In the beginning, there were book proposals – dozens of hard-won pages submitted to prospective literary agents who’d reply with a gracious rejection but wish you all the best in your pursuits. There was waiting, there was hoping, there was crushing disappointment. With Wattpad, an online and mobile platform for amateur, unagented writing that comprises a monthly user base of 70 million, today’s emerging authors can to say goodbye to all that. Instead of relying on editorial gatekeepers, the engagement of millions of readers determine Wattpad’s highest performing content. The result: a sprawling database of viral storytelling, some of which has been optioned for television or movie productions. Now, comes Wattpad’s next move – a new imprint, Wattpad Books.
Founded by University of Toronto alumni Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen in 2006 – predating the announcement of the iPhone by two months – Wattpad allows users, 90 per cent of whom classify as millennials or Gen Z, to upload long-form stories they’ve written. Other Wattpad users read them voraciously, often chapter by chapter as they’re posted, and can leave hyper-specific comments on certain paragraphs or sentences. While many professional writers obey a strict “Don’t read the comments” commandment to spare themselves the ill-mannered and sometimes traumatic gruel that comprises so much of our comment sections and Twitter mentions, Wattpad has turned the concept of direct reader-to-author access into a positive trait. Authors use feedback to edit stories whenever they want, after they’ve already been posted. In a traditional publishing arena, edits that aren’t corrections would be considered uncouth if made after a piece is published, one of many indelible publishing-industry rules that Wattpad has overturned.
In August, the Toronto-based company will further build on this dynamic by publishing the first title of its new imprint. Given the platform’s defiant rejection of publishing norms, some might see the imprint as regressive. But according to Wattpad Studios deputy general manager Ashleigh Gardner, who will lead the publishing division, entering the physical book market is not only logical from a revenue standpoint, but necessary in the company’s quest to highlight voices often excluded from the industry. Plus, with a fanatically engaged user base, the platform’s most promising stories rise to prominence without staff having to spelunk a slush pile. Wattpad’s machine learning intelligence, which evaluates content based on an algorithm, user data and elemental qualities such as grammar, does that for them. From there, a human team determines which stories to pitch to networks and, prior to the launch of its own imprint, outside publishers. (Wattpad’s licensing arm connects authors with film and television studios such as Sony, SYFY Network, Universal Cable Productions and Hulu, among others. The Netflix film The Kissing Booth was acquired from then-17-year-old Wattpad user Beth Reekles, who was also offered a three-book deal with Random House U.K. after 19 million users read her story. In April, the feature film After, based on a Wattpad story by author Anna Todd, was theatrically released.)
“Part of our reason for creating a book imprint is that we were bringing projects to publishers and they were doing really well sales-wise, but we were always having to convince a middleman. We were having to do a lot of education and data literacy. One of the most frustrating parts about working within publishing is that there’s often a lot of fear to take a risk on something if there’s no [comparative] title. If it hasn’t worked before, it’s really difficult to get people to pay attention. On Wattpad, the stories aren’t just picked by an editor. Our entire community is our book scouts. We’ve got one of the most diverse, young communities and one of the most massive focus groups in the world right now. To be able to confidently say, ‘This is resonating with an audience,’ is an exciting thing that we have, that other [publishers] don’t have.”
Wattpad Books will release six young-adult titles of between 80,000 and 100,000 words in length by the end of 2019. Editing will be handled in-house, with sales and distribution led by Raincoast Books in Canada, and Macmillan in the United States. For 2020, the company projects 20 book releases, with genres extending beyond YA. (In 2018, Wattpad announced it had raised US$51-million in investment funding.)
The imprint’s first title, The QB Bad Boy and Me, by New Zealand-based author Tay Marley, has amassed 41 million reads on the platform. (All Wattpad Books titles will remain in raw, pre-edited form on the Wattpad platform even after they’re published.) Its second title, Trapeze, by England-based Leigh Ansell, will be released mid-September.
Ansell, who is 23 and works a day job as a copywriter, signed up for Wattpad to read stories when she was 15 years old. “I didn’t have a lot of money to buy actual books, so I was searching for a place where I could read online,” she says. Today, Ansell’s Wattpad page has 135,000 followers, and her digital Wattpad book Human Error has been optioned for television. “I’ve always been a writer,” says Ansell, who says she spent her childhood writing “really cringy” short stories. Though it took time to build the courage to post her own writing, eventually she began to use Wattpad as an author. “It occurred to me that these writers were amateur authors as well, and a lot of them were the same age as me. So I thought, ‘Why can’t I post my stories?’”
“A big thing for me was my age,” she continues. “Part of the reason I wasn’t taking myself seriously was, well, what publisher is going to take a 15-year-old seriously? With Wattpad it didn’t feel like such a high-pressure thing. It was just about telling a story and having fun with it.”
Wattpad’s database contains 565 million story uploads, not all of which will become major acquisitions. Gardner says that for many, being optioned is not the goal. “A lot of our users have joined Wattpad because it’s self-expression for them, in the same way that people use Instagram without being monetarily incentivized to do so. And a lot of people are able to build careers on that as well,” she says. (Wattpad offers several revenue-generating streams that writers can opt into, such as Wattpad Paid Stories, which allows readers to pay-per-chapter, and Wattpad Futures, which allows writers to have advertisements run alongside their stories.)
“On Wattpad, there is a space to make mistakes and learn from them,” says 17-year old Wattpad writer Noora Zaroon, who is based in New Delhi. “It’s very interactive. Your readers can comment on what’s wrong with the story and you can immediately rectify it. I have seen my book evolve over a course of five years and that would not have been possible if I had published it. Publishing means your work is permanent, unchangeable. Wattpad allows your work to evolve as you yourself evolve, as both a person and a writer.”
Josie Migdal, a 19-year-old Wattpad writer from Orlando, says, “The great thing about Wattpad is the freedom. You can put out whatever you want. …Everyone on the platform seems to have kind of the same mindset, we’re all at a similar point in our lives. That its users are majority girls does help a lot. If your editors are all 50-year-old men, there’s a big barrier there because our brains are obviously different.” (Wattpad’s user base is 70-per-cent women.)
It is incontestable that the internet can be a cruel place for marginalized people. According to a representative from Wattpad, the company has a zero-tolerance approach to harassment or bullying, which fosters an environment where experimentation and imperfection are forgiven, even encouraged. While other social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been reluctant to take an actionable stance on hate speech, Wattpad’s policy is to delete any such comments without hesitation. “We’ve invested a lot in a strong trust and safety team, and they’ve done a great job building and enforcing an amazing culture,” says Gardner. “We also put a lot of control in the hands of our writers.” Wattpad writers have the ability to delete comments left on their work and can block individual users from commenting on their stories.
“I do get comments here and there from people who don’t like a certain character or plot situation but for the most part, it is a very positive place,” Migdal says. “And even when you do mess up or spell something wrong or use any kind of incorrect grammar, people don’t make you feel bad about it.” Wattpad users retain the rights to work posted on the platform and can unpublish stories at any time.
“The cynic in me wants to say that there is an element of exploitation in making money from the user-generated content of teenagers,” says Emily Keeler, a Toronto-based editor with Coach House Books. (Disclosure: Keeler is a personal acquaintance and previous editor of mine.)
“But I was also a teenager on Blogspot and WordPress, and for too large a chunk of my life gave unpaid content to sites like Facebook and Twitter. I don’t really think it’s that different. “The business of publishing doesn’t exist because it’s good business. It exists because people want to make art and they want to be heard and express themselves and create publics where their work can be recognized,” she adds. "It’s interesting to think about new models and new ways of consolidating a public.”
As subversive as Wattpad may seem to publishing purists, the platform’s influence isn’t that it’s revolutionized the act of reading. Its significance is in its mutiny, waged against the gatekeepers of literary homogeneity first as an online library, and now as a physical force in the book-buying market. “These opportunities have made me realize that you don’t have to go about it the traditional way,” Ansell says. “That’s not the only way in.”
Editor’s note: (May 3, 2019) An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for the author Anna Todd. Also, the paid stories program Wattpad Next is now called Wattpad Paid Stories. This version has been updated.