Wattpad: Another way to read

Noia llegint a Wattpad

The Wattpad phenomenon has revolutionised the publishing world. Young women writers are making it big on this platform, first online and then in bookshops. Their books, covering a variety of themes but with a prevalence of fan fiction, are loved by teenagers who interact with them, make suggestions, and have the chance to witness and join in in the work in progress. Who says that young people don’t read nowadays? They do, but in a different way.

The queue stretched almost from one end of Passeig de Gràcia to the other. Most of them were young girls, who didn’t budge even when the hailstorm struck; they took shelter in a doorway and, as soon as it eased off a bit, they quickly returned to their spots. They had been waiting for hours for Joana Marcús to sign a copy of her books, which ultimately wouldn’t feature on the Sant Jordi bestseller list. And they would have undoubtedly made top of the list, if the bestseller list had been determined differently.

Months later, an equally impressive queue would form at the Moll de la Fusta, at the entrance to Catalan Book Week. At the front, a student had turned up at 9 am. It was after 6 pm and the publisher was handing out three hundred tickets, the maximum number of fans the author would receive. Some of them had skipped school, others were around the age of Joana Marcús, born in Mallorca in 2000. When she arrived at the stand, they all squealed with delight. They took pictures with her, handed her gifts or a letter in which they begged her to write about their lives.

This handwritten letter with little hand-drawn coloured hearts points to the paradox – and paints a good picture – of what the so-called Wattpad phenomenon represents. The physical object, the traditional medium, the childish excitement (they had grown up with it), the smitten instinct and that plea: “Write about us”. There is an almost complete and utter generational divide between the young women who queue endlessly to see Joana Marcús and the people for whom this name means nothing. Nor do Anna Todd, Ariana Godoy, Raisa Martín or Flor M. Salvador ring a bell, when their readers (or rather, female readers) run into the thousands. The Mexican Flor M. Salvador may spend up to four hours signing copies of her books, which is why tickets are handed out to fans of these bestsellers to organise time slots.

Why is it so widely believed that young people don’t read? They do, but in a different way. Just as they play, communicate, listen to music and watch audiovisual material differently to how they did in analogue times. Because that’s how they relate to the world and fictions too, in a different way. They construct new, somewhat parallel realities, in which many rules have yet to be defined.

Keen participation

There’s room for everything on Wattpad. This is what attracted Ava Draw, author of Si me dices que no [If You Say No to Me]. She was an illustrator and had written a few things, but didn’t feel ready to be a writer; she felt she couldn’t cope with the criticism; “you just have to grin and bear it”, she claims. When she saw the spate of stories on Wattpad, pure and unfettered by what people would say with no thematic, stylistic or spelling restraints, she thought: “this is the place for me”. Both the writers and the readers on the platform thrive on getting involved in the plot development. Everyone joins in enthusiastically. These are plots that unashamedly explore the wildest ideas. For example, an impossible love affair between Peppa Pig and Donald Trump; or between a zombie alien and a vampire, in a land invaded by werewolves, and starring Rosalía.

In fact, the labels “romance”, “teen romance”, “fantasy” or “fanfic”, i.e. fan fiction, are all the rage. It is a genre based on a character from a television series or a film, video game or book, for whom new adventures are made up. The references are usually sagas such as The Hunger Games, Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, or series such as Neon Genesis Evangelion. But they are also real people: the hit After, by the American Anna Todd, stems from her passion for the band One Direction. There are no limits when it comes to creating fiction.

This was Wattpad’s original idea when it was set up in Toronto in 2006: to create an ever-expanding library, now global in scope. According to the company, more than 94 million people are estimated to spend more than 23 billion minutes a month reading the stories published on the platform. After English, Spanish is the second most popular language. The platform works really well in Latin America, especially in countries where the publishing market does not have the means and power of major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or Planeta, which have been quick to include in their youth literature collections the titles that have taken Wattpad and similar platforms by storm.

But how does it work? The same way as digital communities do, where anyone can join in. For example, someone writes a chapter on a weekly basis, and other people give their opinion; they make observations and comments of all kinds, from asking the meaning of an expression they don’t understand to suggesting a grammatical correction (accompanied by loads of emoticons of hearts and hands imploring the author not to be annoyed), expressing how they felt about a plot twist or describing what they would like to see happen and what they suspect will happen.

This constant interaction changes the way they read, as well as the way we write. Readers and authors seem to have a close relationship with one another because it is immediate; some feel that they have contributed to the plot development, and others owe as much, if not more, to the audience as to the work. It creates a hotbed of opinion. By way of example: Joana Marcús launched the trilogy Meses a tu lado [Months by your Side] with Antes de diciembre [Before December], which has had more than 118 million reads on the internet. It begins when the main character goes to her university residence with her boyfriend, where she will be living during her studies. He has suggested they have an open relationship, but she cannot quite grasp the idea. He argues: “You know I love you, but what’s wrong with me giving a little love to other girls while you’re away?” 26.4 K comments. Most of them hurl insults at the guy and offer a word of advice to the girlfriend with the classic “Girl, wise up”.

The adrenaline of live storytelling

In the video Cosas que hice mal en mi primera novela de Wattpad [Things I Did Wrong in my First Wattpad Novel], Ava Draw lists, among other things, that it is written in third person, that the characters are too old, that they are not millionaires, that they listen to Metallica and that they live in Madrid. And perhaps most importantly, the main character is not very crushable. Readers should fall in love with them from the very first line, just as they should spot who the cheeky character in the story is from the very beginning. This is what will pull them in and keep them on their toes.

Beyond the thrill of getting so many reads and so many responses – feedback of a thousand comments in just two hours –, Ava Draw describes the adrenaline rush of witnessing at first hand the impact of the story you wrote on those reading it. They send in videos crying, distraught or screaming because their favourite characters have finally ended up together. They either love them or hate them; there is no middle ground. They will pour their desires or their loathing into them at a dizzying speed.

Admittedly, this enthusiasm has a potentially venomous flipside: the person writing the story is put under enormous pressure that they are not always ready for. Some female fans behave like real Annie Wilkies, the leading character in Misery. And they scold the Colombian Eva Muñoz or the Venezuelan Ariana Godoy for writing things they don’t like, or because they find out that they have been watching a film instead of updating the novel they are working on. They find this out on social media. Because, beyond Wattpad, followers spread across TikTok, Instagram and so on, where books are recommended by Booktok or Bookstagram, in a non-stop interaction that includes the authors themselves, who are permanently exposed. To the point that they can become influencers or can get insulted by haters.

There is a difference between authors and readers, because 90% of the people who login to Wattpad read more than they write. But the fact is that almost everyone who writes on the platform started out as a reader, like Inma Rubiales from Extremadura. She was 12 years old when she first discovered what Wattpad had to offer and, when she saw people sharing their stories, she took the plunge. Born in 2002, she has been an author since 2015. Hasta que nos quedemos sin estrellas [Until We Run Out of Stars] has 1.8 million reads on the platform, and has been published by Planeta.

Most of them are teenage or post-adolescent girls, from the so-called Z Generation. They form part of a widespread, international community, in which they advise one another, act as influencers and write in turn. Nothing that does not already exist in the, shall we say, tangible analogue space, where there are book clubs and literary criticism in the traditional media. But here we can add the chance to witness and participate in the work in progress. And, as Ava Draw pointed out, you are not alone before the opinion of an expert in the field who will discuss your novel in a review or a cultural programme. Everyone can write, and everyone can speak their mind. You can be in touch with the other side of the world and feel really close to it.

Stories written on a mobile phone

The medium also shapes the telling and reception of these stories. Most of them are written and read on a mobile phone (forget the image of the self-absorbed writer at a keyboard). So the chapters are usually short and very dialogue-heavy, often with the carelessness typical of WhatsApp. They may include emoticons and memes. Spelling is not a priority, nor is plausibility. The important thing is to be liked, as in social media and, on the whole, in areas that depend on the audience. And the format is engaging. It entertains readers on the underground, or in waiting rooms, while they discover new stories or check for any updates from an author they already follow. Readers can join in with feedback and want to see if it has any repercussions. If the author is in the process of writing a novel, they feel compelled to provide more material to get feedback; she feels she owe something to those following her and tuning in to what she is writing.

Girls who stay up all night reading, authors who spend more than ten hours a day writing. For free. Because, although there is the Paid Stories option – in which readers sponsor writers with a small sum of money – the authors usually make their work available for free. Interaction and participation on Wattpad are so huge that some stories become hits within the platform itself. It is then that publishers take notice of them to publish them in print. This is how a generation of new talents has emerged who have risen to fame through Wattpad, such as the aforementioned Joana Marcús and Ava Draw (who saw her book published in print simultaneously in Spain, Colombia, Peru and Mexico, and later in the United States), Alina Not, popular for the series Bad Ash, and Jon Azkueta, one of the few boys out there, who has made it big with 69 segundos para conquistarte [69 Seconds to Win You Over].

Publicity has been taken care of. And one mistake some publishers made was to apply the industry’s line of reasoning: they wanted to pull digital versions off the internet because they mistakenly thought that if readers could access them for free, they would not buy the book. Then they realised that the opposite is true; the book – which has only a three-month shelf life in bookshops – is no longer a product. It is now an object of merchandising. What readers want is to have it physically, to touch it, to take it to the author for her to sign it personally.

​Joana Marcús, amb una cua de lectores esperant perquè els signés els seus exemplars de la trilogia Foc Joana Marcús, with a queue of readers waiting for her to sign their copies of the trilogy Foc [Fire], during the last edition of Catalan Book Week. The signing was limited to 300 people, with tickets given out on a first-come, first-served basis. ©Manuel Medir

The dream of being a “real” writer

People who write on Wattpad also dream of having their work published in print or of having their novel made into a Netflix series. They want to be writers. That’s why they work so hard at it, they aspire to be recognised as real authors. That’s hard for many reasons. Firstly, there are publishing houses that seek to take advantage of them (there have been cases of scams in dubious publishing houses that keep changing their names); secondly, getting as wide a distribution as the internet offers is difficult (it can be published in the Philippines sooner than in their own country); finally, books from Wattpad are not eligible for many awards, but they do have their own space in bookshops (even though they may be of very different genres). And, as they are classified as young adult literature, they do not feature in bestseller lists. Furthermore, they are weighed down by the prejudice of not having been discovered by a publisher, but directly by readers. They are often not taken seriously, either because they lack experience or because they seem to have no regard for the correct use of language or for classical literature. Perhaps they do not receive the respect that many writers considered “intellectuals” do, but they do receive the esteem of female readers.

​Anna Todd és l’autora de les sèries After, Landon i Stars, publicades per Editorial Planeta Anna Todd is the author of the After, Landon and Stars series, published by Editorial Planeta. ©Aleix Montoto

Among the supporters is the writer Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale. She was on the jury of a poetry competition organised by the platform. And in an article in The Guardian she claimed that Wattpad helped improve the literacy of those without access to paper or education, and allowed for global expansion without boundaries. Good. There may be a language boundary. Not surprisingly, it is hard to come across stories in Catalan. The short story Com un àngel de la guarda [Like a Guardian Angel], by Mònica Ortega, has some 13,000 reads; a text entitled [Te]rmin[amo]s, by the_butter_flies, has some 45,000 views, and, among the comments, there are people who are studying Catalan and say that it helps them a lot. But other texts in this language have a maximum of 100 or 200 readings. If Joana Marcús signed at the Catalan Book Week, it is because the trilogy Foc has been translated from Spanish (Fuego) [Fire], in which she originally wrote it.

But back to the letter that Joana Marcus’ fans handed to her asking her to write about their lives for them. It is a good symbol of what Wattpad represents: the closeness of feeling understood by someone who could be you, in whom you see the ideal person to write your story. Sheer identification. The desire to show gratitude through a tangible object. The combination of the new ways to read and tell stories with the traditional ones. Is there anything more intimate and closer than a handwritten letter?

​Raisa Martín acaba de publicar amb Nova Casa Editorial el seu primer llibre, El juego de la araña Raisa Martín has just published her first book, El juego de la araña [The Spider Game], with Nova Casa Editorial. © Raisa Martín

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