The future of entertainment will be written by young women on their phones. And the future is already here.
In 2015, 23-year-old Anna Todd typed the entirety of the pop culture sensation After on her iPhone, making use of life’s “in-between” moments — grocery store lines, the lull before her son’s soccer game started — to upload chapters. Quickly, Todd’s Harry Styles fan-fic reached numbers normally unprecedented in book publishing: The Wattpad version accumulated over a billion views, and the eventual Simon & Schuster print version sold millions of copies.
Earlier this year, After’s tumultuous love affair finally hit theaters in a Voltage Pictures movie that doubled as stars Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin’s Hollywood debut. Sure, the movie didn’t crack 20% on Rotten Tomatoes — but After wasn’t made for its critics. It was made for its enormous, pre-existing fanbase. Droves of fans armed with #Hessa stan accounts and blog posts about the After experience turned up to the movie in theaters the world. After opened at number one in 17 countries and is the top-grossing indie movie of 2019 to date. A sequel has been announced.
“I still have ringing in my ears from the After premiere,” Aron Levitz, the head of Wattpad Studios told Refinery29. “Walking that red carpet with Anna Todd and hearing those screams was a new octave I’d never experienced in my life.”
That experience proved to Levitz that Wattpad’s big bet in moving from self-publishing platform to entertainment studio with the creation of Wattpad Studios in 2016 was a solid one. Wattpad stories have been rocking the entertainment landscape of late: The Kissing Booth, sourced from a Wattpad story written by 15-year-old Beth Reekles, became Netflix’s most-watched movie of 2018. And as After’s success in jumping from Wattpad to screen shows, stories sourced from Wattpad already have what everyone in entertainment wants: an audience.
“Audience is a power that no manuscript that’s in a drawer, no matter how good the screenwriter, has,” Levitz said.
Wattpad was initially founded in 2006 by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen as a place where people could read and share stories without publishing’s gatekeepers. The site’s fiction — mostly YA, fan fiction, and romance — became popular among Wattpad’s users, who generally skew female (70% of the site’s 70 million monthly users are women between the ages of 13 to 35). Wattpad’s internal discussion tends to be positive and supportive, contrasted with an often toxic internet landscape. “Women and marginalized communities have a voice on Wattpad, where other places it might not be safe,” Levitz explained.
Stories racked up pages of enthusiastic comments, but typically didn’t pierce the Wattpad’s bubble. So that meant Wattpad mega-stars like 23-year-old Leigh Ansell led double lives. Ansell, who lives in the U.K., began publishing fiction on Wattpad when she was 15. In high school, she was both an author with millions of fans and a high schooler whose classmates had no idea she was an Internet-famous author.
“It was my best kept secret. I was terrified of people finding out,” Ansell told Refinery29.
For Ansell, writing fiction on Wattpad was a fulfilling but “nerdy” hobby — a precursor, hopefully, to a career as an author. So she was surprised by how things have turned out: In September 2019, Trapeze, Ansell’s novel about a circus performer whose life changes after an injury, will be one of the first books published by Wattpad Books, the brand’s newly launched imprint. “Being a published writer felt far off. I was just writing for fun. I never thought it would turn into this,” Ansell said.
In 2017, 32-year-old Isabelle Ronin reached a similarly unexpected career breakthrough, thanks to Wattpad. Her Wattpad romance, Chasing Red, was picked up by the publisher Sourcebooks. Immediately after getting the call from Wattpad — which she first thought was a scam — Ronin called her family to spill two secrets. Not only was she a writer, but her book would soon be available in stores.
For Ronin, whose family immigrated to Canada from the Philippines when she was 11, it was an emotional reveal. “My parents gave up everything for us to get to Canada. You know, parents just want you to be okay. [After hearing the news] my dad was like, ‘Now I don’t have to worry about you,” Ronin said.
In a way, Ronin was as surprised as her parents; this wasn’t her intention when she started uploading romances on Wattpad at age 28. At the time, she felt locked into a path, one she wasn’t sure she wanted to go down.
“My family is traditional. I was expected to graduate, get married, have kids. I thought that was a dream for a while. But there was this voice inside me saying, ‘There’s something else out there.’ And I kept coming back on writing. To escape that miserable phase in my life, I posted on Wattpad,” Ronin said. Though she’d written short stories in high school, Chasing Red was the first novel she was able to finish.
Now, Ronin is a full-time writer. While her books are available in print, she still publishes projects in installments on Wattpad first, taking her audience’s constant engagement as encouragement to keep going — and keep improving.
“I use Wattpad as a way to get better at writing. Wattpad gives a level of specific feedback you wouldn’t get with a published book. People will comment on a specific sentence and say, ‘I love the way you worded this,’ or, ‘I would love it if this would happen,’” Ansell said, echoing Ronin’s sentiment.
Still, Wattpad novels are essentially first drafts and require major changes when (and if) they’re published. Ahead of Trapeze’s publication, Ansell is working with a professional editor for the first time and finds the experience jarring. “I see how much changes between a first draft and a finished book. Now I’m like, all my stuff on Wattpad is so messy.”
For many authors, that immediate and in-depth feedback to barely edited work sounds like a nightmare. But Wattpad disrupts the typical lifecycle of a book, and all associated conventions of the writing process: Debating an MFA, toiling away in solitude, finding an agent to connect the manuscript to an editor, and if you’re lucky, getting published a few years later. You hope the publisher puts money behind the marketing and publicity campaign. You hope you gain an audience. You hope your book coincides with a trend.
“My main goal with writing on Wattpad is mostly just to entertain readers and hopefully bring more light in their life.”
In comparison, writing a book on Wattpad is incredibly simple — and social. Create an account and hit publish. Like Wattpad’s other 4 million monthly writers, Ronin and Ansell write the books they want to read, and throw them to the popularity gauntlet chapter-by-chapter, without much editing. About half of all Wattpad’s users write directly from phones, and 90% of Wattpad interaction is through the app. There are no gatekeepers to say no, or to use the euphemism “taking a risk” to publish books about underrepresented groups.
“Maybe you don’t know the rules of writing. Maybe you don’t know pacing. Maybe you don’t know how to set up a series. But you’re going to write something that you see missing. There are communities out there who don’t see themselves reflected in the media as well,” Levitz said.
After is the quintessential prime example of what can happen when a consumer is given the tools to create content herself. “Anna found a way to speak to young women in a way they hadn’t been spoken to before. You don’t sell as many books as Anna has over the last five years by just having great fans on Wattpad. It means you have to get into the mainstream consciousness,” Levitz said.
With Wattpad establishing ever-more connections with publishing houses and production studios, including an exclusive first-look deal with Sony signed in March 2019, Ronan and Ansell’s literary Cinderella stories will likely become an increasingly common journey.
But which of the community’s 500 million stories will soar beyond the Wattpad-sphere? It’s not as simple as page views. Five years ago, Wattpad invested in machine learning and developed “Story DNA technology,” which analyzes stories on a sentence structure and also identifies broader trends. For example, White Stag by Kara Barbieri, eventually published by Macmillan in 2019, was pitched to publishers because of its exceptionally high engagement time – 6.5 times higher than other fantasies. Glory of the Midnight Sun, a romance about an arranged marriage, was given an elevated on-site feature because Wattpad had detected a trend in Muslim fiction.
“Once the audience tells us it’s important, we have to figure out how to adapt it. Some things are meant for TV, some are film. We always want to focus on why the audience raised it to us,” Levitz said.
Beyond The Kissing Booth and After, Wattpad estimates over 1000 works have been adapted into various works worldwide. In the Philippines, one of Wattpad’s largest global regions, an anthology series called Wattpad Presents turns the site’s top stories into short films. Earlier this year, Sony Pictures Television signed a first-look deal with Wattpad and will be adapting Katerina E. Tonks’ Wattpad series Death is My BFF for SyFy. Most recently, Hulu and Awesomeness' binge-worthy YA series Light as a Feather started as the Wattpad story Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board by Alexandra Fletcher under the pseudonym Zoe Aarsen, and is returning for a second season this summer.
Light as a Feather creator Lee Fleming believes Aarsen’s story leant itself easily to adaptation because of its roots as a Wattpad story.
“I was the beneficiary of all of that process that went into writing the book. The audience was responding, and [Aarsen] was taking their responses into consideration when writing the story. It definitely affected the source material which was incredibly helpful,” Fleming said.
In the future, Wattpad Studios will use machine learning and audience engagement to refine TV and film adaptations.
“Here’s what we can pull for season 1. Here’s a cliffhanger. Here are the holes in this that don’t pace it like a TV show, so we have to add ‘xyz’ in the adaptation. At the end of the day the audience is pushing us to understand why this is important,” Levitz said.
Every story has the potential material to launch a following, a franchise, a career. It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror: Denizens of young writers scramble to amass popularity that will allow them to break out of the site.
The annual Watty Awards, which crown outstanding stories in multiple genre categories, dangle upward mobility to writers: Could this your chance to be the new Beth Reekles, whose novel The Kissing Booth won a Watty in 2011, amassed 19 million reads, and got her an agent, a publishing deal, and a Netflix movie? Maybe it could be. Winning stories get a fast-track to the development team, where they’re potentially spiffed up and shown to Levitz at Wattpad Studios. For a Wattpad writer, winning a Watty is an elevator to the top of the 500-million-story pile.
Writing in a stadium landscape of 70 million readers can be wonderful (see: Anna Todd) but it can also be frustrating. “I hear news of friends’ stories gaining traction, and their reads/votes have soared. Like a lot of writers, it’s hard not to compare my own stories to theirs,” Olivia Cornwell, a 26-year-old writer and freelance editor from Ohio, said. “It’s teaching me to be patient with it, and to let this be a lesson, in a way, to improve.”
But even as Wattpad Studios turns to Hollywood, Wattpad’s core contingent of writers still see Wattpad as an end in itself. Or at least, they're trying to.
“When I write on Wattpad, success in gaining a TV show or a movie deal isn't really what I put in my mind as a motivation to write. I write mostly out of the pure enjoyment that the readers who love my stories get to interact with me,” Valerie Tan, a 19-year-old student in New Zealand, told Refinery29 over email. “My main goal with writing on Wattpad is mostly just to entertain readers and hopefully bring more light in their life.”