The Toronto-based, teen-centred, mobile-friendly, amateur-fiction publishing site Wattpad is boasting impressive successes this year. Their engagement – measured by number of posts and comments – has doubled. At the end of 2012, the number of uploads was around 10 million; it now stands at 30 million stories. More than 91,000 new stories are shared on Wattpad each day. More than 7.5 million fan-fiction stories were posted in 2013. Last month alone Wattpad had 24 million unique visitors. They say that at least one person from every single country in the world has contributed something to Wattpad. The number of languages used by writers on the site has increased to more than 30.
These are astounding successes and have caught the eye so far of business and technology media but not of the literary establishment. And although a handful of established authors have posted some pieces for free on Wattpad, mostly as a kind of experiment – Margaret Atwood, Paulo Coelho and Cory Doctorow are the best-known ones – the vast bulk of what is discussed and rated and shared there is ignored by regular publishing houses and literary critics.
There are several reasons for this. The quality of writing is generally primitive, as is to be expected from any 100-per-cent amateur, unremunerated endeavour. The age group that adores this means of literary exchange is also significant: The vast majority of users of Wattpad are under 25; the median age is 18. (The main goal of the site has always been to make reading accessible on mobile devices and that's how the vast bulk of users access and interact with the site.) Romance, "young adult" (which also means romance), fantasy, sci-fi and fan fiction (which Wattpad cleverly refers to as "remixing"), make up almost all the contributions.
I asked CEO and co-founder of Wattpad Allen Lau what he had read most recently on Wattpad, and he said he had enjoyed a fictional story about real Formula One drivers Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen (the use of celebrities in stories is classic fan fiction). Among the 22 categories of story available for browsing, "literary fiction" (the awkward phrase publishers use to describe stories that don't follow fomulaic tropes) does not appear.
Furthermore, it's difficult to find what you want to read on the site if you don't yet know what that is, as I, for one, don't. The simplest way to begin browsing is by genre category – but what if you're not looking for a genre or a subject? I never go to the bookstore thinking "I want to read a book set in Norway."
The only way to start to find your way around the Wattpad community, it seems, is to actually belong to it, and to do that you must participate: You post stories of your own, you comment on others. The more you read, the more the site's software learns about you and it will begin to recommend texts. This is not actually attractive for the literary reader, for it will direct you to more of the same. It will keep you in your niche.
There are many ambitious writers who use Wattpad to promote real novels-in-progress and there have been a handful of crossovers. Last year, 18-year-old Abigail Gibbs received a six-figure advance from HarperCollins U.K. for her Twilight-fan-fiction vampire romance novel, The Dark Heroine, initially serialized on Wattpad. Most users are hobbyists who enjoy appending video and pictures to their stories more than they enjoy arguing about the anxiety of influence.
When I say success stories, I mean financial ones. The greatest successes on Wattpad alone – even millions of reads, something a conventional author only dreams of – earn exactly zero dollars. In order to be monetized, each one of these has to be taken up by an actual publisher and sold. This is another reason for the lack of agitation about Wattpad in the literary domain: so far, the site has not undercut mainstream publishing in any way.
I asked Lau if he resented being a farm team for the money-making publishers and he seemed completely unperturbed. Right now he makes his money solely from advertising. If the participants use Wattpad to self-publish to an online audience as promotion for a grown-up print project (that someone else is producing, and charging for) then their reputation will only rise and that will drive more readers to his site. "Then we have more content and more users," he says. "It's a win-win for everyone." All he wants is more users. His goal is total global penetration. He says, "There are close to five billion people who can read and write. In the next few years most of them will have an electronic device." He is fond of saying to the press, somewhat menacingly, "Once there are a billion users, there will be a million ways to make money from them."
Lau's background is not in literature or publishing; he is an engineer by training. It's significant that he talks about users rather than writers. For this isn't really literature as we have always understood it: This kind of writing is a collective activity, in which chat is as important as fiction. It's lacking in ego and heroism. By contrast, English or creative-writing grads don't set out with the ambition to write fan fiction: The idea of the solitary original genius still holds sway in universities and at small literary magazines. Wattpad represents something new, a cross between storytelling and status updating that the futurists will no doubt call "social writing" or something more modern-sounding (chat-lit, community fiction, bloggerature, belles-blogues?).
Wattpad will continue to furnish teenagers with entertainment and publishers with the occasional bestseller already chosen and popularized by its international cloud. That's good for everyone. What remains to be seen is how many grown-ups choose to get involved. I would love to see more serious artists infiltrate this parallel universe of pulp, and perhaps, in a kind of subversion, carve out their own non-formula space. Why not? It's free and Lau would welcome your stats. It's win-win.
Wattpad's greatest hits
Life's A Witch, by Brittany Geragotelis. This teen-witch romance, now in print with Simon and Schuster, first appeared as a serial on Wattpad, and racked an amazing 18 million views. The author was an editor at American Cheerleader magazine.
The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire, by Abigail Gibbs, a Twilight-derived novel, was serialized on Wattpad and then bought by HarperCollins in Britain, with a substantial advance.
The Kissing Booth, by Beth Reekles, a story posted on Wattpad, got the British 17-year-old a three-book publishing deal and into Time magazine's Most Influential Teens of 2013, alongside Malala Yousafzai and pop star Lorde. Her new novella currently up on Wattpad has had two million reads.
A Proscriptive Relationship, by Jordan Lynde (known on Wattpad as XxSkater2Girl16xX), a writer who has had, according to Wattpad, over 100 million reads. (Only old farts will worry about the grammar of the title: The student-teacher love affair it refers to is proscribed rather than itself proscriptive, one might argue, but then one wouldn't be the kind of person appealed to.)
Diary ng Panget (Diary of an Ugly Girl), by Denny, had more than 16 million reads on Wattpad and was then published in book form in the Philippines, where it became a bestseller and was optioned for film. It is Japanese animé-based fan fiction.
Mr. Popular and I, an unfinished teen-romance novel currently being serialized on Wattpad by "thefreakoffreaks" (someone based in Britain), has received 28 million reads so far and it has clearly not yet been edited for spelling mistakes.