More Horsepower To Wattpad

In this paper, I will try to examine how Wattpad, an online reading platform, has built a global community of over 30 million readers. This paper tries to understand the website’s position and utility vis-à-vis traditional publishers and makes the case that Wattpad’s most vital asset is not its content but rather its role as a social network and conduit to a global community of readers.

Consider the curious case of Anna Todd. In March, 2014, twenty five year old Todd uploaded one of the last few chapters of After, her Wattpad novel which would soon turn her into the cynosure of the publishing world. Within 13 seconds of the upload, comments started pouring in. In the next 24 hours, Anna received close to 10,000 notifications. According to Wattpad’s metrics, After has been read over 299 million times [1] by just under 10 million unique readers [2]. Some weeks later, she signed a six figure contract with Simon & Schuster who published it in paperback [3]. Later, Paramount Pictures acquired screen rights [4] for the book.

There are two things, among others, to take away from this brief anecdote. The first being Wattpad’s astonishing ability to forge such a massive readership and the second—the serialization of the story as opposed to uploading it in its entirety.

By no means is serialization a new fashion; rather it is atavistic: it was how The Three Musketeers was published in the mid-19th Century and later, how Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner— the Lost Generation—came into prominence [5]. Allen Lau, who co-founded Wattpad in 2009, credits it with making stories more conducive to being read. “Two thousand words is roughly 10 minutes of reading. That makes the story more digestible, something you can do when standing in line,” he told [6] the New York Times. But in the Wattpad universe, serialization holds an added advantage. Unlike the traditional model of publishing, Wattpad is able to facilitate a direct dialogue between the writer and his/her readers. Unlike Youtube, the comments section doesn’t serve just a perfunctory function; rather it puts the writer and reader on common ground where the two are wont to discussing plot, characterization and other intricacies of the craft. Often times, these suggestions find their way into the next chapter and establish a loyal following for the writer. More importantly, Wattpad catalyzes the reader-writer relationship with push notifications every time a new chapter is added to an existing work.

Perhaps, it is this form of social reading that distinguishes Wattpad from its peers in traditional publishing. This and the fact that the content is entirely free has brought into focus not a few Wattpad sensations like Todd but also certain types and genres of writing that are generally considered to pander to more populist tastes. Although it has been championed by the likes of Margaret Atwood [7], Wattpad is generally regarded with skepticism by denizens of established media. That Wattpad literature abounds in but fails to extend beyond fan fiction is the general refrain.

These concerns are not without substance. Indeed, fan fiction predominates Wattpad and is its fastest growing category [8]. Once can make the case that even Todd’s six figure advance owes itself to millions of dedicated Wattpadders who seem to derive great edification from her erotic reimagining of a One Direction band member. However, such criticism might seem wan when viewed from a more panoptic context.

It is instructive to situate Wattpad in the realm of traditional publishing wherein a manuscript either lulls in the slush pile or acquires the attention of an acquiring editor. In either case, the writer is powerless once the submission has been made. Contrariwise, Wattpad imbues the writer with the power to publish his words immediately and, unlike self-publishing, there are no costs involved.

Since the dawn of the digital age, the arena of trade publishing has become a battleground of sorts between its humanist gatekeepers and disruptive technologists. Many, including Amazon—the elephant in the room, have tried to wrest the means of publication from the old guard. Self-publishing, notably Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), has succeeded but only to the extent that it has weeded out publishers and editors as middlemen in the rarified market that it commands. Wattpad, however, has been instrumental not only in delivering writers from the caprice of the acquiring editor but also in vesting readers with the power to decide what’s best for them. If self-publishing undercuts the traditional publishing model, Wattpad, with its 35 million users [9], would be abler in toppling it. A Mashable story called this watershed development “People-powered Publishing” [10]. By shunting out the Merchants of Culture, Wattpad gives every writer a chance to be published; without the weight of marketing and promotions behind it, every new story is on equal footing while competing for readers’ attention and in this laissez-faire system, every reader, by way of voting for the work, decides if it is good or at any rate, deserves his time and attention.

Most shafts directed against Wattpad seem to ignore the collaborative, DIY ethic that lies at its nub. Indeed, one needn’t think too hard to detect similarities between Wattpad and the primitive crowd-sourced or Commons-based peer production [11] days of the internet. On Wattpad, it’s not just plot suggestions, character development that elicit readers’ inputs; most every book comes with a cover that is often designed for free by fans of the work. Fan-made book trailers that are, for the most part, bricolages of existing movie scenes from Youtube are also evidence of Wattpadders’ spirit of collaboration that is unencumbered by any financial motivations. Additionally, by allowing writers to embed songs and clips into their stories and effectively trying to shake up the form, Wattpad may have unwittingly set the wheels in motion for the cross-pollination of storytelling itself.

However, it still remains unclear how Wattpad sees itself vis-a-vis trade publishers. Anna Todd’s story was co-opted by Simon & Schuster but this unlikely alliance between Wattpad and publishers has more examples in the Philippines than in North America. Next to the United States, Wattpad’s largest user base resides in the Philippines. In 2013, it was receiving 20 million unique [12] visits from Philippines on a monthly basis. At least three of the top Wattpad reads have been been taken up by publishers and TV adaptations [13] are in the works. With its users scattered across 200 countries and its active cultivation of users from the developing world, Wattpad is more Facebook than Kobo and having received successive infusions of venture capital worth $17.3 million in 2012 and $46 million in 2014, it is more a cash-rich company than a start-up experiment [14].

Ultimately, it is the scale of its reach that distinguishes it from trade publishers. In a 2013 interview with Macleans, Allen Lau had asserted that it was possible for Wattpad to coexist with publishers [15]. Instead of replacing the old guard, Wattpad’s chief preoccupation is achieving maximum penetration as a social network—bringing a billion users under its fold [14]. Perhaps Wattpad’s greatest asset lies not in its content but the massive community of readers that it looks set to create. It certainly explains why publishers are harnessing it to reach a readership they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Even self-published authors have seen their sales jump [16] after uploading their books on Wattled.

As a coda, let’s attempt to understand Wattpad by considering the prescient words [17] of Shane Smith, founder of Vice Media, the other and substantially bigger Canadian success story that has now turned into a colossal force in the content industry. “I know why I’m sexy to them, which is what I said to Rupert [Murdoch]. ‘I have Gen Y, I have social [media]…you have none of that. I have the future, you have the past.’”

Citations:
[1] After by Anna Todd, Wattpad
[
2] Q&A with Anna Todd, Recode
[3] S&S Acquires After, Publisher’s Weekly
[4] Paramount Acquires Rights to Wattpad Book, Deadline
[5] Novels on the Installment Plan, Rachel Ihara, Google Books
[6] Web Fiction Serialized and Social, David Streitfeld, New York Times
[7] Margaret Atwood joins Toronto-based writing site Wattpad, Christine Dobby, Financial Post
[8] A Look Ahead to Self Publishing in 2015, Jennifer McCarthy, Publishers Weekly
[9] Wattpad now has 35 million users, Ian Hardy, Betakit
[10] People Powered Publishing is changing all the rules, Amy-Mae Elliott, Mashable
[11] The Internet? We Built That, Steven Johnson, New York Times
[12] How a site for posting stories is changing Philippine publishing, Philippine Daily Inquirer
[13] Wattpad stories come alive on TV5, Nathalie Tomada, PhilStar
[14] Wattpad raises $46 million to build a Global Literary Community, Seth Feigerman, Mashable
[15] Could Wattpad be the killer app for aspiring writers, Jason McBride, Macleans
[16] What’s up with Wattpad?, David Gaughran, WordPress
[17] Lunch with FT: Shane Smith, Matthew Garrahan, Financial Times

2 Replies to “More Horsepower To Wattpad”

  1. Really interesting essay about Wattpad and its potential impact. I loved the boldness of the thesis that forward thinking media organizations like Wattpad are the future of publishing. I appreciate the ideas that Wattpad is shaking up storytelling, and allowing readers to dictate how stories are told – but leaving the power in the hands of the author, and no one else.

    You’ve convinced me of the value of dialogue between writers and readers, which we see in the more traditional publishing world through author events and social media. Wattpad though, combines the platform with this dialogue, creating a community around the text which traditional publishers have been largely unable to do. (Authors, however, have been successful, like with JK Rowling’s Pottermore.)

    I’m curious about the salability of Todd’s novel. David Gaughran says in his Wattpad piece that posting his book on Wattpad, chapter by chapter, may cannibalize his own sales – but it’s worth the risk in order to hit a demographic he can rarely reach with Amazon. Todd received a six-figure advance for After, but how does Simon & Schuster justify that payment when millions have already read the book for free?

    “That Wattpad literature abounds in but fails to extend beyond fan fiction is the general refrain.” One concern I have in regard to the Anna Todd example is that her book both targets the stereotypical Wattpad demographic and is fan-fiction. Plus, her One Direction-based subject matter is targeting an enormous fan base – they have 22 million followers on Twitter! I’d love to see a cross-reference on how many of those followers have also read After on Wattpad.

    I loved the coda at the end of the essay as a complete “mic drop” finish. However, it does leave me wondering about the future of the industry if it depends on technologies such as Wattpad, and primarily, about the monetization of Wattpad. Anna Todd is seen as a true success story, but her success has come from using Wattpad as a springboard to reach a traditional publisher, and to transition from niche into mainstream publishing. What about authors and success of authors on an open platform like Wattpad, without the involvement of a traditional publisher?

    Overall, I think this paper presents Wattpad’s strengths and position clearly and concisely. An accompanying social network that works in collaboration with, not against, traditional publishing. It really makes me think about how user-generated content and social networks could and will affect the publishing industry as technology and reading habits evolve.

  2. You bring forward a lot of interesting facts about Wattpad’s position in the market and give a thorough account of Wattpad’s most salient characteristics.

    You did not, however, successfully argue the points you laid out in the opening paragraph. You talk about about how Wattpad works and what service is provides, but you only state Wattpad’s strength as a social network near the end of your essay.

    In short, it is a well written piece with interesting and relevant facts and references, but it does not present a well crafted argument that would convince the reader on your point of view.

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