“We want to spread the written word to billions of people. That’s our mission,” says Allen Lau. He’s a serial entrepreneur and the cofounder of Wattpad, the Toronto-based free online community for writers.
Created with Ivan Yuen in 2006, the site is a network of user-generated content—a YouTube for stories rather than videos. For aspiring and experienced authors, it’s a platform to publish their work, receive feedback, and connect with fellow writers and readers. Its most established writer by far is Margaret Atwood. For readers, Wattpad offers its nine million user-generated stories for free, accessible on one’s computer or mobile device. And for the publishing world, Wattpad serves as a scouting ground, where literary agents discovered debut authors Abigail Gibbs and Brittany Geragotelis. Both received six-figure deals, from HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, respectively, for the YA e-books that they serialized on Wattpad. The Web site is changing how writers, readers, and publishers all across the globe create, interact, and discover stories.
Lau seems an unlikely revolutionary in the world of publishing: he’s not a writer or an editor. But he wanted to create a new online ecosystem to connect writers and readers, rather than just replicating the print publishing business for the Web. As such, the landscape of this brave new world differs greatly from that of traditional publishing. Wattpad attracts a new member every two-and-a-half seconds and 10 million unique visitors every month. About nine in 10 users are primarily readers, not writers. Genre fiction reigns, and romance, paranormal, and fan fiction capture the most reads. The site skews young: almost two out of three new registered users are under the age of 25. Though 40% of users are in the U.S., it has an international reach, with visitors in India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and more. Users spend a total of over two billion minutes on the site per month; “We’re seeing engagement numbers which rival Pinterest,” Lau wrote in a blog post. Investors took notice of Wattpad, and Union Square Ventures and others have invested a total of $17.3 million.
Lau co-created the Web site six years ago, before the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo hit the market and popularized e-books. At the time, Lau was the cofounder and chief technology officer at the mobile gaming company Tira Wireless. But he wanted to start a new venture. “I love to read,” he says. “I wanted to work on something I could use.” He wanted to deliver a means of reading on the go using mobile technology. However, phones then were not “smart,” and their screens were minuscule. Cellphone capabilities were simply not good enough.
One day, Lau received an instant message from former employee Yuen, Tira Wireless’s first hire: “Hey, Alan, I’m working on a prototype. Can you check it out and give me some feedback?” “So,” Lau says, “I clicked on that link that he sent me, and my heart was pounding like a hammer. Coincidentally, he was also working on a mobile Java reading application”—but with an option to upload content as well. A couple of days later, Lau flew to Vancouver to meet with Yuen. And Wattpad was born.
Around that time, in 2006, Google announced that it would purchase YouTube for $1.65 billion. Lau says, “We thought we could get traffic as quickly as YouTube could. We were so wrong! After a year, we had virtually no traffic. We had 100 users, and I knew where some of them lived; that’s how bad it was.” However, Lau and Yuen kept going. And over the years, they learned more and more about the problems writers, readers, and publishers encounter—and how Wattpad might offer solutions.
Atwood, a Wattpad member since June, is a vocal ambassador for the site. She is co-writing The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home with author Naomi Alderman on the site, as well as judging Wattpad’s poetry contest, charmingly named after her—the Attys. To what end? She supports this democratization of written content. She wrote of Wattpad in the Guardian, “No one need know how old you are, what your social background is, or where you live. Your readers can be anywhere.” For writers in Manila and Minneapolis, Wattpad is an incubator, a safe space for hobbyists and career writers alike.
Lau says that for a lot of new writers, “their number one motivation is actually having someone appreciate their writing—reading their stories, giving them positive feedback.” As with Facebook, there is no “dislike” button on Wattpad. Users either like a story or really like it: they can “vote” (which gives it a gold star), add it to their libraries, add it to their reading lists, and become fans of the author (another gold star). Suggested edits go in the comments section. And, differing once again from YouTube, Wattpad’s comments almost always offer praise—sometimes in all caps. Alderman, an Orange Award for New Writers winner, says, “The responses [to the novel] have been quite funny, ranging from people who just want to say how much they love the story and are looking forward to the next episodes, to people who say to Margaret, ‘You write really well! You could be famous!’”
Seventeen-year-old Katie Gowen from Hawaii has posted eight stories so far, most of which were inspired by the boy band One Direction. “What’s amazing is I’ll post a chapter, and an hour later I’ll have, like, 80 comments. I like being able to know that there are people who are reading what I write.” And frequent contributor Tara Sampson from North Carolina says, “When I wrote back in high school, we didn’t have computers. I pretty much kept to myself. And now that I’ve got the encouragement of all these people, it makes me want to write more.” She has posted 23 separate works, which range from five pages to 117 pages. Her book Second Chance Romance won a Watty—an audience-favorite award—and stacked up over 1.5 million reads. Over 35,000 fans follow her work.
While some new and experienced authors join Wattpad for the encouragement, crowdsourced feedback, and wealth of readers, still others want to leverage the platform to build an audience and land publishing deals. Texas-based Alexandra Corinth, author of The Stories We Tell, says, “My next story is probably going to go on a more traditional route. Not because I don’t like Wattpad. I think it’s awesome. The big thing for me is, I want to make a living [as a writer]. So doing it for free only works for so long.” U.K.-based Tasha Preston says, “I had planned on self-publishing [my Wattpad book] The Cellar, but I’ve been approached by a couple of agents. The Cellar is the strongest book I’ve written. It has the biggest following, with 4.8 million reads, and it won one of Wattpad’s annual awards last year. I never expected such a huge response to it. I’m currently rewriting, editing, and polishing it and hope that it will catch the eye of a publisher.”
Rather than act as a publishing gatekeeper or curator, the site is a cheerleader that roots for all of its writers, regardless of age, gender, and class. The community believes that anyone, anywhere can be the next Margaret Atwood—even Margaret Atwood.
Lau says, “In the very, very early days, I’m talking three or four years ago, we started off with romance stories. That’s the #1 genre where we were getting traction.” Indeed, romance book fans consume these stories with a passion. According to the 2012 Romance Book Consumer survey, about one in five romance book buyers purchase such a novel once a month or more. And now that the books exist online for free, 52% of those readers have downloaded free romance e-books, while 11% now read free e-books exclusively. What does this mean for Wattpad? Put simply, the site offers avid romance readers a quicker, cheaper way to consume stories—and while they’re reading, they get hooked on Wattpad.
In particular, Twilight-inspired vampire characters exploded on the romance scene. Lau says, “We created a new genre called ‘vampire.’ And then the werewolf [fans], they started complaining, ‘That’s not fair!’” Team Edward clocks in at 163,000 stories. The werewolf category offers 174,000 e-tales. And if you think Twi-hard fandom is silly, consider that one blockbuster series started out as Twilight fan fiction—the Fifty Shades trilogy.
Fan fiction is Wattpad’s fastest-growing genre. From Harry Potter Instant Messaging to Hunger Games: The Musical, the category boasts over one million entries. Loyal fan-fic reader and writer Gowen says, “I started out reading Harry Potter fan fiction, but it doesn’t really matter what kind of fan fiction [it is]. If the plot line is good and it’s not too clichéd, I’ll definitely read it.” Loving something—be it a novel, a movie, or One Direction—means sharing it, and these paeans to pop culture attract fans worldwide.
Keep in mind, the quality of these stories varies. Because Wattpad’s writers include teens, nonnative English speakers, and users texting their prose via mobile phones, grammar and spelling often fall by the wayside. The frequent use of clichés led one member to post, “A lot of stories on here begin with ‘I woke up and looked in the mirror at my beautiful blonde hair and perfect body.’” However, in this online landscape of reading fanatics, free, easily accessible content, not wordsmanship, is what matters.
What has helped Wattpad succeed with readers in the U.S. and beyond is the mobile platform. “If you look back at the history of the company, we were starting with mobile reading in mind,” says Lau. “Over the years, we did not forget that. We put a lot of effort into mobile, and it shows in the traffic.” Three out of four users access the site on mobile devices. Preston says, “I prefer the app. It’s the easiest electronic reading experience ever.” Lau notes that for a worldwide audience that includes users in developing countries, reading on mobile devices just makes sense. “For a lot of people, they actually don’t have their own PCs,” he says. “The mobile device is a user’s personal device. It connects them.”
Lau is making sure that, as smartphone adoption and mobile reading grow, so will Wattpad’s audience. He predicts that, although smartphones are “predominantly a North American or European phenomenon,” representing only a third of the worldwide mobile market, soon they will be affordable enough for mass consumption across the globe. And, he says, Wattpad is preparing to capture that new segment of international online readers: “We are putting a lot more focus on mobile. We want to make sure the mobile reading and writing experience is top-notch.”
If Wattpad is a YouTube for writers, then Abigail Gibbs and Brittany Geragotelis are its Justin Bieber and PSY.
U.K.-based Gibbs began writing on Wattpad at the age of 15 under the pseudonym Canse12. Lau says, “She started writing vampire stories in her spare time after school. She uploaded chapter by chapter and generated a lot of traction on Wattpad.” One story, called “Dinner with a Vampire. Did I Mention I’m Vegetarian?,” garnered 17 million reads. And as Gibbs got close to finishing the novel, an agent discovered her and signed her. She completed the novel and landed a two-book, six-figure deal with HarperCollins at the age of 18. Lau says, “Wattpad, Abigail, and HarperCollins—we worked together in September for her launch. She became a media darling in September. She was one of the youngest writers ever to get published in the U.K.” Gibbs’s novel was retitled The Dark Heroine and came out in the U.K. in October, and it hits U.S. bookshelves in March. Now a student at Oxford University, Gibbs is working on a sequel.
Prior to joining Wattpad, New York-based Geragotelis was the managing editor of American Cheerleader and had been trying for eight years to get one of her six YA manuscripts published. In January 2011, she began to write a new story for Wattpad, a YA paranormal romance called “Life’s a Witch.”
Geragotelis says that it took a while for the book to catch on, but soon the comments started pouring in. Lau says, “Her story became a hit on Wattpad. It generated millions and millions of reads.” Geragotelis says that she loved interacting with readers online. “There are some people who I have befriended through Wattpad who were just really amazing supporters of mine. They’re not just faceless fans.” The book had been read about six million times when she finished uploading it in May 2011. A few months later, she says, readers started asking, “Where can I buy this?”
Geragotelis self-published her e-book through Amazon/CreateSpace, but due to her large following and press coverage in PW and elsewhere, she landed a literary agent. The book went to auction, and she signed with Simon & Schuster in a three-book, six-figure deal. The series begins with a prequel called What the Spell, available in three e-book installments now and in hardcover in January.
Though Wattpad helped make dreams come true for new writers Gibbs and Geragotelis, Lau says that he doesn’t want to disrupt publishing; he wants to transform reading and writing. By removing the conventional barriers between authors and audiences around the world, the platform creates not just a user-generated library but a self-sustaining global community. It’s turning the solitary, exclusive process of authorship into a more social and democratic experience. He says, “We are spreading the written word in both the developed countries like the U.S. and Canada and also developing countries.” Lau is not a writer, but he’s creating a promising new narrative for anyone who’s a fan of the written word.