Could Wattpad be the ’killer app’ for aspiring writers?

On Wattpad, anyone can write and get feedback—just ask Margaret Atwood
Jason McBride
How to get 19 million readers
Andrew Tolson

In 2010, Brittany Geragotelis was an aspiring author nearing the end of her writerly rope. All six of her novels had been rejected by publishers. Her agent had dumped her. She was 31 years old and working as an editor at American Cheerleader magazine. But in October, a digital venture from Toronto called Wattpad asked her if she would promote the company in the magazine. She was, in her words, a “big book nerd,” and Wattpad—an interactive online forum where anyone can publish their own writing, and readers can read, comment on, and even contribute—was compelling. She combed the site’s content and found that paranormal romance ruled. With nothing to lose, she wrote a novel and gave it away, one chapter at a time, for six months.

Within a week, the first chapter of Life’s a Witch had been read a couple of thousand times. By the time Geragotelis finished writing and uploading the entire book, it had been read six million times. Half a year and 19 million reads later, she had a new literary agent and a six-figure deal from Simon and Schuster. Next January, she’ll publish a prequel titled What the Spell?, followed by a sequel in 2014.

Geragotelis’s success is partly the reason you’re reading about Wattpad now. The company was founded in 2006 by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen, engineers who met while working at a Toronto firm that built apps for the mobile market. Anticipating the explosion in smartphone technology, and the immense growth in social media and user-generated content, they merged those three things in a user-friendly mobile application—a kind of YouTube for writing. The start-up’s timing was prescient: that same year, Sony unveiled its first e-reader, Google bought YouTube, and in June 2007, Apple released the iPhone. Wattpad now has nine million visitors who spend about 2.2 billion minutes on the site each month; 6.5 million “stories”—anything from goth poetry to pop-band fan fiction, available in 24 different languages—have been uploaded. Seventy per cent of its users read and post content on mobile phones, and their average age is about 20.

That demographic was skewed dramatically in June when Margaret Atwood published three new poems, Thriller Suite, on Wattpad. Introduced to Lau through a mutual friend and Wattpad investor, the Booker-winning writer admires how it encourages reading and its accessibility. “One of the things Wattpad can do is provide a practice space,” she argues. “Think hockey rinks.”

For Lau, Atwood’s imprimatur could transform Wattpad from a haven for newbies into a new home for professional writers. “We’re getting very good traction with aspiring writers,” Lau says, “so the next step is to get someone in between those and Margaret Atwood.”

Some people are skeptical of this apparent revolution. Novelist Russell Smith has said browsing Wattpad’s amateur content is disheartening: “Anything unedited and un-curated will be 99 per cent unreadable.” Stuart Woods, editor of the Canadian publishing trade magazine Quill & Quire, likens it to a new online marketing channel, comparable in some ways to Facebook or Twitter. He doesn’t see it as an alternative to traditional book publishers, or, as Lau might envision, a replacement. “There’s room for a Wattpad and a Random House,” Woods says. “Their aims are not contradictory or self-annulling.” And for any writer who aspires to a professional career, a lucrative, mainstream publishing deal remains the Holy Grail.

That might not be so for long. Lau claims the company has only reached five per cent of its potential, and he has plans to boost its influence and bottom line. Currently, Wattpad is bankrolled by venture capital—in June it received more than US$17 million, some of that from Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang—and banner advertising. Months before Simon and Schuster publishes What the Spell?, however, Geragotelis will release the book in three downloadable 99-cent ebooks—mimicking somewhat the way her first novel found its audience—as well as supplementary content available exclusively on Wattpad. “We’re doing something really transformative,” Lau says. “The whole notion of the book is going to change.”