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.