When Rebecca Donovan and I sit down to talk, she’s happily exhausted from celebrating her son’s eighth birthday the day before. He’s a Boston sports fanatic, so she decided to celebrate the way any great parent would: at a Red Sox game. The difference is that she rented a luxury box for his entire little league team, complete with being allowed on the field during the Yankees’ warm-up, and a cameo appearance from Pedro Martinez himself. No big deal, right?
It’s a far cry from where the author was just a few years ago. Back then, she was living in Bristol, working in event planning, living a totally normal life. But Rebecca had a story brewing in the back of her mind – so when she had time off from her job during the winter, she started writing it down. “I had a concept and I couldn’t let it go,” she says. “It took me two years to get the courage to publish it.”
That story became The Breathing Series, a trilogy of novels about Emma Thomas, a teenager who’s exceptionally smart and talented, but who lives with abuse at home. The books started out as self-published, self-promoted works. Now, Rebecca is signed with Amazon’s children’s imprint, Skyscape Publishing, and is part of a new generation of authors who are redefining what literary success means.
Her third book, Out of Breath, came out last month. At the launch party at Blithewold, Rebecca announced to the crowd that upon release, the book immediately shot to the top of the iTunes bestsellers in Australia and the United Kingdom. It has since landed on the top of the bestseller lists of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Amazon.com (where she’s nestled nicely amongst titans like J.K. Rowling and The Hunger Games’ Suzanne Collins).
Affable and filled with boundless youthful energy, Rebecca released the first part of the trilogy, Reason to Breathe, in 2011 as an ebook. Self-publishing wasn’t precisely the plan, but she felt strongly enough about her work to take a chance on herself and to make it work. “In 2011, self-publishing was still so new,” she says. Nobody had a formula for what worked, but everyone knew that the publishing world as we had known it was in distress. The close of Borders was looming, and big publishing houses were cutting budgets, taking fewer risks, still treating ebooks as an afterthought to a physical release of a book, even though at the time they were outselling print four-to-one.
Once Reason to Breathe was out, Rebecca’s job went from writing to promoting – and that was all a matter of figuring out how. She designed her own website when she realized she needed one, then a Facebook page. “Nowadays people build a platform before they release,” she says. “My promotion was 99% word of mouth. I didn’t do giveaways until bloggers started asking. I didn’t even put my books into print until (the second book) Barely Breathing was released.”
The books have two main plot lines: Emma’s emotional and physical abuse from her family, and a love story between her and a boy named Evan, who helps her find a new life outside of her past. It’s challenging subject matter, written with an emotional immediacy that is impactful and lasting. Each of the first two books ends with a cliffhanger that leaves the reader practically desperate to know what happens next. “I know I’m writing about a very sensitive topic,” she says. “I leave you in an unforgiving place.”
“Because of the ending of the first book, a lot of people held off reading it,” Rebecca continues. “When Barely Breathing was released, the sales went crazy.” That’s when she started getting calls from agents and publishers looking to sign her and The Breathing Series for wide release. “The indie world was making a mark and they couldn’t ignore it anymore,” she says. “There’s talent out there that isn’t under a publishing house.”
There’s a big divide between what she calls “the indie world” of independent, self-published authors and those who have traditional publishing deals that include contracts, publicists, book tours. Whereaspublishing houses tend to make decisions for authors, and take a substantial amount of their profits, independent authors are left to their own devices to make or break their own success. What indie authors have chosen to do, though, is to band together to work as their own support system. They promote each others’ work through social media, plan group giveaways, set up collaborative book signings (where, curiously, as many fans ask Rebecca to sign their Kindles as they do paperback editions). Later this month, she is headed to a massive book signing event in Las Vegas that brings together 50 indie authors. “Fans will say, ‘I downloaded your book as soon as I walked away from your table,’” she marvels.
“We’re creating a new definition of what an author is,” Rebecca says. “We have to go out there and do signings on our own, so we band together. We’re seeing the evolution not only of the publishing world, but of being an author. It’s a whole new world of accessibility.” With that accessibility comes an intense connection with her fans. Rebecca recently got an email from a psychologist who hands out Reason to Breathe to the teens she councils. “Emma is so flawed and real,” Rebecca explains. “She wants them to see that it’s ok.”
A surprising amount of the feedback she gets is from adults who are as engrossed in the story as Emma’s contemporaries are, which is why, though Rebecca’s books center on a teenager, they fit best into an emerging genre called “new adult.” They’re books that deal with formative high school and college years, but that resonate with an adult readership. “Publishers can’t ignore new adult anymore,” Rebecca says. “The indie world embraced it. We were writing books about this new life between teen and adult. The readers really embraced it.” Whereas adult readers once had to venture into the children’s section to find books like The Breathing Series, they’re now more accessible and easier to find (and, if we’re being honest, less embarrassing to buy, now that people don’t feel like they’re buying books for kids). “It allows your adult audience to feel like it’s ok,” Rebecca explains. “They’ve gone through it or they’re going through it. It allows them to remember and reflect on their lives.”
Seeing the positive ways her books have impacted people’s lives, she says, has “inspired me to be a better human being,” she says. Plans to open a non-profit are in the early stages right now. “The readers’ passion inspires me,” Rebecca says. “They are so passionate.” She’s also looking to buy in Bristol. “I lived there for ten years,” she says. She now lives in Massachusetts. “I just love the town. When I go there I feel like I’m going back home. I wrote the whole series there. It has that emotional connection for me. It left a life-altering impression.” Buy The Breathing Series at Amazon.com, on your Kindle or at Barrington Books.