Update: Hi! I’ve been rather surprised by the number of hits this post has been receiving (note the name of the blog!), even though it’s several months old. I just want to make it clear that this post is just some thoughts I had about the Wattpad Futures program when I heard about it, not an authoritative source of information. I posted an update with more details here – although the same disclaimer applies to that too!
Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Well, this feels weird. Normally I only blog about news once it’s become, like, olds. But this caught my attention: a blog post from Wattpad announcing their new “Wattpad Futures” program.
From the post:
At Wattpad, we see and understand the effort put into their stories every day. We also recognize that making money from writing can be difficult – especially for online writers. That’s why, today, we’ve launched the Wattpad Futures program, a simple way for writers to increase their earning potential.
Through the Wattpad Futures program, interested writers can supplement their income with little effort. The program helps writers earn money by inserting ads between chapters of their Wattpad story. Every time a reader views an ad, the writer earns money.
This post actually doesn’t tell us very much. In fact, what I’ve excerpted there is about a third of the post, and all I’ve left out is some information about Wattpad and the horrible phrase “engaged, mobile-first millennials and generation Z”. In particular, I would be interested to know, from a practical standpoint (I’ll get to my other questions later!) when the program will roll out, whether users from all countries are eligible and whether there will be a payout threshold. In my experience, a lot of “do this internet thing for free money!” schemes sting users by promising to pay out your earnings once you reach $ImplausibleAmount, and end up not having to pay you at all. I am much more cynical than my love of My Little Pony would suggest.
Payouts for writers aside, I’m not surprised Wattpad are looking to include more ads. Now that I think about it, I’m wondering how they’ve survived this long without doing so. I’ve seen signs of sponsorship (usually competitions related to a movie release) and tiny ads like the one below, and this article says they’ve also dabbled in paid content and crowdsourcing, although those have passed me by. But none of those seem enough to keep the site afloat (which maybe explains why it’s so littered with bugs).
But, of course, it’s the payouts for writers that are really the news here. Publishers Weekly has a little more information on the program: apparently there was a beta test where “about 100 writers… earned nearly a $1,000 a month through the program”. That article also adds that “Wattpad Futures will… be open only to writers who are invited to participate”, which is interesting: to my mind, the Wattpad blog post seems to imply that the program is open to anybody. The Wattpad FAQ page for the program (which I initially assumed was still referring to the beta) seems to bear this out:
I’ve written a great story. How can I start making money from in-story ads?
We’re currently only offering in-story ads to eligible writers, and you’ll be contacted by our team if you’re selected. We hope to offer this opportunity to more writers in the future. Stay tuned for more details!
This makes sense. In fact, one of my initial reactions to this announcement was “this is going to attract ALL OF THE SCAMMERS”, because this is the internet and we can’t have nice things. And even if they managed to keep out the clickfarmers and content spinners and other ne’er-do-wells, a free-for-all wouldn’t have done Wattpad’s community any good. I noted before that discoverability on Wattpad is next to non-existent and that it’s hard to get noticed without doing anything spammy. Introducing money to the mix would just raise the stakes on that problem and make violating the site’s code of conduct more tempting.
The flip side of this, though, is that the abysmal discoverability means that there’s already a kind of “Wattpad elite” that it’s near-impossible to break into. Dangling the carrot of potential payment – “keep writing and participating on the site and you might get picked to start making some money!” – might encourage people, but I think it’s just as likely to turn people off. I mean, at 25 I’m pretty ancient by Wattpad standards, and much more pessimistic than I was at, say, 16, so I could be way off-base here. But, to me, the fun of a site like Wattpad (it was fanfiction.net for me) is that nobody is getting paid, you’re all just in it for the love of writing and reading and making nerdy friends. (Which is why I concluded in my last post about Wattpad that the goldrush to publicise published books on it was misguided.) So I feel like selecting certain authors for the program, while probably better for the community than the alternative, is still going to have a negative effect on it. But maybe this is giving Wattpadders too little credit and they’ll just be happy for those who are successful.
Here’s what the ads actually look like (on my Android phone, in case that’s important):
As far as I can tell, the ads are only on the mobile app, not the website. The app has always flashed something up between chapters (usually a list of other suggested stories) so I guess that paves the way for advertising. On the site, you go straight from one chapter to the next, so a video ad in between would be a bigger change – but then, there’s plenty of space around the story for ads (even if they’re not making that much use of it, see the last screenshot), which is not true of the app.
What’s interesting me here is that they’ve made the ad very user-friendly. The video doesn’t auto-play – in fact, you have to specifically agree to watch it. It’s probably the least intrusive advertising in an ad-supported app I’ve ever seen. And they’re specifically asking you to watch the ad as a form of voluntary payment for the story you’re reading. From a reader’s perspective, I actually think this is very cool. I’ll be interested to see how well this works in terms of generating revenue. If people actually will choose to watch an ad to support a creator, that could be a solution to the problems both solved and caused by ad-blockers.
Okay, that last paragraph is what happens when you don’t do your research thoroughly. Since I was just looking for the ads, I stopped when I got to one – it only occurred to me right before posting this to try scrolling past one! You can’t. I assumed you could because you can just flick past the usual “you may also like” part, and also because “Show your support!” makes it sound optional (obviously I missed the “To keep reading” part) but you can’t. You can’t skip even part of the ad, either. And a 30-second advert for SimCity between chapters is actually very intrusive – compared to an ad beside the text in the browser – so I withdraw everything I said above. But I’m leaving it there to show how positive I tried to be!
One big question I have is how the program will affect attitudes to copyright on the site. Debates over the legality of fanworks (fanfiction, fanart etc) have rumbled on for decades now but the consensus among fan communities usually seems to be that it’s okay as long as you’re not making any money from the use of someone else’s intellectual property. Creators/rights holders also seem to be generally willing to look the other way under those conditions. The lines get blurred in some places (selling fanart, changing the details of a fanfic to publish it for profit à la After and Fifty Shades of Grey) but making money from fanfic directly seems like a pretty clear no-no (outside of a licensed program like Kindle Worlds), so I would be interested to see whether any fanfics make it into the program.
In fairness, I conducted a rather hasty skim of some popular fanfics just now and couldn’t find any with the ads. I also noticed that the top stories in the Romance section include neither fanfics (at least, their fanfic-ness was not obvious from their titles or covers) nor covers featuring pictures of celebrities, which I think is a recent change, although that’s completely anecdotal. The fanfics are all neatly corralled into the Fanfiction section. If this is a recent development, it’s possibly been done specifically in anticipation of this potential criticism of the new program. Or I could be completely making it up.
(As a side-note, even when authors aren’t making money out of fanfiction, that doesn’t mean nobody is. Fanfiction.net has ad space, and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that if money is going to be made from it, the author should at least get a cut.)
On a similar topic, one thing I’m pretty sure I’m not making up is that there’s really no culture of spending any money on a cover for a Wattpad story. Nor should there be, really, when up until now it’s been a free site with no money-making features for authors. But covers are very important on Wattpad, because that’s all that gets displayed in most areas (again, I’m used to fanfiction.net – which, in my day, contained no graphics at all and we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to get to it, goshdarnit) and they’re often of a very high quality with beautiful stock imagery. I’m not saying these are never paid for, but I’ve seen people offering to make them for one another in exchange for reads and votes (i.e. not money, so it’s hard to imagine that the artists are paying for the stock) and also some pretty severe misconceptions about copyright on the site, so I would be very surprised if all of them are. Again, this becomes pretty awkward if the writers appropriating the artwork (who likely don’t even know they’ve done anything wrong, especially if they didn’t make the covers themselves) are making money from the attention the covers generate.
And what about author-on-author theft? Plagiarism – both from fellow amateurs and from published writers – has long been a problem in communities like this, but monetary gain might make it more tempting. The worst-case scenario here is probably a creator taking legal action against a Wattpad author. Would Wattpad help if this happens? Have they beefed up the site’s moderation to stop it happening? (I’m thinking not, since I found a illicit copy of a published book on there just now! I reported it, so we’ll see what happens.) I suppose what I’d like to see is Wattpad taking the authors it includes in this program under its wing a little and coaching them on issues like this, so I’d love to know if anything like that happens.
Overall, I suppose I’m glad Wattpad is trying something like this, if only because I’m very interested to see how it pans out. I’m very much on the fence about whether it’s a good thing for writers, because there’s just not enough information available yet to make that call. Done right, I think it could be. The barrier to entry (the nebulous status of the “eligible writer”) means that it’s no substitute for self-publishing, but it could bridge the gap between offering your work for free to get it read and charging money for it but taking the risk that no one will pay. We’re also hearing a lot about how people aren’t willing to pay for entertainment anymore and expect everything on the internet to be free, so, hey, there’s a small chance that ad-supported books are the future of publishing (although we’re also hearing a lot about ad-blockers, so maybe not).
On the other hand, though, I do think that Wattpad handling this badly could have pretty negative effects on the people they claim to support. It could force rights holders to tighten up their stance against fanworks, for example, or stock photo creators to up their prices to compensate for theft. And then there are the potential consequences of encouraging an unprofessional atmosphere among professionals (which these writers are, if Wattpad is paying them). The self-publishing boom has seen plenty of ugliness among people desperate to make their writing pay at any cost: manipulation of systems, fake reviews, bullying, accusations of bullying that are themselves bullying, literal attacks on reviewers (!!), the list goes on. Since this program will be taking place within Wattpad’s ecosystem, they have the opportunity to guide and control it, but it’s also going to be very hard for them to wash their hands of the consequences if they don’t.
I will be awaiting further developments with interest. If you have any more information or opinions about this, I would genuinely love to hear from you in the comments!