Ask a group of 10 teenagers gathered at Kansas City’s East High School how many of them are Wattpadders and six hands go up.
Wattpadders? Freaks of Wattpad, a digital site that has become the go-to place for young writers who like to write — and young readers who like to read what they write.
These East High teenagers and others like them across the area are among the 40 million users of Wattpad, a growing and global phenomenon.
The students are here after school for a weekly book club meeting with Elena McVicar, youth services librarian at the Kansas City Public Library. For book club, they read regular books.
But many are enamored with the app and website, a platform that lights up their smartphones and iPads with serialized stories and offers loads of fast and easy interaction between readers and writers, nearly all amateurs.
If you think that writing is a solitary enterprise, that first drafts are state secrets, that readers are mere receivers, you’re probably old.
Heather Boone is a junior at East and an avowed Wattpadder. She has begun several stories and, in October, finished one.
“It’s a sappy love story,” Heather acknowledges, although she’s not apologizing.
Her story is One Direction fan fiction, a favorite of teenage girls. The tale turns the beloved boy band members into characters and takes off from there. In fan fiction, “there” can be almost anywhere.
Her story logged more than 83,000 “reads” and drew 700 comments.
“People are caring about my writing, saying they like it,” Boone says. “That’s rewarding. It makes me feel happy about myself.”
Storytelling sites such as fanfiction.net have been around for years, but Wattpad found a special place in this digital venue, harnessing mobile devices and grabbing young people’s allegiance, especially young women.
Candice Faktor, general manager of the Toronto-based company, says 85 percent of users are accessing Wattpad on their mobile devices, and they skew heavily toward the under-30 age group. Wattpad started eight years ago, but didn’t take off right away, she says.
“Everybody wanted to read stories on their phones, but the technology wasn’t there,” Faktor says.
The wider availability of smartphones and cheaper data changed all that. Writers on Wattpad have uploaded some 80 million stories, and about 50 percent of writers have written at least one chapter on their phones.
The “chapter” aspect is key. Some of the most-read stories are episodic, with writers uploading story chapters as they write them. They heighten anticipation for their readers by sticking to a schedule, a tried-and-true idea and hardly new. Think Dickens and Dumas.
Readers comment and ask questions of writers as the story progresses. They can insert their comments right in the text. And writers look to readers for advice. In fact, there’s an expectation of a dialogue. (See “Writing Tips for Wattpadders.”)
Faktor emphasizes the community aspect of Wattpad, acknowledging it’s a social media community in which readers and writers remain mostly anonymous.
“It really inspires writers to keep writing because they know there are real readers at the other end,” Faktor says. “And, of course, another big part is that it’s all free.”
Free is a big reason Alyssa Driskill, a Bonner Springs High School senior, downloaded the Wattpad app several years ago. She’s been hooked as a reader ever since — browsing stories, bailing on some and sticking with others.
Wattpad organizes stories by more than 20 “content categories,” and Alyssa favors “romance” and “werewolf.” Yes, werewolf is a category, as is vampire, of course, and fan fiction, mystery/thriller, fantasy and historical fiction. She enjoys the serials.
“I’m a very big bookworm, and I can read this wherever I go,” says Alyssa, adding that she sometimes digests a chapter in a few minutes or settles in for a longer session. “I love the wait, the anticipation.”
Alysha Reital and De’Angelo Wright, juniors at East High, are Wattpadding a story together. It’s a “boy and girl meet” yarn that grew out of an English class assignment, but they’ve hit an impasse.
De’Angelo wants to shake up the plot with the death of a main character. Alysha doesn’t mind the death drama, but she doesn’t want the victim to be a main character.
They might ask readers to help decide. They’re having fun with it.
“A lot of Wattpadders are everyday teens and young adults like we are,” De’Angelo says. “I feel like if these people can do it, so can we.”
It’s all writing practice and good fun, yes, but Alysha and other Wattpadders can’t help but have Anna Todd in the back of their minds.
Todd is a 20-something from Austin, Texas, whose serialized Wattpad story “After” notched a billion reads and a book deal, which led to interest from Paramount Pictures.
How does a Wattpad story get noticed by a book publisher? In this case the company brought the idea to Adam Wilson, a senior editor at Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Wilson says he watches story-sharing sites for book opportunities but hadn’t realized how hugely popular “After” had grown.
It’s another example of a book not traveling the traditional publishing path: author persuading an agent persuading a publisher.
“The popularity on Wattpad made me look at it, but it was the text that made me think this can work,” Wilson says.
The editing process was both conventional and different, he says.
As with any author, especially first-timers, his job was to help hone Todd’s work. But since the Wattpad version was essentially a first draft for Todd, there were things she wanted to change, especially early in the story.
And unlike other “unpublished” works, the story already had an enormous fan base, so Wilson had to be aware of story elements, even phrases, that were beloved to Wattpad readers.
“You don’t want to take something popular and have people say, ‘Oh, you ruined it,’” Wilson says.
Todd’s story was lengthy, and Gallery decided on a four-book series. The first two published this fall, with the third due at the end of December and the fourth in February.
Meanwhile, the original work remains on Wattpad, which amplifies the question whether “After” fans need a book at all.
“It’s an experiment,” Wilson says. “The books are selling well, so it’s working so far.”
Still, Wattpadders are mostly in it for the reading enjoyment and the writing advice from peers. Ramya Chilappa, an eighth-grader at Leawood Middle School, likes to read fan fiction of Harry Potter and Naruto, the manga series, on her phone. She says the comments she’s received about her writing were constructive.
“Things like ‘this part feels rushed’ and ‘maybe you’ve started too many sentences the same way,’ ” she says. “Then they throw in a compliment. They know what it’s like.”
Faktor says Wattpad “community teams” keep watch to make sure interaction is civil, and algorithms guard against the uploading of copyrighted material.
“This is a positive community, and we take that very seriously,” Faktor says. “Writing is a very vulnerable thing, and you want a community that’s supportive.”
The stories are rated for maturity, and Driskill, Chilappa and others say they steer clear of adult-rated offerings. Their parents trust them in that, they say.
While text is the chief medium, some Wattpadders go multimedia creating book cover images — there’s an art library to tap — as well as embedding story soundtracks and offering YouTube trailers.
While a Wattpad story is never a selection at East High’s after-school book club, McVicar likes that young people are enjoying the “social and mobile reading.” It doesn’t bother her that much of the writing isn’t exactly “literary.”
“I’m a librarian, so anytime people are reading is a good thing to me,” she says. “It encourages literacy skills, and the teens love it.”
Tips for Wattpad writers
From the Wattpad team
Remember that Wattpad is a community of readers and writers.
▪ As with any community, the more you engage, the more value you get.
▪ Follow other users and comment on other stories as a way to help people discover your stories.
▪ Ask your fans for feedback. Share their fan art, and make them feel acknowledged.
Keep readers coming back by serializing your story.
▪ Instead of posting your entire story at once, share a few chapters a week.
▪ Make sure you have a regular posting schedule so readers know when to expect new story parts.
▪ Each time you expand your story, Wattpad will notify readers.
Build the suspense.
▪ When you serialize on Wattpad, be sure to end on a cliffhanger. It’s a great way to encourage reader interaction by having them comment and guess what will happen next.
Go beyond categories (genres).
▪ Add relevant tags (keywords) to help readers find your story.
▪ Tags are a great way to distinguish your story and help readers find what they are looking for.