How Wattpad Will Help Save Trade Publishing

“The book publishing ‘glass’ is half filled, and is leaking water at an alarming rate.”

(Greco et al. 2014, 283)

 

The future of traditional trade publishing is a much-debated topic. According to many opinions, such as the one above, the future looks grim. These negative outlooks are often centered around two topics of concern: technological innovation and changing demographics.

 

The influence of emerging technologies is an extremely complex topic, which has been discussed at great length. For the purposes of this paper, the following perspectives will be assumed: (1) Even if ebooks eventually make print books obsolete, this will not lead to the demise of trade publishers, as their basic roles—acquiring talent, editing content, and marketing and producing books—will never become obsolete. The book publishing industry will simply evolve into primarily, if not solely, producing books digitally rather than in print. (2) The ease and low cost of publishing and reading on the internet poses a much greater threat to trade publishers than ebooks. However, as this paper will prove, there is a way for it to successfully coexist with this technology as well.

 

With regards to demographics, some believe traditional publishing in North America has been kept alive by the support of baby boomers, who represent the largest portion of the populations of the United States and Canada. These loyal consumers grew up and developed a love of reading before the dawn of the internet and continue to purchase traditionally published books. So, as this dominant portion of the population ages and eventually disappears, will traditionally published books disappear with it? The continued popularity of young adult (YA) literature suggests that it will not. Baby boomers have been credited with the emergence and widespread popularity of YA literature in the 1970s (Nougat, 2013). It would have been fair to predict that this literary category could’ve significantly decreased in popularity as this population bump aged and yet it has not.

 

Phyllis Simon of Kidsbooks, a children’s and young adult fiction bookstore in Vancouver, states: “Most of our customers buying YA literature are parents and teachers, not teenagers” (email message to author, November 24, 2014). Should this raise the concern that strong sales figures of YA literature are an indication of parents and teachers attempting to encourage reading in today’s teens, rather than an indication of genuine interest in reading among young people? Furthermore, could this mean that as the current generation of teenagers reaches adulthood they won’t actually buy books for themselves, putting book publishers out of business?

 

This paper will argue against such negative outlooks on the future due to the relationship that is developing between trade publishing and online storytelling. It will specifically explore the symbiotic relationship that is developing between book publishers and Wattpad.

 

 

The Wattpad Phenomenon

 

Wattpad has been referred to as “the YouTube of books/stories” (Bello, 2012; Digital Book World, 2013; Medley, 2012). To get an understanding of what it is exactly, it’s best to start by going to the source. Here are some quick facts taken from Wattpad’s website:

 

  • It is a free online social platform and mobile app for writing and reading stories, which are generally serialized into short instalments.
  • Readers can vote, share and comment on stories; add them to a reading library; follow other users; and receive notifications when a writer they follow shares a new chapter.
  • Wattpad presents itself as “the world’s largest community of readers and writers . . . that spans borders, interests [and] languages” (Wattpad, 2014).
  • Seventy-five million stories have been posted on it and thousands are added every day.
  • It has thirty-five million members and counting.
  • Every month, these users spend a combined nine billion minutes on the website.
  • Eighty-five percent of the time it is used on mobile devices.

 

Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen co-founded Wattpad in late 2006 in Toronto. It was primarily a tech start-up at its conception, since neither of its co-founders had a background in publishing. However, Wattpad’s impact on the publishing industry has become increasingly evident over the last few years. In a 2012 interview with the National Post, Lau stated: “ Gutenberg invented the printing press 400 years ago, and it’s about time to retire that invention. We want to invent something that can last that long. We want to be the next generation of the printing press.” Lau and Yuen consider themselves visionaries who recognized the potential of e-reading before the release of the Kindle, Kobo, and iPhone (Medley, 2012). Although this may seem like a direct threat to publishers, it doesn’t have to be, as long as they are willing to partner with Wattpad to harness this new technology together. As will be discussed later, some players in the traditional publishing industry have already realized and embraced this idea.

 

Looking ahead, publishers should take note of the influence Wattpad is having on their YA audience and future adult market. The Wattpad phenomenon has grown out of the website’s popularity among young people, particularly teenage girls. In fact, “Wattpad’s prolific YA output has made it a household name among young girls and their parents; the bulk of their readers are in their teens, with a median age of about 20” (Landau, 2014). Co-founder Allen Lau believes Wattpad’s influence on young people is so great that it has “redefined what it means to be a reader by empowering a new generation to read, create and shape the stories that matter to them, all from their mobile devices” (Publishers Weekly, 2014). This is undoubtedly a revolutionary development.

 
 

Wattpad and Trade Publishers

 

Despite Wattpad’s dismissal of claims that it is competing in the publishing industry (Bacon, 2014), some see it as a serious threat to traditional book publishers due to its technological innovativeness, communal nature, and significant influence on the next generation of potential book buyers. However, Wattpad is actually going to help save trade publishing by being a catalyst for literacy, a breeding ground for blockbuster bestsellers, and a platform for innovative developmental editing. The following in-depth examination explains what this means exactly.

 

 

1. A catalyst for literacy

 

It’s undeniable that widespread literacy is crucial to securing the future of publishing; the industry would not be able to exist without having authors to write books and consumers to read them. Unfortunately, in recent years, there have been many concerns about the state of literacy among today’s youth. To the dismay of parents, educators and publishers, literacy rates appear to be decreasing. As Rebecca Joines Schinsky, Senior Editor and Community Manager at Book Riot told Digital Book World, “[there] seems to be this myth in the [publishing] industry that young people aren’t reading anymore. . . . you know, ‘the kids these days, play their Angry Birds and don’t read books’” (Fahle, 2013). Statistics appear to support Schinsky’s assertion that this is only a myth; according to Booknet Canada’s research, the juvenile category dominated the Canadian book market in 2014 (Lye, 2014). But with adult consumers contributing to these high sales figures of YA titles, what proof is there of the number of teenagers who are actually reading them? While book sales data is unable to provide such evidence, Wattpad has more conclusive proof that teenagers are reading stories on their app and website. This leads one to ask, as did the National Post’s Books Editor Mark Medley, “Can Wattpad save reading?” (Medley, 2014). There is good reason to believe that it can—and writing along with it.

 

Wattpad offers young people the freedom and encouragement to read and write for pleasure on a platform that’s familiar to them. Margaret Atwood is a strong Wattpad supporter because she views it as a great outlet for young writers. She asserts that, thanks to the option of posting their writing under a pseudonym, it allows them to write about anything they want without fear of judgement. In addition, encouraging comments from readers can serve as a great morale booster (Attwood, 2012). These are some of the reasons behind Wattpad’s widespread appeal and huge popularity, which is making a significant contribution to increasing literacy among young people.

 

Of course, many feel strongly that Wattpad—and the internet in general—isn’t the best place for young people to learn how to read and write. They argue that it perpetuates the use of poor grammar and improper vocabulary. Atwood has a great rebuttal to this argument that looks towards the fundamentals: “Quite simply, you can’t use the net unless you can read. Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead” (Attwood, 2012). And along with it, book publishing will inevitably die as well.

 

In an effort to keep both literacy and proper grammar alive, a number of esteemed published authors have begun to make some of their work available for free on Wattpad. Margaret Attwood is the most notable literary figure among them. Other recent contributors have included Paulo Coelho, Carrie Snyder, and Ian Hamilton as part of a joint initiative with Toronto’s International Festival of Authors (Baldassi, 2014). Posting their work on Wattpad provides these writers with the benefit of attracting new readers, while fostering an appreciation for fine literature among today’s youth. In this way, Wattpad is helping secure the future of trade publishers by nurturing their future authors and consumers.

 

 

2. A breeding ground for blockbuster bestsellers

 

Alongside creating passionate authors and avid readers, Wattpad is also an excellent platform for developing books for trade publishers to acquire. With thirty-five million people using the Wattpad website and app, it’s not uncommon for stories posted on it to be read thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, or even millions of times. These are extremely impressive numbers considering that a book only needs to sell around 5,000 copies to reach bestselling status in Canada. This leads one to conclude that authors who are popular by Wattpad standards have the potential to put out not only bestsellers, but blockbusters of Fifty Shades of Grey proportions. This trilogy, which sold over one-hundred million copies worldwide (Flood, 2014), started off as a similar sort of Twilight fan fiction as is posted in huge numbers on Wattpad.

 

The social writing platform offers the potential to attract and interact with massive numbers of readers in an unprecedented way. This puts it in an incredibly influential position. According to Tom Weldon, UK chief executive of Penguin Random House, “publishers must adapt to capture readers attention” and the internet is the key platform for doing this (Rankin, 2014). Others in the industry have also pointed out the importance of direct-to-consumer marketing, asserting that, “as purveyors of content, both publishers and self-publishing authors are in a unique position to engage their customers deeply, and to engender a loyal following among them” (Page Two Strategies, 2014). Wattpad has been identified as a standout example of this kind of innovation. A number of trade publishers have already taken note of Wattpad’s huge potential for helping secure their future.

 

HarperCollins acquired a story that was read over seventeen million times on Wattpad and released it as an e-book and trade paperback. The publisher signed its teenage author to a two-book, six-figure deal (Farrington, 2012), proving to young people that there is money to be made in being a traditionally published author. This belief was solidified by Simon & Schuster signing a six-figure deal with another teenage writer discovered on Wattpad (Bello, 2012). Meanwhile, independent U.S. publisher Sourcebooks has taken even greater advantage of the opportunities Wattpad offers by embarking on a partnership with the online storytelling platform in 2013. This initiative included Sourcebooks publishing selected Wattpad-branded stories from the website under its YA imprint. The publisher even “let digital readers and fans participate in the publishing process by naming characters and voting on the cover jacket designs” (Digital Book World, 2013). It’s too soon to judge the success of these efforts, but even if these books don’t sell millions of copies, it seems almost inevitable that eventually one of the authors discovered on Wattpad will produce a blockbuster bestselling book.

 

However, not everyone has a positive outlook on this new publishing paradigm. Some are concerned about the implications of traditional publishers turning their focus to acquiring profit-generating titles that originated on the internet and cater to readers. An example of such a title is E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which is widely believed to be of “sub-par literary quality” (Sales, 2013). Some argue that as authors are expected to dedicate much of their time to pleasing and interacting with readers, their writing will inevitably suffer because they are being distracted from pursuing their primary purpose (Friedman, 2013).  Many “literary” writers appear to resent this outcome. Will Self, for instance, told the The Guardian: “I don’t really write for readers. . . . I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer . . . to write what you think you have to write” (Day, 2012). However, the truth is that serious writers and high quality writing will always exist. There will inevitably be people in every generation who will develop a love of reading by being exposed to fine literature during their education. In addition, as stated earlier, Wattpad is also contributing to fostering an appreciation for high-quality writing with the help of esteemed authors. Therefore, future acquiring editors will be able to recognise hidden literary gems written by unknown authors. Moreover, they will be able to take financial risks on literary titles due to the huge profits gained from publishing bestsellers with mass appeal.

 

 

3. A platform for innovative developmental editing

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Wattpad may not be as evident as the two features discussed thus far: Wattpad has revolutionized book editing. In traditional book publishing, the author has historically only received feedback on plot development from a handful of people at most—their editor and maybe an agent, friends, and family. However, if a large part of the job of substantive fiction editors is to make a story more appealing to readers, then getting feedback from hundreds or thousands of readers is invaluable. Wattpad’s comment section is a tool that has revolutionized communal editing by taking advantage of the social capabilities of the internet. It is an excellent tool for generating books that appeal to a huge readership, since it gives authors the chance to receive and apply feedback from fans as they write a novel chapter by chapter.

 

The success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey—which started on the internet as Twilight fan fiction called Masters of the Universe—illustrates the impact that reader feedback can have on producing a bestselling book. James received thousands of comments from online readers on her original story. After taking it down due to concerns over Stephanie Meyer’s teenage characters being put into inappropriate situations, James used the feedback to rewrite her story into a novel using her own iconic characters (Boog, 2012). This is a formula that can be applied by many writers on Wattpad to help them shape their work into bestselling, traditionally published books.

 

 

True Symbiosis

 

The relationship between Wattpad and traditional publishers is truly symbiotic and interdependent because in certain ways one could not exist—or at least succeed—without the other. The existence of Wattpad depends on traditional publishers to inspire readers to use their website. These users have inevitably been introduced to reading by traditionally published books thanks to teachers or parents. In addition, the hope of attaining profit and stardom by signing a deal with a traditional publisher gives users an incentive to write on Wattpad and create engaging content, which in turn attracts readers to the site. Meanwhile, it seems rather impossible to deny at this point in history that traditional publishers which do not take advantage of the opportunities offered to them by the internet will eventually go out of business. Publishers need Wattpad due to the many advantages that it provides: nurturing future authors and readers, generating crowd-pleasing bestsellers, and offering unprecedented author-reader interaction. In conclusion, traditional publishers should stop looking at the future as a leaking glass and start viewing Wattpad as a friend rather than a foe.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Atwood, Margaret. 2012. “Why Wattpad Works,” The Guardian, July 6. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/06/margaret-atwood-wattpad-online-writing

 

Bacon, Beth. 2014. “Wattpad: Digital Storytelling with a Social Twist,” Digital Book World, September 29. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/wattpad-digital-storytelling-with-a-social-twist/

 

Baldassi, Julie. 2014. “Wattpad Launches ‘Online Festival’ with IFOA,” Quill and Quire, September 26. http://www.quillandquire.com/events/2014/09/26/wattpad-launches-online-festival-with-ifoa/

 

Bello, Grace. 2012. “Wattpad Revolutionizes Online Storytelling,” Publishers Weekly, September 21. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/55231-pw-select-december-2012-wattpad-revolutionizes-online-storytelling.html

 

Boog, Jason. 2012. “The Lost History of Fifty Shades of Grey,” Galleycat, November 21. http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/fifty-shades-of-grey-wayback-machine_b49124

 

Day, Elizabeth. 2012. “Will Self: ‘I don’t write for readers,’” The Guardian, August 5. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/05/will-self-umbrella-booker-interview

 

Digital Book World. 2013. “Sourcebooks and Wattpad Team Up for Agile Publishing Partnership for Young Adult Books,” September 5. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/sourcebooks-and-wattpad-team-up-for-agile-publishing-partnership-for-young-adult-books/

 

Fahle, Rich. 2013. “Generation Y: More than Texting and Angry Birds,” Digital Book World, July 16. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/generation-y-more-than-texting-and-angry-birds/

 

Farrington, Joshua. 2012. “HarperCollins Pays Six Figures for Teenage Author,” The Bookseller, September 10. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/harpercollins-pays-six-figures-teenage-author

 

Flood, Alison. 2014. “Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy Has Sold 100m Copies Worldwide,” The Guardian, February 27. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/27/fifty-shades-of-grey-book-100m-sales

 

Friedman, Jane. 2013. “The Idea of the Author is Facing Extinction,” Spirit Beyond the Book, October 11. http://sprintbeyondthebook.com/2013/10/the-idea-of-the-author-is-facing-extinction/

 

Greco, Albert N., Jim Milliot, and Robert M. Wharton. 2014. The Book Publishing Industry. New York: Routledge.

 

Landau, Emily. 2014. “The Wattpad Cult: why Toronto’s buzziest tech start-up is a self-publishing app beloved by teen girls,” Toronto Life, November 10. http://www.torontolife.com/informer/tech-informer/2014/11/10/the-wattpad-cult/5/

 

Lye, Sarah. 2014. “Juvenile Fiction Tops the Canadian Charts,” Booknet Canada, September 25. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2014/9/25/juvenile-fiction-tops-the-canadian-charts.html#.VIqQP6TF_Ix

 

Medley, Mark. 2012. “Can Wattpad Save Reading?” National Post, August 24. http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/08/24/can-wattpad-save-reading/

 

Nougat, Claude. 2013. “Is Baby Boomer Lit the Next Hot Genre?” Publishing Perspectives, March 14. http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/03/is-baby-boomer-lit-the-next-hot-genre/

 

Page Two Strategies. 2014. “Reaching the Reader: direct-to-consumer marketing through new publishing partnerships,” Page Two Blog, March 14. http://www.pagetwostrategies.com/reaching-the-reader-direct-to-consumer-marketing-through-new-publishing-partnerships/

 

Publishers Weekly. 2014. “Wattpad Grew to 18 Million Users in 2013,” January 6. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/60535-wattpad-grew-to-18-million-users-in-2013.html

 

Rankin, Jennifer. 2014. “Tom Weldon: ‘Some say publishing is in trouble. They are completely wrong,” The Guardian, April 6. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/06/london-book-fair-penguin-random-house-tom-weldon

 

Sales, Bethany. 2013. “Fifty Shades of Grey: The New Publishing Paradigm,” The Huffington Post, April 4. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bethany-sales/fifty-shades-of-grey-publishing_b_3109547.html

 

Wattpad. 2014. “About.” Accessed December 9. http://www.wattpad.com/about

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