WHEN WATTPAD opened its online reading room in 2006, its catalogue contained chiefly public-domain tear-jerkers like “Sense and Sensibility”. It also invited budding Jane Austens to post their own oeuvres. Readers, particularly young women, flocked to the site. It now draws 70m monthly active users. Include poems, novellas and serial chapters, and its virtual shelves buckle under 565m texts in over 50 languages. Now it wants to turn some of them into print.
Online book-reading spaces are proliferating. They include Tor (for science fiction and fantasy), Tapas (comics) and Radish (serialised novels). Wattpad has cornered romance—with an estimated $1bn in annual book sales in America alone not counting self-published ones, as much as sci-fi and crime combined, a popular genre. Along the way, says Porter Anderson, editor of Publishing Perspectives, an online trade journal, it has also tried to solve an age-old problem in the publishing business: how to foretell hits.
Books are costly to promote and, in print, to distribute. Publishers try to predict which manuscripts will succeed. For every bestseller, they still plug plenty of duds. This is especially true for debut novels by unknown authors. Wattpad’s algorithm skims its uploads, as well as user comments and other data, to work out what appeals to readers. The site lets authors and fans interact—and writers fine-tune their work to please the audience. High-scoring page-turners get promoted to advertisers (who pay some authors to weave brands into their narrative) and publishers. “After”, a book which was viewed 1.5bn times on the site, was snapped up by Simon & Schuster and made the New York Times bestseller list. In 2018 Netflix released “The Kissing Booth”, based on a Wattpad book by an American author who wrote it when she was 15. It is planning a sequel.
Wattpad, which makes most texts available free of charge, takes a cut of any book or film deal struck, as a literary agent does. It wants to emulate traditional publishers, too. It is toying with paywalls, and in January said it will churn out print runs of its algorithm’s top picks. Nearly three in four Americans aged 18 to 29 say they read a print book in the previous year; only two-thirds of their grandparents did. And a physical book is a “trophy” for readers who helped craft the narrative, says Ashleigh Gardner, Wattpad’s head of publishing.
Last year Wattpad raised $51m from venture capitalists, reportedly valuing it at $400m. Its boss recently insisted revenues were “growing nicely”. The firm will not say if it is spilling red ink. Rapt investors are hoping for a happy ending.
This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/04/06/wattpad-an-online-reading-room-wants-to-print-books.