Crowdsourcing the Novel: Wattpad as another alternative in Indie Publishing
by Dennis M. Lavoie
Okay, stop me if you know all about Wattpad, but….this article opened my mind. It’s in Atlantic Magazine (Vol 322 No. 5, December 2018, pages 18-21, by Bianca Bosker. It’s the issue with the cover story “The Sex Recession”—another interesting article, but for a different discussion. If you can’t get the print version at Barnes and Noble, here’s the podcast (I haven’t listened to it so no guarantees):
The article caught my eye because Wattpad came up at the January 10 meeting. I have to admit I didn’t see the value in a site that sounded like Twitter with longer character strings, but I decided to skim the article anyway. I often read articles whose topic I may not be otherwise interested in simply to study the craft of the writer, and this article would be worth reading for that reason alone, a well-written non-fiction piece, aka reporting. The author, Bianca Bosker, uses the story of a real-life person to illuminate the subject matter, and she brings in other people, “secondary characters”, as well. As in fiction, our real fascination is stories about people, and Bosker tells a good story.
It’s the story of a writer who vaulted to success using Wattpad. Her name is Anna Todd. She is, perhaps, the future of publishing. When she started writing, she was 24, married to a soldier she met one month after graduating from high school, had a newborn who had daily seizures. She came from a dysfunctional family (trailer park, drug addict father stabbed to death before she was one-year-old, the mother also a drug addict — you get the picture). But she loved to read (some of her favorites were “Wuthering Heights”, “Twilight”, and “The Things They Carried” — eclectic to say the least and not what you’d expect. Apparently no one told her they were “literature”). And she was addicted to fan fiction, which she followed on Wattpad, where it is hugely popular and where there is a lot of it. When she tired of waiting for updates on her favorite fan fiction, she started writing her own, in secret from her husband and friends, whenever she could spare a few minutes typing on her phone, and, without pausing to proofread, she uploaded her story, chapter by chapter, to Wattpad.
By the time she had written 90 chapters of an eventual 295 (yikes!) her serial novel, “After”, had been read more that one million times.
The rest of the story is dream stuff: her readership got her lots of attention from Wattpad-the-company and from traditional literary agents, among others, resulting in six-figure book deals, translations, European book tours, and (the Holy Grail !) her novel is being adapted to film—which she is producing with tight creative control. Are you listening Michael Begg?
It is a truly heartwarming story of girl makes good as a writer, but, as I said, it is a well-written article and there’s a lot to unpack in it. Here are some of the other things that jumped out at me:
First, there’s Wattpad itself. Bosker writes that it has “65 million monthly users, overwhelmingly female and under 35, who spend an average 30 minutes a day reading authors [ranging] from middle schoolers to Margaret Attwood” (now, there’s a surprise; traditional authors are popular as well as neophytes). Furthermore, Wattpad “has helped hundreds of stories be adapted into books, TV shows, or films…”. (Netflix’s show, “The Kissing Booth”, one of its most watched, “began as a Wattpad story written by a 15-year-old”.)
And this: Serials are popular! Wildly. This should not be surprising. Serials have been around since at least the rise of inexpensive printing technologies and general education. For that matter, the typical novel can be viewed as a serial story bound together in a form that encourages “binge reading”. (And many serials, including Anna Todd’s “After”, are made into novels.) It’s not that today’s generation has a shorter attention span; people have always read short form fiction. Recall the thirty minutes the average reader spends on Wattpad? It’s about the length of a chapter as well as a short story (I’ve said it before in a previous blog: you don’t have to write a book to be a writer).
And this: Young people are reading! (Maybe the doomsayers who decry the decline in reading among the young aren’t paying attention to what young people are actually reading and how they get their stories.) New readers are vacuuming up all sorts of stories from the internet at an incredible rate. Yes, some of the writing (maybe a lot) is dross by some standards, but the point is kids are reading, so who cares? Even comic books are a gateway. A lot of teachers have written Anna to thank her for inspiring their students to read such authors as Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Anna’s characters read the classics, which intrigues her readers—maybe it’s the first time they’ve seen someone they care about—the character in a story that engages them— who reads traditional literature, so they start branching out. This is the mind-opening power of reading; it doesn’t matter where you start).
So it seems that reading is not going to be dying out anytime soon. These young people are reading for pleasure. I’m not surprised: as I observed in said previous blog, reading is an act that involves our intellect, creativity, and imagination in way that other media — film, theater, oral storytelling, radio plays, books on tape — do not, and our brains are wired to derive pleasure from this type of creative exercise. This is all good news for writers.
And this: For all these readers, there are a lot of writers out there supplying stories. If a lot of them are “bad” writers, well, the readers don’t seem to care; grammar, spelling, and the finer points of fiction writing don’t seem to matter (this jumped out at me, an acknowledged “comma nazi”, like a bulldog latching onto my ankle—I’m not happy about it but can’t ignore it). If perfect writing does not matter that much to these readers, what does matter is the story, which, of course, is universal. Now, a story “artfully” told can bring a special joy to a reader, but I doubt that many of those 65 million readers of Wattpad have been taught how to critique a story like an English major, yet they know what grabs them, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges.
There is a huge number of enthusiastic, creative storytellers out there, and the internet is providing them a soapbox. Yes, this increases the competition for readers’ eyes and attention, but I think that also works to the individual writer’s advantage—it’s the same principle that retailers use when siting a new store: put it next to a competitor or several competitors. This concentrates your clientele, which increases visits to your store, and allows a subtle shift in the focus of your advertising towards the quality of your products. This is one aspect of the “Crowdsourcing” in the article’s title.
And this: Here’s another aspect of crowdsourcing: One of the reasons for the popularity of serials in particular on Wattpad is the collaborative interaction between authors and readers. The people who use Wattpad have grown up interacting with their media. As a social writing/reading site, Wattpad allows writers to put out their work for anyone to read and get near instant feedback from their readers on the same platform. (This is how Anna Todd wrote “After” — no outline, just adjusting the story with each chapter based on what her readers were telling her they liked or didn’t.) It sounds like Amazon publishing without the gatekeeper curating the reviews: there’s no middleman between the writer and the reader. This generation likes that, and it will drive the publishing industry in the future.
And this: What her readers liked were the same things that concerned them in their own lives: social anxiety and the sometimes brutal immediacy of social media; bad, unsupportive or distracted parents; messy relationships with “thin-skinned, impulsive, and insecure” people; and all the other “petty but momentous growing pains of early adulthood.” Also hyperrealism, including abuse and explicit sex and other topics that the traditional gatekeepers (parents and publishers) of Young Adult and even New Adult fiction tend to sanitize as “too mature for young audiences”. As Anna says in the article, “I’m not writing about the 1 percent of people who have this fairy-tale life. I’m writing about people like me, who maybe had a rough childhood.” She stands out for being particularly adept at using social media, including Wattpad, not only to connect with her readers but to guide her writing. This does not seem to constrain her creativity; instead, it informs and enriches it. This is a truly “social” author; she’s not a reclusive introverted artist.
So, here we have a platform that allows authors to bypass traditional routes to publishing, yet also may provide a path back into it (as well as into other media). It strikes me as being the next iteration of Indie publishing.
Wattpad appeals to readers who are comfortable with interacting on social media and, indeed expect to interact with the story creator. The readers who use Wattpad are intensely interested in how to navigate a fraught period in their own lives and want to find stories about how others manage it, as well as to share their own experiences (in guiding the way a story unfolds, some of the readers may be using the story like a personalized, crowdsourced life advice column).
As a success in this brave new world of publishing, Anna Todd stands out as an example of an author that would otherwise not have been able to break through the barriers of traditional publishing or even Indie publishing (she simply did not have the time to produce something on Amazon, but, more importantly, she was afraid the people around her would ridicule her). Wattpad’s direct connection with readers enabled her to open a new door into the process. She uses other social media to engage her fans as well; she uses editors and graphic artists but relishes the freedom to control her own output without having to wait on “a creaky old bureaucracy of an old machine.” And she loves doing her own marketing in this medium in which she is so comfortable and adept. As she puts it: “When I realized that I can invest in my own marketing [through social media and using the internet to both educate myself and to market my own brand] and do exactly what I think needs to be done—well, then it just feels like: What is the benefit of having a publisher?”