Beth Reekles knows how to tell a story, but there are certain times when the 17-year-old Welsh high school student finds herself at a loss for words. Take the moment she received an e-mail from a commissioning editor at Random House with news that the company was interested in publishing her writing. “I was sat in the living room with my laptop charging as I was reading it,” she recalls when we meet for tea in Newport, her hometown in Wales. “And I just ripped the charger out and ran into my parents’ room with the laptop, and was just making these really weird noises because I couldn’t talk, I was so excited.”
Most of the time, however, when it comes to communicating, Reekles — which is her pen name, a play on her real last name, Reeks — is unusually skilled. Though still in high school, the studious girl with the big brown eyes and a love of “plain, teenage romance” novels has already written several of her own. Since the age of 14, she’s spent countless hours tapping away at an old laptop her father Nick had given her for her homework, writing stories for kids her own age, who (like her) had grown tired of tales about “vampires and werewolves.” Initially, she didn’t tell anyone what she was up to; her dad says he “thought she was doing her homework or on Facebook.” She was, if fact, resourcefully publishing her work, chapter by chapter, on the online self-publishing site Wattpad.
Reekles’ most popular book, The Kissing Booth — a straightforward teen romance where a good girl named Elle falls for a bad boy named Noah — was written she was 15. She chose to set the novel in an unnamed California city and relied on shows like Gossip Girl and 90210 to guide her on American lingo. It was exactly the type of book Reekles wanted to read. It turned out to be exactly the kind of book that other teens wanted to read. “It just really took off,” she says, her eyes wide beneath her blunt bangs. “Loads of people were reading it, and I got loads of people commenting on it and e-mailing and messaging me about how much they liked it. Like, ‘OMG, upload another chapter please!’”
It wasn’t long before her book had been read millions of times and generated tens of thousands of comments — the most for any teen-fiction story published on Wattpad. But it wasn’t until she won the site’s 2011 prize for Most Popular Teen Fiction that the publishing world caught on.
In October 2012, Random House got in touch with Reekles and offered her a three-book deal, with The Kissing Booth as the first. A bit woefully, Reekles took Kissing off the Wattpad site. It was soon republished as a kids’ e-book and quickly made the best-seller list. (The paperback version will be out in the U.K. in April.) Her editor, Lauren Buckland, tells me that there’s even been interest in turning the book into a movie.
If the story of Reekles’ success sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because we’ve heard it all before at the height of the Fifty Shades of Grey craze. Like Reekles, Fifty Shades author E.L. James was a Brit quietly publishing stories she’d written from home. And also like Reekles, she struck a chord with readers and grew a loyal following numbering in the millions before a publishing company decided to swoop in and give her a deal. So is cherry-picking the best of online writing the way forward for book publishers?
Though the success stories are inspiring, the statistics aren’t. According to the New York Times, more than half of the 350,000 new titles published in 2011 were self-published. And without a marketing team behind you, gaining a significant audience in an oversaturated market seems virtually impossible. However, it wasn’t Reekles’ large fan base that most impressed Buckland, but, rather, the quality of her writing. “The book was in fantastic shape,” she says of the unedited version Reekles had uploaded. “It was quite a new thing for us to find such a talented writer on an online platform — and who’s 17.”
Though it’s unusual that someone Reekles’ age would find such success in the publishing world, the young author thinks her youth has only helped her writing. “I think one of the reasons why people like my book was because I’m a teenager writing about teenagers,” she says. “So I know that a lot of teenagers might just swear for the hell of it, or the kind of things they might say, or how much schoolwork there is, or how they might act differently in school around their friends than at home around their parents.”
And despite her success, Reekles intends to stick with what she knows. Throughout the book deal and editing process, she’s also been juggling school exams and interviews at universities where she plans on studying physics, of all things. “I want a physics-related career,” she says firmly, before pausing. “But if my writing just took off, I guess that would be my career.”
For now, she’s focusing on not being overwhelmed by it all. She guiltily tells me that she has around 7,000 unanswered messages from fans — all of whom she’s trying to answer when not studying or writing. Or, you know, spending times with her friends or boyfriend. She admits it’s been hectic but says she’s enjoyed the ride.
“We went to this Random House Christmas party in December,” she says excitedly, “and I met [author] Jenny Downham there, and I was, like, ‘Oh my god, I love your books!’ I was, like, trying to remain calm and not freak out too much.” When I suggest that perhaps fans of The Kissing Booth would feel the same way if they were to meet Reekles, her face turns doubtful.
“That’s kind of weird to think about. I mean, I’d probably be just as excited if someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh my god, you wrote The Kissing Booth!’” she says. “I’d be, like, ‘Oh my god, you read my book!’”