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November 14, 2016
By Matia Burnett
When working dad and indie author Stephen D. Holmes started telling his daughters a story about hot air balloons, he had no idea his tale would end up as part of Virgin Atlantic's in-flight entertainment.

An innovative approach to marketing and outreach helped a first-time indie author’s picture book reach new heights -- literally.

Stephen D. Holmes, who lives with his family in a village in Sussex in the South of England, doesn’t have a background in children’s books or really in a creative field at all -- he works in data management. But, as with many debut children's authors, having kids led him to make up bedtime stories that were drawn from his daughters' particular interests, observations, and curiosities. Holmes shared with BookLife how, in the summer months, his daughters loved to spot the hot air balloon that drifted over the hills and fields near their home in Sussex. That sight, combined with his daughters’ input and enthusiasm, inspired Holmes to come up with the adventures of Jessica and Tom, two friends who are whisked away on a hot air balloon by a dapper rabbit. The tale became such a favorite for Holmes’s daughters that he decided to write it down with the thought of turning it into a family keepsake. And thus, The Great Air Balloon Adventure was born.

But a picture book needs pictures. Holmes began searching the Internet for possible illustrators, discovering and immediately liking the work of freelance illustrator Kev Payne, who he hired to work with him on the story. “The great thing about this was the process,” Holmes told BookLife. “Kev would send through the outline drawings based upon our book and direction, and then the girls would suggest colors and ideas and the final drawings would be completed. We then overlaid the text.”

In May of 2016, Holmes registered the book with the British Library and printed 1,000 copies, with the intention of giving them away to friends and family members. Holmes and his daughters also planned to sell copies of the book at local venues and to donate proceeds to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, as his daughters requested. He was able to sell 500 copies at fairs and fetes in England, and the response to the book was so positive that he decided to promote it to a more "upwardly mobile" audience. Since the book has a flight theme, he thought Virgin Atlantic might be a good place to start. In August of 2016, Holmes submitted a sample of the story to a Virgin Atlantic employee he found on LinkedIn, with “the idea being that they could pass them out to children as a bedtime story on their long haul night flights.”

"We were instantly charmed by Stephen’s endearing book, as well as the story behind it, and felt it would be a great hit with families on night-time flights."
What might have seemed like a long-shot for an overreaching debut author, turned out to be just the ticket. That very afternoon, Virgin – which has its headquarters not far from where Holmes and his daughters live in Haywards Heath – got in touch with Holmes and ordered 2,000 copies to distribute to kids on their flights. Media coverage followed, with the English National Press and the BBC News picking up the story of the airborne picture book. In fact, in September of this year, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, personally wrote wrote an article about how the airline is giving away copies of The Great Hot Air Balloon Adventure on flights.

Matt Webster, the employee Holmes first reached out to at Virgin Atlantic, told The Guardian about his reaction to the book when he saw samples: “We were instantly charmed by Stephen’s endearing book, as well as the story behind it, and felt it would be a great hit with families on night-time flights.” He added that “It was the icing on the cake that Stephen is based in Haywards Heath, just around the corner from Virgin Atlantic’s HQ; we always like to support up-and-coming local talent where we can.”

It’s been an unexpected whirlwind for Holmes, particularly for a project that he had initially anticipated would be just kept in the family. Yet Branson’s coverage led to increased sales and then the interest of agents, including David Doerrer at Abrams Artist Agency. Holmes ultimately signed with Doerrer, who is narrowing down possible publishers for The Great Air Balloon Adventure both in the U.K. and the United States.

Regardless of where the book’s publishing home ends up being, Holmes recently met with Matt Webster at Virgin Atlantic’s head office to discuss having more copies of The Great Air Balloon Adventure take flight. From data manager to surprise picture book author, Holmes says “I definitely will continue to write and have a couple of new adventures ready.”