Even though her books had millions of reads, Ariana Godoy was hardly a household name — her fan base predominantly consisted of 13-to-24-year-old romance readers with a thing for vampire stories. The year was 2009, and niche internet communities were having their heyday. Think Tumblr, Myspace and, Godoy’s website of choice, Wattpad.
Wattpad, the effervescent, cultish book-sharing platform, was where authors donned online personae, escaped their day jobs and brought readers along on a journey of whimsy, love and the occasional typo. One of Godoy’s first novels, “Through My Window,” or “A Traves De Mi Ventana,” went viral there — and landed her a book and movie deal.
Then 12 years and 950 million reads later, Godoy’s writing went viral again. But this time was different: It went viral off a post she didn’t make or even know about. It went viral on TikTok.
Book internet culture has changed wildly in the past decade. Wattpad could (and still does) get amateur authors book deals, but TikTok is sending established authors into the stratosphere. There is a trade-off though: On Wattpad, authors retain a lot of the control, but on TikTok, it’s hard to know when and how a story will go viral, and when authors try to control the narrative, they can be chastised for it. Cue a lot more scrutiny — but also a lot more sales.
Wattpad began in 2006 as a platform for users to share and read original stories free. While the company still prides itself on being a place where novice writers get their start, they have also launched several modes to help their writers make money.
“I do think that Wattpad has, in many ways, pioneered book culture, particularly from smaller authors,” said Jeanne Lam, president of Wattpad. “I think part of what makes [book culture] cool is understanding all the different version of books and reading. With Wattpad, there was an understanding that we can be nerdy together and that’s okay.”
In recent years, other modes of book internet culture have popped up — like BookTok, a popular side to the video-sharing app TikTok, where readers discuss their favorite books in short narrative bursts. When books go viral on BookTok, sales skyrocket. Movie deals are made. It can make a self-published author into an overnight sensation.
According to Anna Todd, author of viral book series and movie franchise “After,” there was a period where interest in reading seemed to decline between the height of Wattpad in the early 2010s and the rise of BookTok in recent years. Across the board there was less of an interest in romance stories, Todd said, and “people were just getting tired of [them].” During this hiatus of sorts, it seemed like there was less of a public obsession over certain types of romance books.
But that lull abruptly ended with BookTok’s rise during the pandemic. Suddenly, self-published, indie authors were able to go viral yet again and see skyrocketing book sales. In the first quarter of 2021, book sales rose by almost 30 percent compared with the same period in 2020, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks sales. Even when the book market started evening out again, sales of adult fiction, such as the novels by former Wattpad author and BookTok mainstay Colleen Hoover, managed to continue increasing.
Todd noticed the impact of BookTok when the first installment of her One Direction fanfiction, “After,” hit the big screen. All of a sudden, her fans didn’t just exist on message boards or Tumblr pages. Which meant she got a lot more readers. And a lot more hate.
Authors publishing on Wattpad didn’t face scrutiny in the same way. Potential readers who stumbled across an author’s writing on Wattpad knew exactly what they were getting. Judgmental 20-somethings who have never heard of fanfiction don’t.
“It depends on the way that [a book] goes viral because I’ve seen lately this trend of people destroying authors,” Todd said. “There’s always a downside when people on the internet can say whatever. But I definitely think sometimes it’s good for the author not to have a lot of control, especially if they’re not really comfortable marketing themselves.”
To fully understand the power BookTok has in making or breaking a career, you have to go inside BookTok itself. Part-time content creator Tishni Weerasinghe started making BookToks in December 2020. Since then, she has had the opportunity to be “one of those people in the book world that influences bestseller charts.”
But, like Godoy and Todd, her internet book journey began long ago with Wattpad. Unlike the authors, Weerasinghe remained just a reader, leaving the occasional comment or two and messaging her favorite authors within the app. It wasn’t until BookTok that she realized there’s an avenue for readers to also be content creators. And while it’s been a rewarding experience, she echoes Todd’s point: Going viral isn’t always a good thing.
“There’s the darker side of BookTok,” Weerasinghe said. “I feel like a lot of people are starting to get on their high horse and judging people for what they’re reading — which goes against the whole point of BookTok, which was to not judge people for what they’re reading.”
While criticism might tank a book, positive reviews might make a bestseller. And increased sales aren’t the only positive of BookTok. There’s power in bringing book culture to the mainstream, taking it out of a limited space and into the land of algorithms. For younger readers, BookTok also brought loving books out of the shadows of Wattpad and into the mainstream.
“It became okay for people to just say, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m a reader,’ ” Weerasinghe said. “Before, when you heard someone say, ‘Oh, I’m a reader,’ you think of a grandma. Now when someone says, ‘I’m a reader,’ I think of like a cool 20-year-old, someone who has it all together with her venti Starbucks.”
For authors especially, it’s hard to rationalize what’s easier. More reads or more community? More love or more hate? But at the end of the day, clicks pay the bills. Godoy realized this when the Spanish version of her book, “Heist,” went viral on TikTok. She even remembers how she found out.
Godoy was inundated with notifications — of both book sales and social media tags. She clicked on one of the many notifications on her phone one morning and was greeted by a brunette. In her left hand was Godoy’s book, and right below that was a little icon reading “16.4K likes.”
“Isn’t it crazy?” said Godoy, who laughs, then pauses. “It’s not even that long. The video is just 15 seconds or something. The readers are just in control now — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
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