I’m too grumpy to write a fun post about my life today so I’m going to tell you about Wattpad instead. It’s a post that is probably of most interest to self-publishers who have been in suspended animation since circa 2013, which I think is when there was a flurry of interest in whether Wattpad was of any use as a publicity tool. If you happen to see a time machine, please feel free to chuck this post at it so I can have a go at being relevant.
So, dear denizens of the past, is Wattpad good for self-publishers? Short answer: probably not. But then, that’s not really what it’s for.
Let’s back this up to the beginning. Wattpad is a site where you can share your writing. It looks like this.
I’d say it differs from other sites where you can share your writing mostly in terms of visual design. A lot of older sites, like Fictionpress, just display stories as text across the screen. Wattpad formats them like ebooks, with “pages” you can “turn”. They’re not really ebooks, in the sense that they’re not available to download in common ebook formats like epub and PDF, but they look like them. There’s a Wattpad app that you can use to read them on your phone or tablet.
So, it’s an old idea, prettied up a bit. What’s so exciting about it? Well, there’s potential for a lot of exposure. The biggest success story must be Anna Todd, who wrote an incredibly popular piece of One Direction fanfiction which was viewed several bajillion times on Wattpad and ultimately scored her a book deal. There’s apparently a movie in the works, too. Other people have had more modest successes, although I can’t remember their names and, to be brutally honest, I can’t be bothered to look them up. (I should write all my posts in bad moods like this. Apparently it’s a real timesaver.)
Anyway, if you look at the front page of any category on Wattpad, you’ll see stories with hundreds of thousands (millions, in Romance) of “reads”, or views. In theory, if you’re an author trying to find an audience for your books, this is a good place to look. Post a story, get hundreds of thousands of readers hooked on your writing and tell them where they can buy more.
I don’t think my approach to Wattpad was quite as cynical as that. I’ve always liked posting my writing online because I get praise knowing that people are reading my work helps motivate me to write and means that I’m not alone in the dark with the squirrels. I think my goal was to find a few readers who would come back every chapter and post encouraging comments, and might be willing to accept ARCs and maybe leave Goodreads reviews or something when I was ready to publish. There’s a lot of space between that goal and “literally millions of views” so I thought that was pretty realistic.
In practice… it did not go that well.
I can come up with a lot of explanations for this. Some of them are to do with me. For instance, I wasn’t an engaged member of the Wattpad community when I started posting, so I didn’t have friends there. I did make an effort to engage afterwards – posting in forums, commenting on other people’s stories and so on, but I didn’t keep it up. This is partly because it felt like there was a huge quid pro quo culture (“you read mine and I’ll read yours”) and partly, probably, because of a starry-eyed fantasy that people should want to read my story just because it’s pretty awesome. This, incidentally, is what crushes the souls of a lot of self-publishers, so I realise I have to toughen up on that front. But there’s a difference, I think, between promoting a book you’ll at least get royalties for and one that’s free, especially if what you really want is feedback, not just clicks.
There’s also a strong possibility that my work just wasn’t right for Wattpad. There’s no real reason why it should have been, because it wasn’t written for Wattpad. I’ve written before about how the rise of the ebook might be changing writing and I think it’s fair to say that the Wattpad audience probably has a unique set of preferences that distinguish it as a discrete subset of ebook readers. (Wow, I could not have made that sound more grandiose if I tried, huh?) Wattpadders read episodically and often on their phones, so they need short chapters that move the story on quickly. Faustina, particularly in the draft I’m talking about, takes quite a lot of ~2000 word chapters to get to the romance set-up promised in the blurb, so I can see how I might be losing them.
Putting aside things that are specific to me and my story, though, there are a few other things about Wattpad itself that I found frustrating. The stats, for example. I was really excited when I saw how many graphs you get in the stats for your story (I am all about simple pleasures) but, well… I won’t go into it, because I just tried to and it was just me screaming questions into the void, but it is all very confusing and unhelpful.
The very worst thing about Wattpad, by miles, is discoverability. For a start, your story can only really be discovered by existing Wattpad users, because you have to sign in to the site to read anything. I’m sure they know what they’re doing but this seems like a terrible idea to me – surely you want to give people a chance to get hooked on a story before demanding their details?
Browsing the site as a reader is okay, if you don’t know what you’re looking for and are happy to choose from popular options that are served up to you. Each genre has “Hot”, “Featured” and “Undiscovered” lists. The “Hot” list is presumably stories that are currently popular, “Featured” stories are selected by the Wattpad team (I’ll come back to this) and “Undiscovered” is… well, new and undiscovered stories, you’d think, but I’ve just opened the Romance one and there’s a story that has 25,000 reads, so I don’t know. (Stories can sit with 1 or 10 or 100 reads, so it’s not like 25k is a baseline.) You’ll also get stories suggested to you based on the ones you’ve read. So, if you’re happy to just hop from story to story, you’ll find plenty of reading material.
Looking for something in particular, though, is not easy. Faustina is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast so let’s try looking for one of those. If I search for “beauty and the beast”, I get 10,000 results.
10,000 results and there are only two options to refine my search: “include mature” or “only show completed”. I can’t narrow the results by genre – for instance, to exclude horror or fanfiction, if what I want to read is a romance not featuring Harry Styles. (About 90% of stories on Wattpad are about Harry Styles so even a specific Harry Styles filter would help!) And I can’t re-order the search results so that I see the newest ones first. For pages and pages of results, all I get to see are the most popular stories. That’s annoying, as a reader, but what’s really bewildering is the question of how a new story can ever become popular enough to be among the stories that anyone actually sees.
Mostly, they don’t. The stories at the top of this list are years old and I see the same ones whenever I do this search. At this point, they’re probably at the top of the list because they’re popular because they’re at the top of the list. And their age is significant: Wattpad used to both allow and count reads by people who weren’t logged in, so read counts were generally higher. For that reason, older stories tend to appear more popular and are therefore the ones that get promoted.
So, no one is going to stumble across your story – at least not until it’s already popular. As far as I can tell, that leaves you with only a handful of options. There are the forums, where promoting your own stories is banned except in certain threads (which makes sense – although it’s another thing that used to be different and is probably at least partly to blame for those dropping read counts). Or you could read and comment on other stories in the hope that the authors will come and do the same to yours. Both of those feel a bit spammy and undignified. (Genuinely reading and enjoying stories is different and I made a lot of friends on Fanfiction.net that way in my teens, but that was over a period of literally years and offers a terrible return on investment if all you want is to get noticed.)
Finally, there are the “featured” lists for each genre. You can nominate yourself for them. I tried it and was pleasantly surprised to get a nice message back, even though it said my story wasn’t close enough to completion to be featured. It did seem like the staff member had at least skimmed it, which was cool. I could have resubmitted it when I was done but, since I was just trying to get some people to read it while I was actually writing it, and I’ve kind of gone off Wattpad in the meantime, I didn’t. Featured stories do get good visibility, though. If you’ve got a finished story that you’re prepared to post all of, this might be your best (or only) option for using Wattpad as a promotional opportunity, if you can wait the six weeks for someone to get back to you (with your story up on the site the whole time).
So, time to bring yet another unexpectedly enormous post to a conclusion. If there was ever a time when Wattpad was a quick route to visibility as a writer, my guess is that it’s over now. Moreover, my experience with it was pretty frustrating – it’s not just the visibility, it’s dozens of little glitches and idiosyncrasies. For instance, it stops you putting too many tags on your story not by specifying a limit, or actually stopping you from adding any more, but by not letting you add any more chapters to your story until you remove the offending tags. (It also doesn’t tell you this, I found out by googling it.) There’s also a “voting” system, but no one seems to know what it does. The screenshot above shows that I have 97 of them which is… good, I guess?
Having said all that, I think I would have loved it ten years ago. For reading-obsessed teenagers who like their men angsty, their friends online and their Disney fanfic EVERYWHERE, it’s paradise – and I’m sure I would have had the time and inclination then to make the genuine connections with other writers and readers (which, to be honest, would feel a little creepy now – since many of them are teenagers and I’m not). In a way, I’m pleased that this post isn’t timely (although that’s not going to stop me posting it). It means that the exposure-seeking self-pubbers have withdrawn from a space that’s really not meant for us.
Right. I’m off for some ice cream.