Wattpad: Disrupting publishing, one download at a time

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Wall of book covers on the old Wattpad offices
I saw this wall of book covers on the old Wattpad office wall during my visit, selected by the staff to reflect favourite picks.

If you went to the office building in North Toronto where I interviewed Amy Martin, product marketing manager for Wattpad.com, on November 12, 2012, you might find that tree mural still painted on the wall.

But the photos of story cover pages pasted to the branches, along with the desks, chairs and computers—to say nothing of the startup’s 30+ youthful employees—are gone.

And not because of pink slips.

Wattpad is growing.

“We’re projecting to hit 60 to 70 employees next year,” Martin tells me. “We may even outgrow the new office within that time.”

And they have a user base to match.

Last month, Wattpad’s 10 million monthly users spent 2.4 billion—that’s 2.4 BILLION—minutes on the site.

So what is Wattpad?

Here’s my rundown from the point of view of an unpublished fiction writer interested in exploring what it has to offer.

The Written Word’s Venture Capital Darling

Wattpad bills itself as the best place to discover and share stories.

It’s the Youtube of words.

Wattpad's hockey stick graph
Wattpad’s “hockey-stick graph” shows its user base doubling every six months over the past two years or so. If you have trouble reading the graph captions, the blue bar is 2010, the orange is 2011 and red is 2012.

It has the classic hockey-stick user graph that start-ups and venture capitalists lust over.

Its user population has clearly doubled at frequent intervals since it started gaining real traction in 2010.

Someone joins every 2.5 seconds.

Six million stories have been uploaded, with 900,000 stories added each month.

And it’s raised $17 million in venture capital from investors who see a tool with the potential to scale content and achieve a truly global reach.

Of the site’s impressive traffic, over 70 per cent is mobile based. That means easy access to markets where mobile is the only effective tool with which to reach a population, such as Africa and parts of Asia.

The Wattpad app runs on iPhones, BlackBerries, Android phones and Kindle Fires.

You can compose stories right in the application if you’re so inclined — 20 per cent of the people uploading content do. I find sustained typing irritating on an iPhone keypad, but acknowledge that this is a very first-world problem.

If the National Post had written about Margaret Atwood, the first lady of Canadian fiction, had endorsed my reading-related start-up, I'd be plastering newspaper clippings on my walls, too.
If the National Post had written about Margaret Atwood, the first lady of Canadian fiction, endorsing my reading-related start-up, I’d be posting newspaper clippings on my walls, too. Hell, I would paper the walls with them.

Renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood (see photo at right) has signed on as Wattpad’s most high-profile supporter.

Not bad for a site whose employees acknowledge they haven’t figured out how to monetize their audience.

Yet.

Many of the ads on the site are internal and, unsurprisingly, promote Wattpad stories.

At this stage in Wattpad’s development, Martin assured me, the company’s more interested in refining its product than milking its user base (user data, for example, is not sold).

In time, the platform may figure out how to pay its most successful writers as Youtube does for those who upload the most popular videos.

But don’t kid yourself, fellow would-be fiction writers.

Wattpad is not really a writers’ community.

A Global Reading Community

I don’t mean the site administrators want to alienate you.

Although a lot of Wattpad's exposition and promotional copy identifies the organization as a community for readers and writers, I see a lot of support for the former and little that is substantive for the latter.
Although a lot of Wattpad’s exposition/promotional copy identifies the organization as a community for readers and writers, I see a lot of support for the former and little that is substantive for the latter. (Also, if you move in venture capital circles, I understand the names of Wattpad’s backers are extremely impressive.)

Quite the contrary, in fact.

They appear to do their best to present a friendly face to writers. After all, you generate the content that floats their proverbial boat.

But in their techie hearts, Wattpad’s team know they are not in the business of teaching you or me to become better or more popular writers.

Of those 10 million users I mentioned, 10 per cent comment and one per cent post content.

They’re building a global reading community, not one focused on that one percent.

The trick, so far as I can tell, is figuring out how to align the platform with your writing goals.

If you can do that, Wattpad can potentially put your work in front of a lot of eyeballs.

Whether you’ll get compensated for your efforts with more than goodwill is another question.

The Origin Story

Part of this observation is built on the whole digital-native myth. For the record, I don't think youth or exposure are necessarily indicative of your technological prowess. I do agree that the Wattpad community is in the midst of working out its own version of what reading and writing look like. The trick for broad commercial success will be making sure that end product is something non-Wattpad natives understand.
Again, if she’s giving you quotes like that, you might as well use them everywhere. Well played, Amy Martin.

In 2006, co-founder Allen Lau wanted a way to take his books with him when he was traveling without carrying actual books.

Wattpad is the resulting collaboration between Lau and Ivan Yuen, the company’s CTO and co-founder.

It went through several iterations (including problems with copyrighted uploads that caught media heat from the New York Times and other publications) before Lau and Yuen perfected their creation’s fundamental strength — allowing users to read original content by writers without charging writers a cent to upload their work.

“We’re the Youtube of stories,” Martin explains. “There’re no limits to what kind of stories you can tell on Wattpad, either in terms of genre, length or style. We’re reshaping the concept of books using the tools of Internet culture.”

They’re not the first.

You can write and publish your own material through Kindle-Amazon or Sony self-publishing platforms, among many others.

Why would you choose Wattpad?

The Wattpad Difference

“Other online publishing systems recreate the publishing industry culture in a digital format,” Martin says. “They publish, you pay, they own the book—it’s very similar to the publishing house/writer relationship.”

Here are eight notable differences about Wattpad:

  1. Featured writer criteria
    The only way around building a following yourself is to become a featured writer. Wattpad’s small army of community managers lay out the criteria pretty quickly. Anyone can do it, but it’s a lot easier and more likely if you’re an established writer with an existing publishing record.
    The platform’s biggest advantage is its social nature. You fan the authors you like, add books to your reading lists (public or private), vote for your favourites and can see how many reads a given story has accumulated. The more active you are on the site, Wattpad maintains, the more likely it is that people will find your work. There are approximately 650 writers with more than 1 million views.
  2. You can comment on an author’s wall. Authors can use this interactivity to test out new ideas before committing to new projects, according to Martin. Is your concept sticking? Do readers like your characters? Martin says this model works well for existing writers who have a fan base. Let’s say you’re a mid-list author who wants to move from writing SciFi to Fantasy. Testing it out in Wattpad, particularly if you have an existing circle of readers, makes a certain sense.
  3. The site’s algorithm continually refines its results to learn about what you like and help you to find more of it.
  4. Notifications get pushed to you when people you follow publish a new chapter. Wattpad is making serialized fiction cool in an accessible way — Charles Dickens would no doubt approve of that (whether he’d post content for free is a whole other minefield).
  5. The people who do build followings end up with a hell of a communication channel when they publish something new. Martin tells me about Jordan, a teenager somewhere in Boston. The high school student has published a handful of stories with 70 million reads. In the U.K., Abigail Gibbs got signed by an agent after winning Wattpad’s inaugural writing contest and earning 18 million reads. If I was a publisher, why wouldn’t I want to publish someone with a massive pre-existing following?
  6. Genres on Wattpad
    Some of the broad genres available on Wattpad.
    Wattpad publishes fan fiction. Until the meteoric success of 50 Shades of Grey, which started life as a Twilight knockoff, you could have said fan fiction was a writing form the mainstream publishing industry wouldn’t touch. Martin says it’s one of the site’s fastest growing genres (second only to romance). If you want to write something topical for a popular taste about an existing story, Wattpad’s probably a good bet for getting your work in front of people who want to read it.
  7. As the presence of fan fiction, paranormal speciality genres and R-rated content indicate, there’s no structured taste-making process. You don’t have to pass a garrison of agents, editors and slush piles to build an audience, and the social tools make that easier to do than the needle-in-the-haystack model facing writers using other self-publishing platforms. Wattpad does feature some work, but the community drives the bulk of its activity.
  8. There is a cover photo tool built into the site to help you make better covers for your stories than the generic ones Wattpad supplies. Generally, Martin explained, stories with interesting covers pull better traffic on the site.
  9. You retain the rights to whatever you publish. If you want to become a Wattpad celebrity writer, great. If you get a zillon reads and pull your books down after signing a deal with your mainstream house, Wattpad won’t stop you. They’ll even help celebrate your success.

In theory, this could also help new writers get better, though my experience with the platform makes me skeptical.

Why Am I Skeptical ?

The gorgeous cover for Swarm, courtesy of the wonderful Richard Rudy/@thezenmonkey. You know he designs this site, right?
The gorgeous cover for Swarm, my first story to be posted on Wattpad, courtesy of the wonderful Richard Rudy/@thezenmonkey. You know he designs this site, right?

I set up a profile on Wattpad a few days before interviewing Martin.

In the spirit of the site, I uploaded one short story, called Swarm. It’s a work in progress. Since I’m not currently planning to extend the story, I have flagged it as “complete” on the Wattpad system.

It’s had less than 50 reads so far, though traction did improve after I uploaded a cover image and posted about it on The Analytic Eye’s Facebook page.

But after spending a month and a half interacting with the interface and some of Wattpad’s sub-communities, I’m skeptical about how much value the platform delivers to those seeking to improve their skill as writers using its existing supports.

Many of the writers Wattpad cites as success cases—Britney Geragotelis comes to mind—are people who knew how to write to begin with or possess considerable natural talent (e.g., Abigail Gibbs).

Generally, I find the quality of comments on other authors’ stories, messages and discussion has a celebratory, haphazard bent.

A lot of it is limited to positive feedback of the “oh, I loved this so much,” variety without much in the way of substantive suggestion.

When I posted the kind of comments I’m accustomed to giving through writing group sessions, a user named sirgrist (who has a popular novel in progress called Murder Day), told me how rare it is to get detailed feedback.

The grammar I see across the non-story parts of the site also make me feel like the curmudgeon telling those crazy young people to get off my lawn.

I’m going to crash the “oh, no one cares about grammar and digital communication is making everything fluid anyway” party.

People in professional circles will judge you by the way you write.

Writing fiction puts you in a professional circle.

My writing group have a long-standing argument on this topic, but I honestly believe if you can’t write using the currently accepted rules and conventions that your audience accepts and expects, you distract from your message and present a barrier to your work being understood.

It could be that my perception is skewed by my limited time on the site, so I’m open to the idea that my opinion could change as I spend more time with Wattpad and the platform matures.

Here are some other concerns:

  1. The site is slow. Remember that scene in The Social Network where Zuckerberg emphatically states that Facebook never goes down? Time may have proven that claim fallible, but to be a serious social network you need to have top-rate service and a commitment to making the experience seamless. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen either the pinwheel or hourglass of death when using my mobile phone or a desktop machine.
  2. It’s REALLY slow in the community boards, many of which are tailored to people interested in writing. If I can’t participate in the discussion to the point where I’m loathe to even open a notification that someone has added a comment to a board I was following, what is the point?
  3. Genre categories are hard to search. There’s a big difference between fan fiction about Doctor Who and fan fiction about Sailor Moon. I don’t find the Wattpad site particularly easy to navigate below the catch-all genre categories.
  4. Elle Strauss' advice for writers on the Wattpad blog
    I have no problem with Elle Strauss or the advice she gives in this or other articles. After all, the mechanics of writing don’t change. But it’s also what you would hear in traditional editing/publishing circles. Given the potential power of the Wattpad platform to connect experienced writers with newbies, more could be done if they want to change the game for writers as dramatically as they have for readers.
    In-site writing resources (e.g., the Wattpad blog posts on that topic–see graphic at right) don’t provide anything different from every other writing source I have ever read. Figure out a way to partner experienced and new authors, Wattpad, and you may be on to something. The Margaret Atwood-Naomi Alderman zombie novel collaboration is a good example.
  5. An example of formatting gone wrongFormatting
    Here’s some formatting gone wrong. I made a discussion board comment and wanted to list some resources. In my pre-post frame, I was able to use the dashes as makeshift bullets. When I hit post, the dashes were all run together with no soft carriage returns in between. It’s a little thing, but it’s annoying.
    While the interface makes good attempts to protect content from being easily copied and Wattpad employs community managers to watch for copyrighted and plagiarised work, the lack of control over how my work looks is a problem. For example, I can make a comment on another person’s work using left-aligned dashes to simulate bullet points. When I post the comment, it looks different than how it did in the editor. When adding content of my own, I can’t upload and embed images within the text, which I deem inexcusable for a digital platform. I also can’t make my text left aligned when reading (full justification is demonstrably harder to read and MAKES ME CRAZY). And while the embedded Youtube capability is interesting in theory (suggest a soundtrack to your listeners as I have done for Swarm), the placement is tangential to the story.
  6. I’m not impressed by the composition frame. I’m glad it works for people who have no alternatives to mobile phones, but it is a serious eyesore. Give me the dreaded Word interface any day.
  7. Read rates don’t tell me crap about true conversions. I am more interested to know the ratio between the number of people who start a story and the number who finish.
  8. Thanks to Rick, I overcame the cover photo barrier. There is a tool built into Wattpad, but you can only use the photos it supplies. It would be great if I could upload a stock image and then use their editing tools to add titles and author information.

How Do You Protect an Original Thought?

I like using Wattpad to play with short story ideas that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day.

At the moment, I’m not interested in pursuing mainstream short story publication channels (too much effort for insignificant returns).

But at this stage, I would not post a novel-length work in progress on the site.

Why?

  1. I don’t want my ideas poached. The risk that a poacher might out-execute me is considerable. Even if the resulting work was written faster but not better, it might still prevent my story from finding a niche.
  2. I find feedback on incomplete material is actually not all that helpful. It can cloud my decision-making process and make it harder for me to listen to my writing voice and trust my instincts about a story. I prefer to have a finished draft before sharing my work.
  3. Part of me questions whether having a waiting audience would push me as a writer to find the deepest art within a given piece. I think it’s too tempting to publish something for the sake of publishing it, rather than because the writing was actually done.

Maybe it’s an old-world sentiment or my inner perfectionist rearing her head.

But that is where I stand on posting a novel on Wattpad for now.

Summing Up

Amy Martin's Wattpad profile. One thing I like a lot about the site is that they encourage their whole team to participate. Amy told me about an experiment they did where they had a whole group try writing and uploading stories to see what it felt like from the other side of the fence. Apparently, a few of those stories did really well and taught the team more about their secondary audience's needs. It's that kind of willingness to experiment that makes me hopeful about Wattpad.
Amy Martin‘s Wattpad profile. One thing I like a lot about the site is that they encourage their whole team to participate. Amy told me about an experiment they did where a whole group of team members tried writing and uploading stories to see what it felt like from the other side of the fence. Apparently, a few of those stories did really well and taught the team more about their secondary audience’s needs. It’s that kind of willingness to experiment that makes me hopeful about Wattpad.

I enjoyed my conversation with Amy Martin and the subsequent opportunity to hear Allen Lau speak at a MaRS Innovation event later that same month.

Wattpad’s accomplishments as an organization are considerable and I’m eager to follow their startup story.

As a writer, I am curious about where Wattpad will take readers and writers.

But I’m not quite ready to get down off the participation fence yet.

If you’re a long-time Wattpad user (reader or writer), drop me a line or post a comment.

I’d love to hear about your experience.

Thanks to Amy Martin for her willingness to share her time and invite me into the Wattpad space.

4 Responses to “Wattpad: Disrupting publishing, one download at a time”

  1. Sonnet

    Lack of control over how the work looks is unacceptable for most poets, who align or shape lines space by space.

    “The YouTube of Stories”? A platform like this brings the slushpile out of the assistant editor’s office and out into the public domain. But they didn’t call it a slushpile for nothing. Takes a lot of slogging through muck to find a gem. Curation and social media buzz will still have a lot of power in determining what gets read.

    Reply
  2. emw

    Agree with you on not being able to control the work appearance, Sonnet.

    re: slushpile, yes. It’s accessible, but there’s still a tremendous amount of work, skill and luck involved in finding an audience.

    Reply
  3. AbigailLWebber

    I think Wattpad is really good in some ways, except most of the top stories lack in my favorite things (grammar, details, etc.). Also, it is kind of annoying that every book is almost exactly the same. Currently, I’m trying to do something absolutely different with no romance in the plot AT ALL, and I’m not doing so hot. Which is depressing. The only reads I have are myself looking for typos. :(

    Reply
    • emw

      Yeah, I find that, too, Abigail. Sorry to hear you’ve found it hard to get traction. It seems unless you’re willing to wade through and form relationships with authors with some real grammatical challenges, finding widespread appeal is very difficult.
      Good luck with your project and thanks for reading the post.

      Reply

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