Editor-in-chief Liz Szabla at Feiwel and Friends has just acquired worldwide rights to the Styclar Saga, a YA paranormal trilogy by Nikki Kelly, in an agentless deal. Earlier this year, the 27-year-old Londoner serialized her first book, Lailah, on the online writing community Wattpad with impressive results: the novel has had almost two million reads, more than 15,000 votes and upwards of 3,000 comments. Feiwel and Friends will release Lailah in hardcover in 2015.

Kelly, who works in the children’s television industry, has long aspired to be a published author. “When I first got the writing ‘bug’ I was 12 years old,” she explained. “My auntie took me to a bookstore and told to me to pick out any book I wanted as my birthday present. I think I spent several hours choosing – it was one of the most memorable experiences in my life. I have always had this dream that one day someone might walk into a bookshop and pick my book.”

She began writing Lailah two years ago, working on the novel in evenings and on weekends. She twice traveled to the south of France, where part of the novel is set, to “do some research and some drafting. I always think it’s better to write about something you’ve actually seen, since it’s important to get a sense of the place and the people.”

The novel, which stars a teenager caught up in a battle between vampires and angels, fits squarely in the fictional realm that Kelly herself enjoys. “They say that you should write what you know and what you love, and for me that is fantasy fiction,” she said. “I may be 27, but I’ve very much a 12-year-old in my head and in my heart. I love to write about the kind of protagonists I like to read about, but I also wanted to write something original. Lailah crosses genres somewhat and explores different worlds and dimensions.”

Encouraged by the reception the novel received from several friends as well as her mother’s (“of course your mum is always going to tell you she loves what you’ve done”), Kelly researched Wattpad and decided to use that venue to give her book some exposure. “Wattpad has a popular fantasy section that is heavy on vampires and angels, so I decided it was a perfect place to put the book out there and get some real-time feedback,” she said. “The book kind of took off, and it was exciting to see the number of votes and comments it received and how many people engaged with the story.”

Finding a Home for the Novel

On the basis of the Wattpad response, Kelly decided to reach out to literary agents, and relied on Twitter to find names of those who might be interested in YA fantasy. “I kind of cherry-picked in terms of which agents I would send the manuscript to,” she said. “And pretty much all of them I contacted said they loved the novel but didn’t think they could sell it because these days it’s hard to market fiction with the word ‘vampire’ in it.”

Kelly’s break came when her Wattpad success captured the attention of PW news editor Calvin Reid, who spotlighted the author in a PW Daily article on July 2, which in turn caught the eye of Szabla and Feiwel and Friends assistant editor Anna Roberto, who tracked down Kelly and asked her to send a copy of Lailah. “The fact that the novel had so many readers on Wattpad definitely piqued my interest, and I took the manuscript home to read, but honestly didn’t expect to finish it,” saidSzabla. “I too had the refrain in my head that vampires are over, but a good book is a good book, and I couldn’t put the novel down. It has great characters and great world-building and a terrific plot. I saw immediately what attracted Nikki’s fans, and knew right away that I wanted this novel.”

Szabla, who noted that revisions planned for Lailah include a new ending, believes that the Styclar Saga is an ideal fit for the Feiwel and Friends list. “I think this will appeal to a very wide audience,” she said. “Lailah is not too literary and not too commercial – it’s just right. I know that sounds a bit like Goldilocks, but it really is true. Nikki is a great talent and she has lots of energy, and I feel lucky to be working with her. ”

Angus Killick, v-p and associate publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, also became a fan. “After reading the first few pages of her manuscript, I said, ‘To hell with common thought that vampires are done,’ ” he said. “This is obviously a book that engages readers. I think we can get complacent in our publishing ivory tower, and sometimes forget that every year there are hundreds of thousands of new YA readers who want to discover new books for themselves that they will be passionate about. Nikki has a fresh voice that many readers have already responded to, and now an even larger audience will discover her work.”

Kelly told PW she was “over the moon” when she received the e-mail offer from Feiwel and Friends. “I feel as though I’ve become a part of the Macmillan family,” she said. “I know they will look after the Styclar Saga and do the right thing by it. I am thrilled that I can finally offer my audience a published copy of my first novel. ”