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Wattpad bucks centuries of publishing wisdom, using data – not instinct – to find the next big hits for its predominantly young female fans

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Illustration by The Globe and Mail/iStock

There are two ways of looking at Anna Todd’s After series, about a virginal college freshman named Tessa who falls for the laconic bad boy on campus. The first is as a book franchise that has sold 11 million copies, been adapted into two successful films (so far) and cemented Todd’s place in the pantheon of pop-fiction superstars. The second is as proof that Wattpad – the Toronto-based storytelling platform that nurtured Todd’s writing – made a savvy decision in building its business model around the desires of young women.

The story behind After is already the stuff of modern literary legend. In 2013, Todd was a 25-year-old army wife who’d been devouring One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad for months before writing some of her own. The result was a 100-chapter fanfic (featuring One Direction’s Harry Styles) that racked up more than a million reads in just a few months.

Late that year, Wattpad’s engineers noticed roughly five per cent of reading traffic was going to Todd’s story. “That’s how we realized there was something really special not only about Anna’s style or about the fandom built around it, but the interaction between the two – how Anna was able to cultivate a community and keep them enthralled,” says Aron Levitz, general manager of Wattpad Studios. “If she was a few minutes late posting a chapter, there would be young women on social media, very nicely asking, ‘What’s going on?’ It was an obvious place for us to start this journey into seeing if we could adapt things from Wattpad.”

Within a year, Wattpad had helped Todd sign a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery Books (for a reported mid-six-figure advance). Publishers in 23 countries had snapped up the foreign rights, and Paramount had bought the rights to turn it into a movie franchise (though they eventually let the deal lapse). By the end of 2014, Todd’s story had been published as a trilogy – After, After We Collided and After We Fell – with new character names (Harry Styles became Hardin Scott) and significantly fewer typos.

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Aron Levitz, general manager of Wattpad Studios. Wattpad Studios was created to help writers sell the publishing and film rights to their stories.Handout

Its success also helped spawn Story DNA, machine learning technology Wattpad designed to collate vast amounts of data about global trends, individual stories – everything from number of reads, comments and shares to where readers live – and even “patterns within the stories themselves,” Levitz says. Its goal: To search for the right combination of subject matter, style and fandom that presages a hit.

After gave the company incontestable proof that if it used all these inputs to figure out what its audience of predominantly young women wanted out of stories and gave them more of it, those same women would enthusiastically pay for off-platform adaptations of Wattpad material.

Today, the company has 90 million users and more than one billion uploads, 1,500 of which have been adapted through Wattpad Studios and Wattpad Books, the publishing imprint it launched in 2019. It currently has 90 TV and film projects in development and 16 book releases scheduled for this year alone. And according to Levitz, they all started in the same place as After: with the data.

That’s wildly different from how traditional publishing companies identify projects with potential. “The ‘data’ that drives them is comps,” says long-time publishing expert Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, chief content officer at LibraryPass. “It’s a gut instinct that says, ‘This book is very much like these other books that sold X number of copies.’ There’s no actual data, necessarily.”

And that difference is a huge part of Wattpad’s success.

When Wattpad launched in 2006, founders Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen positioned it as a way to read on mobile – but according to company lore, it made just $2 from Google AdSense that year. By 2011, however, a million users were reading and posting original work on the platform. Wattpad Studios was born four years later to help writers sell the publishing and film rights to their stories, laying the groundwork for the verticalization of Wattpad’s business – that is, turning stories with built-in audiences into hit movies, TV shows and books.

And while the company now describes itself as the “global multiplatform entertainment company for stories,” it’s not really a pivot. “Even in the early days, we knew we weren’t taking the place of somebody reading a book, necessarily. We were taking the place of someone being on Netflix or playing Candy Crush,” Levitz says. “We were an outlet for entertainment.”

Data has also been a core part of Wattpad’s strategy. In 2016, Lau published a “master plan” that laid out how it was collecting one billion data “events” each day on what users were “searching for, reading and engaging with” to build an entertainment company that could more consistently produce hits. Developing Story DNA, which helps Wattpad “understand contextually what’s going on in that story,” as Levitz puts it, was a natural next step. “We can look at the vocabulary, the emotional ups and downs, the topics people [are gravitating toward]. And that’s all information that helps us find a story before anyone’s even read it.”

But that’s not the most important part of Wattpad’s secret formula, according to Levitz. “Our power is in fandom,” he says. “Anyone who reads one of our stories and completes it, that’s a fan of that story.”

Wattpad isn’t the first company to leverage fandom to sell books. Fifty Shades of Grey started as a piece of Twilight fanfic before author E.L. James renamed her main characters and published it as an original book. The erotic trilogy went on to sell 125 million copies, and the film adaptations grossed more than US$1.3-billion. Yet strangely, considering how economically powerful fans can be – a 2017 study by entertainment media brand Fandom and audience measurement tool ComScore found “engaged entertainment fans spend more money on their preferred media” and influence their friends’ buying decisions – few publishers take them as seriously as Wattpad does.

“I think my success in the publishing industry was kind of a shock,” says Todd, who lives in Seattle and has published several more books, including a stand-alone retelling of Little Women and The Brightest Stars, the first novel in a new series. “Because not only am I not ‘experienced’ – I just like books, and now I’m writing them – you can also read these stories for free. But I still sold very well. I think people were confused why all these women and girls were running to bookstores to buy these books.”

What Wattpad understands is that fans – particularly the young and mostly female ones who make up the core of its user base – want to “live in the worlds they love a little bit longer,” Todd says. That means there’s a not-insignificant demographic of readers who will pay money for a more polished book version of a story they’ve already read and reread on Wattpad. The same goes for screen adaptations.

Another key differentiator for Wattpad, and a driver of its success in adapting its content for books, TV and film, is the way it treats the young women who use its platform. That is, seriously.

“It’s not important what I like – what I like is why we’ve had the same story on TV and film for 100 years and read the same books for 400 years,” Levitz says. “But if you listen to what audiences like, what is driving them, what trends they’re most interested in, what movements they want to get behind, you get a completely different view of entertainment, of publishing. And once we knew that our fandoms were driving hits off-platform, it became a very easy call to say, ‘This can be one of the pillars of our business.’ ”

None of this could have happened if Wattpad hadn’t deliberately created a space where its users feel supported, even protected. In fact, if you ask Jeanne Lam, Wattpad’s chief business officer, platform, what sets it apart from every other site geared to amateur writers, from to Archive of Our Own, all the way back to LiveJournal, the answer she gives is “safety.” That’s not guesswork – users regularly tell the company that’s why they’re there. As an example, Lam points to one user whose profile says she loves Wattpad because she’s a fat, autistic writer, and she feels like her story matters there.

Unsurprisingly, there’s data to back this up. In 2020, for instance, Lam says Wattpad saw interest in Muslim romance stories explode, with readers spending 100 million minutes on ones tagged “Muslim romance or “Muslim love story.” “You see that in your feed, you see recommendations – you get evidence that this is a place where different kinds of stories can exist,” she says. “There’s no prototype of what is possible, and it makes you feel like this is a safe space for you to be creative and unleash.”

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Jeanne Lam, Wattpad’s chief business officer, platform. Lam says reader and writer safety and trust were always a 'very important part of how we thought about building a community.'Handout

Unlike other apps that get tangled up in questions of free speech (ahem, Twitter), Wattpad has strict content and policy guidelines, and it’s not afraid to yank stories that contravene them, no matter how popular. To do so, it uses a combination of machine learning and a global team of trained humans who monitor the platform relentlessly. The community itself plays a role, too. “From the very beginning, reader and writer safety and trust were always a very important part of how we thought about building a community,” Lam says. Now, “the community itself helps enforce the behaviours and standards they believe should exist on Wattpad.” It’s not uncommon to see users speak up when they see inappropriate comments.

“We invest deeply in creating a safe space for marginalized communities,” Lam says. “Because if you create a safe space for marginalized communities, all communities thrive.”

Three-quarters of Wattpad’s user base is located outside of North America, so when Lam says “all communities,” she means it. The company has 17 partners around the world, in places such as Indonesia, Europe and Brazil, along with publishing imprints that distribute Wattpad Books projects internationally. And in May, it was acquired for roughly $750-million by Naver Corp., which operates South Korea’s largest search engine, among other internet concerns.

Though Lau and Yuen will remain in charge in Toronto, the deal has led to a subtle but distinct shift in the way the company thinks about its audience.

“We know that with the rise of streaming, the globalization of content is now the norm,” Levitz says. A Spanish-language story might have started in Argentina but is being read in Spain, Mexico and Chile, too. Same goes for the spiking popularity of those Muslim romances, which aren’t solely being read in Muslim-majority countries. The Girl He Never Noticed is another example. Written by Neilani Alejandrino, a Filipino author living in New Zealand, it was, at one point, the most read English-language story on Wattpad. But for Levitz, it made no sense to look at the story’s performance on a country-by-country basis. It was more useful to understand why fans were engaged and whether Wattpad could globalize the content, he says. “It doesn’t matter if it was Spanish first. If we know there’s a core audience of people who love a genre, let’s market that to the world.”

If this sounds more like HBO or Netflix than a publishing company, it’s deliberate. “If there’s one thing that distinguishes publishing from most other media, it’s rights,” LibraryPass’s Gonzalez says. Publishing contracts usually include a territory clause that spells out which geographic region and language a book will be published in. Publishers might acquire foreign rights as well, but most have to partner with local publishing houses – something that’s still relatively rare. With movies, Gonzalez says, “there are studios and distribution companies built with that global perspective. Publishing doesn’t have that. Literally all of Asia might as well be another planet for us.”

For Wattpad, that’s not an issue, which means the company can hand-pick work from authors based anywhere. That includes 24-year-old Warona Jolomba, whose YA story Rest Easy will be published by Wattpad Books this fall. More literary, and significantly shorter, than many of the stories Wattpad has backed thus far, Rest Easy is a coming-of-age tale inspired by a news story Jolomba read about a woman who went missing for decades, only to turn up in a nursing home.

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Warona Jolomba's YA story Rest Easy will be published by Wattpad Books this fall.Handout

“She had dementia, so by the time they found her, she could not really give them any sort of understanding of what happened in that 40-year time frame,” says Jolomba, who is based in London. “I just remember being blown away and thinking, ‘There’s so many possibilities.’ ”

She posted the story in 2018, and it attracted a steady stream of readers and earned two Watty Awards, an annual prize for the platform’s best work. But Jolomba didn’t think it would lead to a literary career – she was actually studying to be a lawyer. So when Wattpad came calling last summer, she was in the same boat as many of the writers it partners with: Enthusiastic but inexperienced when it came to negotiating rights, assessing brand partnerships or even working with a professional editor. The company set her up with both an editor and an in-house talent manager to sit in on meetings, help her negotiate partnerships and answer any questions she might have about the process.

“I’ve literally just come out of a law degree – I didn’t even know where to begin with my writing career,” Jolomba says. “But it’s just so reassuring, because I don’t feel like I’m doing this on my own. It’s more like I’m being informed every step of the way.”

To Lam, this type of support is as crucial to Wattpad’s success as its sense of safety. “If you’re only a safe space, that’s not sufficient for the people who want to see their stories on bookshelves and big screens,” she says. “So, the other thing Wattpad has done that’s unique is create a flywheel for writers to succeed. They can get their first read on Wattpad, which lots of places can do. But they can also get their millionth read, or their billionth. They can get their story to a bookstore, and they can get it on screens everywhere. And more recently, they can make money from doing that.”

It’s important to note that for most of Wattpad’s 90 million writers, Todd’s After-level success is entirely out of reach. In fact, if Gonzalez has a quibble with the company, that’s it: “Like a lot of these platforms, they overstate the outliers as their success story to give the sense that anybody could possibly do this,” he says. “Though to Wattpad’s credit, they never oversold that.”

He’s also not sure if Wattpad’s data-driven model will fundamentally change the publishing industry. “There’s a lot that traditional publishers can learn about engaging audiences to help find books, but I don’t think it’ll have any material change,” he says. “If anything, there are publishers who monitor Wattpad and try and get to that writer before Wattpad does.”

When it comes to the wider entertainment industry, Jonathan Deckter, president of Los Angeles-based Voltage Pictures – which produced After – is more optimistic. When he first heard the pitch, he had no idea what Wattpad was. (Literally his first question was, “What’s a Wattpad?”) But once he realized how popular the story was, how many of its core fans – what he describes as 15- to 17-year-olds who mostly “live a digital life” – went on to buy the book, and how active they were on social media, he was all in. “I was like, ‘I don’t quite understand this, but I want to be a part of it,’ ” he says.

The bet paid off: the first After instalment grossed more than $69-million at the box office. Typically, North America accounts for 35 per cent to 50 per cent of global box office for an indie film, Deckter says. In After’s case, overseas accounted for 87 per cent, which is “unheard of,” he says.

Like Gonzalez, he sees Wattpad as “a place where creators are discovered and IP [intellectual property] is generated,” he says. “There are multiple parties that are looking at Wattpad. And every time I read about someone who’s doing something with them, I send an e-mail to all my development guys and say, ‘Why didn’t you get there first?’ ”

Deckter also sees Wattpad as a company that’s breaking down barriers, giving young women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities a better chance of seeing their work adapted for the big screen than ever before.

That’s where Todd lands, too.

“I don’t even think you could put a value on working with Wattpad for me,” she says. “I didn’t grow up in a family that had access to college and all this stuff. So, whenever people ask, ‘Did you always want to be a writer?’ I’m like, ‘No – I didn’t even have the audacity to dream of being a writer.’ And Wattpad just knocked down all the walls.”

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