is prescient. She credits the “Twilight fanfic fandom” as one of the reasons for her success and notes she’s grateful to those readers especially for supporting her work.

“When I was posting it online, I never for one moment thought that it would get that much attention,” says Jackson. “But once word started getting around the fandom, it really started picking up.”

Getting an Agent

As A Pound of Flesh became more popular with readers, Jackson says she was approached about publishing it in early 2013. She solicited advice from other fanfic authors who’d been published traditionally. “Their main concern was that I get an agent to help navigate me through any deals I was to make,” she says. “It was the best advice I could have asked for.”

After researching U.K. literary agents she sent a cover email to about 20 agents specializing in women’s fiction. She heard back from 11 of them, including Lorella Belli of the Lorella Belli Agency in London, whom she signed with the following week.

In order to send the manuscript out to publishers, Jackson first needed to edit the work to a manageable length. After a year, she had whittled the book down from over 500,000 words to a still-impressive 130,000—something she admits was a massive undertaking. She notes at its original length it was “impossible to publish as one book, and there was no clear place to chop it into two, which I really didn’t want to do.” By February 2014, however, Belli, along with her subagent, Louise Fury of the Bent Agency in the U.S., were ready to send A Pound of Flesh to publishers.

Fury says the reaction to the book was immediate: “As soon as I went out on submission, I knew something magical was happening. Editors were loving it.”

Within 12 days of the manuscript going out, Jackson says they had four major publishers interested, with Gallery Books at Simon & Schuster winning the rights at auction. “I knew that Simon & Schuster have published fics before with amazing success, so I was understandably thrilled,” Jackson says about the deal.

An Editor Weighs In

Micki Nuding, Jackson’s editor at Gallery Books, says the book hits the “commercial trifecta: a forbidden romance with an irresistible bad boy, he’s secretly a multimillionaire, and the setting taps into the popularity of Orange Is the New Black.” Nuding notes that the four million prepublication reads also helped make A Pound of Flesh an especially appealing acquisition.

A Pound of Flesh features literature tutor Kat, who has taken a job at a Staten Island prison to overcome her prejudice and fear of criminals—a fear she developed after seeing her father murdered when she was a young girl. At the prison, she meets an inmate named Carter and the illicit relationship develops from there. Jackson had originally set the story in a high school, but quickly realized that she was limited in how she could develop the plot. “I aged the characters 10 years and put them in a prison,” she explains.

Jackson and Nuding are currently working on another round of edits which she says is more of a final polish rather than a series of major changes. “[We] have very similar ideas about what we like and what we think works for the plot, characters, and themes of the book,” says Jackson about working with her editor. “It’s definitely a little overwhelming when you receive your first round of edits, with red all over the manuscript. But it was made much easier by the revisions letter, which Micki wrote, detailing the positives of the book and where she thought I needed to tweak.”

Jackson feels the book is cleaner now and the pacing has improved over her online version, but maintains that “the essence of the fic is still very much a part of this version. It’s been very exciting seeing it take on the form of an actual book.”

The second and third books in the trilogy will feature characters introduced in A Pound of Flesh. “Even the secondary characters stay with you long after you finish,” says Nuding, who adds that she’s looking forward to reading more about them in the next two books.

Advice and Inspiration

Jackson says publishing online allowed her to get a feel for what her readers wanted. “I think the feedback you get from a site like FF.net is invaluable for new writers,” she says. “The reviews you get are instant and readers definitely don’t hold back with what they think of your work”—something that required her to grow a thick skin. “I look back at my first fics and cringe,” she says.

Jackson is getting a lot of practice, however. “I can sit down and write 1,000-plus [words] in an hour, if the inspiration hits. As a teacher, I have very little downtime, so I write when I can.”

For inspiration, Jackson looks to other fanfic writers who have had their works published—both through traditional houses and independently—like J.M. Darhower, Tara Sue Me, Christina Lauren, Mary Whitney, and Alice Clayton. She also enjoys reading John Green, Colleen Hoover, Jennifer Armentrout, and Tahereh Mafi. “Thankfully,” she notes, “over the six years I’ve been writing fanfic, there is definite progression in my writing and I have FF.net and the readers to thank for that.”

When asked what comes next, Jackson says, “I’m not at the blogging/promotion stage yet, but I’m excited for when that happens.”

Jennifer McCartney is a freelance writer and editor, and author of the novel Afloat.