Wattpad’s user-generated commercial fiction more than matches traditional publishing and is delivered direct to the smartphone – who needs to pay writers?
Ready to download … much fan fiction on WattPad is equal to big name novel franchises such as Divergent, which was adapted into film, pictured. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP
Damien Walter Friday 13 February 2015 08.00 GMT
For a few years in the mid 2000s, I was the young librarian who got sent to schools to convince kids they really did want to read books. The truth of my experience was that the kids needed no convincing. There’s an odd belief in some parts of the book world that young people have to be made to read, or made to read “good” books. If you want a really telling piece of evidence to counter this strange notion, look no further than Wattpad.
With more than 35 million users and over 100,000 stories published each day, Wattpad is staggeringly active community of readers and writers, the vast majority of whom are young adults. When I was working for libraries to engage young people with books, the idea of a website where kids could post and read stories for and by their peer group came up again and again. Wattpad is that vision made real, with the support of nearly $70m (£46m) in venture capital funding.
Much as I like the idea of venture capitalists helping kids to express themselves creatively, it seems more likely that hard-nosed investors are actually betting on Wattpad to ultimately disrupt and take a bite out of the $90bn global publishing industry. The platform’s most popular serials, such as Edward Mullen’s Prodigy, can accrue well in excess of 2m “reads”. That’s a huge number in an industry where sales of as few as 5,000 copies can make a New York Times bestseller.
But can the best of Wattpad’s stories cut the mustard against the best of traditional publishing? Much of Wattpad’s popularity is based on fan fiction, but after a month sifting through the platform’s original fiction categories I suspect that – while I didn’t find the next Hilary Mantel or Donna Tartt – in popular genres like sci-fi, fantasy and young adult, Wattpad’s best contributors are more than good enough to match their professionally published counterparts.
MJ Gary’s Flawed is a stylish, high-concept young adult thriller about a future society where those who fall below the 80th percentile in psychological tests are condemned to the subhuman status of “flawed”. It’s easily the equal of current smash hit Divergent, and has gathered over 1.6m reads to date. Tom Reynolds’s Meta is a superhero novel, a hard genre to pull off successfully, but Reynolds succeeds in giving the two-dimensional heroes of comics a more three-dimensional existence in prose – racking up another 1.6m reads which have sent the full novel soaring at the Kindle store. Sally Slater’s Paladin weighs in at No 7 on the Wattpad fantasy chart, with a whopping 9.9m reads. Imagine Game of Thrones with less blood and more gender confusion and you get a taste of this knightly epic.
Brittany “The Book Slayer” Geragotelis is a Wattpad superstar. Her first serial on the platform, Life’s A Witch, gained more than 19m reads and lead to a six-figure, three-book deal with Simon & Schuster. Geragotelis is a master of high-concept young adult fiction. Fate Reloaded follows popular high-school student Jordana Kane through three alternate realities that branch from one fateful decision, and Painless is the story of Bliss, a teen secret agent who literally feels no pain, and the odd family that help and frustrate her. They exemplify the slick, highly commercial and genuinely compelling serials that are Wattpad at its best.
The key to the site’s success is the Wattpad app, which hardwires the stories into the smartphone – the artefact that best defines the millennial generation. If you sign up to a serial, chapters arrive with a bleeping alert on to a device that occupies more of our waking attention than the television ever did. Wattpad injects bursts of fiction into the hectic digital space otherwise dominated by status updates, tweets and cat memes. Is this good for the art of fiction? No. Does it work for genre and commercial fiction already commodified by publishers to compete against television and film? Yes, and very successfully so.
As the YouTube of fiction, Wattpad has a good chance of stealing publishers’ most lucrative product from under them. Not least because while publishers are still lumbered with the need to actually pay writers, Wattpad is capitalising on the simple fact that millions of people will write novels for nothing more than the love of writing them. While publishers are still working with a system of agents and editors designed to second-guess what readers will enjoy, Wattpad and similar platforms let the crowd do the hard work of sorting the rare hits from the mass of misses.
Writing and publishing have resisted the 15-minute model of fame for longer than many other media. But Wattpad is ushering in the kind of viral celebrity for professional writers commonly associated with YouTube vloggers and the makers of crazy cat videos. Garnering 20m reads on Wattpad might well bring in a traditional book deal, or a burst of ebook sales on Amazon or its successors. But the consistency of a publishing platform that professional writers have long relied upon may well already be a thing of the past. That, of course, is an inevitable consequence of a writing world no longer fenced off for the lucky few, but opened up for the masses. My inner librarian cheers at this change, even as my inner writer feels the fear.
From: The Guardian