Not too long ago, the writer Anna Todd was in a Target, in Austin, Tex., shopping with her husband, when she noticed a girl following them around the store. Todd is a very vocal supporter of the big-box retailer, and her fans have begun staking out various locations near her home in hopes of spotting her. "Do you think she's looking at me?" she whispered to her husband, as the girl shadowed them, staring yet saying nothing. She checked her Twitter feed; sure enough, someone was tweeting that she was watching Todd, and reporting back to other fans who were eager to know what the author was doing.
"They were asking her what I was buying," recalls Todd, who seems more flattered than troubled by the experience. "She told them toothpaste. They were like, 'What brand of toothpaste?'"
Of all the world-famous writers in Toronto the past 10 days for the International Festival of Authors – a number that includes Karl Ove Knausgaard, the self-reflective Norwegian already being tapped as a future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature; the bestselling crime writer Jeffery Deaver; and David Nicholls, whose last novel, Us, has sold five-million copies and counting – the biggest name, arguably, was that of 25-year-old Todd, whose debut novel arrived in bookstores last week but has already been "read" more than a billion times.
This is because After was first published (not to mention written) on Wattpad, the Toronto-based online writing platform that has surged in popularity in recent years. Part writing lab, part social network, the site and accompanying app are fostering a generation of authors (and readers) who have contributed more than 75-million pieces of writing to the site since it launched in 2006, with most of that coming in the past four years.
The first in a four-book series to be released between now and February in an expedited publishing schedule meant to encourage "binge reading," After is a fairly typical good-girl-meets-bad-boy narrative about a college freshman named Tessa and her intense, sometimes corrosive, romance with a "rude, tattooed, brown-haired boy" named Hardin. In crafting After, Todd drew "inspiration from all types of things," she says, sitting in the offices of Wattpad earlier this week. "Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, even some Fifty Shades … there's some Twilight influences. It's kind of everything I've ever read thrown into one thing."
The major influence, however, is the chart-topping British boy band One Direction. Similarly to how the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction, After began as a tribute to band member Harry Styles, changed to Hardin in the print version after a fan vote. (The band has remained mum about the novels.) A voracious reader of fanfic ("Some of it is a little much," she admits), Todd spent her first few months on Wattpad searching for other people's stories before a lull in reading material made her attempt one herself.
"It took over my life in a way," she says of the novels, the first of which she started writing in April, 2013. "My husband used to say, after I told him about it, 'You're writing this for free, basically.' And I would spend all day doing it. I would write and then I would spend three hours on Twitter, after I was done writing. There was just something about this. I didn't know it would be this [successful], but I thought maybe something would come of it."
Candice Faktor, Wattpad's general manager, says it was "mid-2013" before After first appeared on Wattpad's radar. "We noticed a lot of people were typing into Google, looking for ' After on Wattpad,'" she recalls. "We didn't even know what After was." Eventually fans of After, who call themselves "Afternators," were writing fanfic of Todd's fanfic. ("It got to the point where, literally, Tessa's yoga pants had an [Instagram] account," she says.) Seeing her fans forced to print off hard copies of the novel on their home printers, Todd was mulling self-publishing a print edition herself in the fall of 2013, when Wattpad reached out to her.
At the start of 2014 they began meeting with publishers, eventually signing with Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, for a reported six-figure advance. "Wattpad took a very small percentage to help facilitate the transaction," says Faktor.
Jennifer Bergstrom, Gallery's vice-president and publisher, admits she was "very skeptical" when she first heard about After this past February.
"The first question I asked myself was, 'How are we going to get people to pay for a book when they've been getting it – and reading it – for free?" Then she saw Todd's numbers on Wattpad. "I was very willing, at that point, to take a chance."
Bergstrom describes the publication of the novel, which has a first printing of 80,000 copies, as a "true partnership" with Wattpad, whose logo is featured on the print edition's cover alongside Todd's screen name, imaginator1D (for One Direction). The 584-page paperback retails for $18.99 in Canada, while the Wattpad edition remains free. Bergstrom is convinced "there's a huge readership left" untapped, and, besides, the novels have been professionally edited, with some scenes expanded. "I think her rabid fans are actually going to want to re-read it," says Bergstrom.
And it's not as if one billion people have actually read the novels. When it comes to Wattpad, each chapter viewed counts as one "read," so, in actuality, someone who has read all three novels, which total 300 chapters, counts as 300 reads. Still, millions of people have read her work, with more likely to come; Todd recently sold film rights to Paramount Pictures, and is already talking to Gallery about future projects, including a spin-off series featuring one of After's secondary characters.
Todd still seems astonished by how much her life has changed in the past year. She tells a story: The first time she met with representatives from Wattpad was in Los Angeles, where they put her up in the Petit Ermitage, a boutique hotel in West Hollywood; she was cash-strapped at the time, and when the hotel accidentally charged her, it sent her bank account into overdraft. She remembers staring at the Cokes in her minibar, thirsty, but unwilling to spend the $5 they each cost.
She stayed at the hotel again when she was recently in L.A. "This time when I went I literally drank like 10 Cokes, and I don't even like Coke," she says, smiling. "Every day they'd put in two and I'd drink them all. And I'm like, 'This feels good.'"