It will sound, at first, like a 10th-grade English teacher’s utopian dream: an online gathering spot where, instead of bullying each other, posting provocative photos of themselves or laying out wish lists of stuff they want, droves of young people are reading, writing and encouraging each other. “Keep going!” they say. “I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
And they’re doing it voluntarily! Not even for extra credit.
Wattpad is succeeding where thousands of high school literary magazines have failed — and its investors expect to make a bundle of money doing it.
The site, which is most often accessed by mobile phone, acts as a repository for amateur writers, who post short stories, novels and poems for others to read and critique. The works are often revealed chapter by chapter, so readers are anticipating new developments and often lobbying the writer for plot shifts or new characters. More than 500,000 new stories go up on Wattpad each month.
“Storytelling is all about connecting audiences and the people telling the story,” says Allen Lau, the company’s co-founder and chief executive. “So we are trying to re-create that environment through the Internet.”
Lau is a serial entrepreneur based in Toronto who had the germ of an idea for a digital reading venture when he was still working for a mobile gaming company in 2002. “Reading is my thing. I read a lot,” he says. “But I just did not have enough time in the day to sit down and focus on my reading material.”
Four years later, as he decided on his next move, he returned to the idea and found that a former colleague had a similar vision. The idea was to adapt reading material to the way people live now — consuming small portions of content, largely through their phones.
The first year Wattpad launched, in 2006, he says, the adoption rate was “very, very slow.” The next year it was “slow” and the third year, “not as slow.” Eventually, they gained a critical mass of users who were uploading stories and telling their friends.
Now the site gets 9 million unique visitors a month; its users spent 1.7 billion minutes on the site last month, a figure comparable to that of other social networking sites such as Pinterest. It recently attracted $17.3 million in venture funding and announced that legendary author Margaret Atwood had become a user and advocate of Wattpad.
“If there are no young writers and readers, sooner or later there will be no older writers and readers,” Atwood said from her home in Toronto last week.
Because the site allows readers to post their work anonymously, she added, it takes away some of the fear of being judged by peers. “You get an audience, you get some comments, some feedback. And you get to see what your stuff looks like in print, which is a thrill,” she says.
Atwood will judge a poetry contest on the site this summer and plans to release “a big fiction surprise” in the fall.
The site’s traffic has been largely the result of word-of-mouth referrals. More than 5 million stories have been posted. Like Facebook, Wattpad’s user base began with young people — in this case largely teenagers — and is slowly catching on with older audiences. The works reflect the sensibilities of their authors. “Romance,” “Adventure” and “Historical Fiction” are listed as major categories, as are “Vampire” and “Werewolf” stories.
Managers of the British boy band “One Direction” hired a writer to post a work of fan fiction — a serialized fantasy about the band members. Within a week, it had been viewed 100,000 times. And since that posting, 12,000 other pieces of “One Direction” fan fiction have been written by Wattpad users.
Lau says he doesn’t see Wattpad as a competitor to traditional publishing houses. Users retain copyrights to all works they upload, and Wattpad has no plans to print any content it generates. But a few Wattpad writers, he notes, have leveraged their success on the site to land book contracts.
Last year, the company raised $3.5 million from two investors, including Union Square Ventures, an early backer of Twitter, Etsy and FourSquare. Last month, it announced the new round of funding, led by Khosla Ventures of San Francisco. The cash infusion will be used to make improvements to the site and raise the company’s profile.
“We were really impressed with the type of traction they were able to get in a short period of time,” says Andrew Chung, a partner at Khosla. “In the same way YouTube was able to democratize the ability to create and broadcast videos on your own, this was the same kind of mechanism — to write and share stories with a broad range of readers.”
Amanda Pate, a 22-year-old student at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, joined the site two years ago. She liked that Wattpad made it difficult to copy stories, eliminating much of the risk of plagiarism. She has always been a writer but found that having an audience made her take the endeavor much more seriously. Pate has completed two novels and is working on a third.
“I’m so busy with classes and finishing up my degree, but I have so many people who read my stories, and they’re always like: ‘When are you going to update? When are you going to post your next chapter?’ ” she says. “It actually kept me going, to be like, ‘Okay, I need to get on a writing schedule.’ And I think I’ve become a better writer since starting this, just because I’ve been writing so much.”
Pate also likes that it’s such a compassionate community. “They’re very kind and understanding and encouraging,” she says. “And I love it just because kids are writing -- to me that’s exciting.”
Naturally, when she graduates in December, Pate hopes to become an English teacher.