In the opening chapters of Air Born, we meet Tyler, a teenager with big dreams of joining the air force. Those plans are dashed when he sprouts wings during a skydive, becoming one of a new species of humans who are targets of religious and scientific fanatics while becoming social pariahs.

On the surface, it sounds like your typical young-adult series, with all the traditional requirements: a group of teenage leads fending for themselves, mysterious powers, organisations dictating their lives.

Yet for Auckland author Jessica Pawley, her path to publishing hasn't been traditional. Pawley, 28, started writing the first drafts of her sci-fi teen series, Generation Icarus, seven years ago. She'd been a "total book nerd" since she was 5 and her goal in life was to be a writer.

But after struggling to find a publisher, Pawley took the more modern approach and put her work online.

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"Getting published in this day and age is almost impossible so, after piles and piles of rejection letters, I found myself trying the self-published thing and that's how I ended up on Wattpad," she says, referring to the free online storytelling site where users can post articles, stories, fan fiction and poems.

"I always figured, 'well I'm giving it away for free, at least I can prove it appeals to my target market and might actually give me a chance at landing a proper publishing contract'."

The appeal has certainly been proven. The original versions of Air Born and its three sequels got more than one million reads, becoming some of the most popular stories on the Wattpad site.

Pawley has now been signed to the publishing imprint Steam Press, but her online success shows investing in what is now a five-part series was a risk worth taking, even if loyal fans have already read the series.

"The most hardcore fans would say 'I desperately want this on my bookcase'." "They still want physical books, they still want to hold a material copy, have that possession and connection to it. That physical concept is still so important," she says.

Air Born hasn't made it to US stores yet but already film and television rights have been snapped up and an adaptation is in the early stages of development.

"It was a shock. I did not expect it that quickly."

While Pawley hoped for an adaptation one day, she was expecting the book would have to be a commercial hit before those conversations started. However, Friendship Films was talking to her publishers about a different project when it learned about Generation Icarus.

Though there are no guarantees it will become a series, the company is "pretty confident" it can do it, Pawley says. Even if it doesn't work out, the conversations with producers brought up a number of questions around the characters that she had not considered, helping her think through details that will strengthen stories in later books. Feedback from the online community also helped her.

She discovered one of the fascinating aspects of publishing online is the removal of barriers between author and reader, allowing her to get feedback directly. That was invaluable, allowing her to see what the audience was receptive to and what parts of the story they didn't like.

She says her writing became more polished and, as it's set in the US where she hasn't lived, it allowed her to glean certain details from American teenagers that, without their input, would have been missing.

"There were things I tried in the self-published version that I got negative feedback on, which won't be in the final version. It is an experimental place. It certainly informs the process," Pawley says.

"I have great respect for their opinions. Their love of the story has certainly got me to where I am today."

Nearly everything but the basic concept went out of the window when Pawley was signed to a publisher. She says it was like starting again — with all but the concept and about 20 pages from the original manuscript. Rewriting the entire story in about three weeks was tough work, with a deadline for the second book closer than Pawley expected, but after years of trying, she's happy to take on whatever challenges come her way.

"This is the career I've wanted. I want a lifetime career out of this. I don't want to be a one-hit wonder."

Lowdown
Generation Icarus: Air Born
by Jessica Pawley
(Steam Press, $20)