Thought Catalog
August 20, 2015

Mega-Wattpad Stardom: The Before And After Of Anna Todd

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Anna Todd. Image: JD Witkowski
Anna Todd. Image: JD Witkowski

‘I Got Impatient’

After all, Anna Todd was not yet an author.

“Never thought about it.”

She certainly is one now. But she arrived at Wattpad, as do the great majority of its users, as a reader. “I read for four months before I started writing anything.”

And then one of the oldest bits of wisdom in the world of literature banged into one of the newest successes in today’s digital writing business.

  • The old wisdom? Write what you’d like to read.
  • The new success? This sprawling prairie of “personal storytelling” called Wattpad.

AT After 1Friendly and smart, Anna Todd is kicking bookish ass, a new author to be reckoned with, a phenom that many experts in the old world of her Big Five publisher, Simon & Schuster, may only be able to wonder at. She is the archetype, the poster girl, maybe the best ambassador that the clever Allen Lau’s Wattpad could hope to have among its 40 million users.

Yes, 40 million. That’s the size of the population of Argentina. Don’t cry for her: Todd is a first lady in the nation of Wattpad:

I genuinely think that if it weren’t for Wattpad, I would never have written anything. It would have been in my dreams, not impossible, but in my realm of reality? — I don’t think I could do it without Wattpad. And I was reading these stories. I was between two I loved. And they weren’t updating. Well, they weren’t updating in a week, which is not very long but for me it was.

So I got impatient. I wouldn’t say “bored” because there are thousands and millions of stories on Wattpad. But at the time, I wanted a specific story. I wanted to read One Direction.

So she wrote the book. No, wait, she wrote four books. And Number Five is cued up and ready for your holiday hearth and tree.

How do you follow four bestsellers in the After series?

With Before, of course, publishing 8 December and standing by for pre-orders right this minute. S&S’ Gallery Books is so ahead of this curve. After Ever Happy, Book Four in the series, has a spot on the imprint’s home page, the kind of placement that some much better known authors would consider doing awful things to get.

Can You Even Spell Authonomy?

AT After 2Oddly, a lot of folks stopped thinking about Wattpad after Margaret Atwood did her zombie thing there with Naomi Alderman. You have to admit, something titled The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home doesn’t sound like traditional publishing’s worst nightmare, does it? Even with 1.2 million reads, that brush-with-celebrity project had a sort of warm-and-fuzzy effect on a lot of folks in publishing. “Ahhhh, Margaret wanted to do something a tad off the norm…got down with the kids for a little while…hey, why not, the great lady tweets, after all.”

If the Atwood Wattpad turn made some folks feel safer about this “writing facility,” as I’ve heard one person call it, that comfort might have been premature. Wattpad is gathering, not losing, disruptive potential.

This week, we’re reporting in London at The Bookseller, the closing by HarperCollins UK of its seven-year-old site Authonomy. The site was devised by HarperCollins, another of the Big Five publishers, as a place where unagented authors could offer communal support to each other, submit their manuscripts, and vote them up with a chance to have them selected for review by Harper editors. Since Authonomy’s start in 2008, of course, the Kindle has cast a very long shadow over the land from Seattle. Self-publishing has come into its own because of the enabling force of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. And writers no longer need to hang out on a publisher’s open-submission site and hope for a papal intervention.

Instead, they can go to Wattpad.

There, they can reel out their stories for voracious, responsive, encouraging readers. And the publishers? They’re watching.

“I got to go to these publishing houses and basically pick one. Which I thought every writer gets to do…The first time I told this to an established writer and saw the look in their eye, I thought, “Oh, this is not a normal thing.”
Anna Todd

In fact, Dominique Raccah’s publishing house Sourcebooks outside Chicago regularly messages Wattpadders. This is part of what Sourcebooks says to them:

Up until now, if you wanted to submit your book to a publisher, you would usually need to write a query letter, mail or email in your submission, wait to hear back, maybe you’d need to find an agent — but no more! Now you can submit your story to us just be tagging your story on Wattpad, and we will be in touch if we are interested in talking with you about publishing your book. Use the tag submit2sourcebooks on your story and we’ll take a look.

That part about no longer needing an agent? Keep that in mind. There’s more to learn in that regard about the wonders of Wattpad.

And I can give you a little personal experience.

‘Very, Very Viral’

Wattpad CEO and co-founder Allen Lau, and head of content Ashleigh Gardner
Wattpad CEO and co-founder Allen Lau, and head of content Ashleigh Gardner

On the first of this month, a lot of attendees at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference crowded into the Broadway conference room at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to hear Wattpad content czarina Ashleigh Gardner — Lau’s other best ambassador — deliver a drop-dead slick presentation about the site. Gardner was busy piling up the kind of stats that journalists like me love to report. She was also knocking down the kind of misconceptions that other journalists report (not me, no!).

For example, in talking about Wattpad, she told us:

  • “The most common misconception is that we are a self-publishing platform.”
  • “We are the world’s largest community of readers and writers”
  • “Eighty-five percent of our traffic is coming from mobile devices.” Think of the app as a campfire. “Storytelling. Social. Mobile. Serial.”
  • “Forty-five percent is 18 to 30 years of age. There are 100 million stories on the site so far.”
  • One-hundred-thousand new sign-ups are processed by the site daily. “A new Wattpadder every second of the day.”
  • “We are not a publishing site. It’s more about self-expression.”

AT After 3And then she mentioned Anna Todd.

I grabbed Todd’s Twitter handle — @imaginator1dx — for the live-coverage I was doing as a consultant hired by the conference, a common gig for me.

Almost instantly, the coverage took off. Now I know how those biblical shepherds felt “keeping watch over their flocks by night” when “suddenly there was with them a multitude of the heavenly host.” It was as if the ceiling had come off the room. Every tweet in which I quoted Gardner talking about Todd went soaring into amplification heaven. Todd’s readership had arrived and lo, it was in that room with us, following, retweeting, favoriting, celebrating.

It’s hard to imagine anybody with a happier, more excited following online than Anna Todd.

Unless, of course, it’s One Direction. That Harry Styles, you know, the charming one, right?

Mexico City crowd for Anna Todd
International tour: Anna Todd’s fans in Mexico City greet her with their copies ready for signing. Image: Provided by the author

‘Like An Instinct’

AT After 4So to get a little business out of the way for our Directioners: no, Todd has not yet met the band. Not that it wouldn’t be amazing. But the fan fiction she’s writing about them doesn’t quite fit with the company line, of course, that parent-approved good-guys preso.

Doesn’t mean they’re not reading along, though, does it? And there’s a lot to read.

If the fans you see in that photo from Mexico City seem to be waving their copies of an awfully big paperback at Todd’s event, that’s because the first book in her series is 592 pages long. This is fan fiction, and Gardner at Writer’s Digest mentioned that some of the installments Todd originally wrote in the series at Wattpad weighed in at more than 10,000 words each.

That’s how easy the Wattpadian context is to handle for writers, though. Todd says that even though “I had no intention of writing more than one chapter, and I definitely didn’t expect to be writing 300 chapters” on the day she started, it was “like an instinct. When I opened the app, I just knew people were updating” with incremental installments in their works. “I’m sure there are some people on Wattpad who have posted an entire work. But I think part of the fun of Wattpad is waiting and using the serialization” to draw an antsy, friendly crowd.

Get this: Todd didn’t even have that Twitter handle at the time, @imaginator1dx. “Only in Wattpad could you even reach me. Two years ago, I even used to think it was cool to read on Instagram.” And it’s through a message there that she was tipped off to good fan fiction going on about 1D on at Wattpad. She found her way there, read for months, and finally started writing.

“Wattpad licensed ‘After’ and we worked closely with Anna in an agent-like capacity. With our contacts, we helped make introductions, facilitated negotiations, and made sure she was represented by the best and most appropriate partners.”
Ashleigh Gardner, Wattpad

Married and living in Austin — she’s a native Ohioan — Todd was head-down, enjoying her first go at writing and Tessa and Hardin and the encouragement of her readers at Wattpad.

“I started getting messages from people who said they were literary agents. But in the little tiny bubble I lived in, I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous, why would an agent contact me about writing Harry Styles fan fiction? That’s not a real agent.’ There were between six and 10, and I thought they were just crazy people. I never answered any of that.”

When some of her readers started printing out some of the material — not an approved move on Wattpad, by the way — Todd found herself speculating on Twitter how cool it would be to have a printed version of the work. “I didn’t even think about things like having to change the names.” (Don’t tell Harry, okay?) “So I’m really glad that I didn’t try to make a printed version.

“And that’s when Wattpad contacted me.”

‘An Agent-Like Capacity’

AT After 5Now, this is where it gets real interesting for standard publishing folks, those of us who didn’t walk into this biz because we’re quite as wild about Harry as Todd and her readers are.

Paramount bought the screen rights to After in October. In the announcement of the deal at Deadline, Mike Fleming noted that Todd, “the breakout hit of Wattpad,” had seen her series, then thought to be a three-book set, accumulate “more than 1 billion reads.”

Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books became her publisher in an initial three-book deal reported to be in the mid six figures.

Why are there four books, not three, in the initial After series?

“My editor said, ‘Wow, there are a million words here. What are we going to do with all this?”

Three became four. Todd is nothing if not prolific. And there were auctions going on, bidding was happening.

“And I don’t have an agent.”

Say what?

“Yeah, a literary agent just doesn’t quite fit my situation. It just didn’t make sense for me to sign with one.”

Todd says that she wants to avoid the usual trappings of a traditional career, things have gone well so far, and she can always call on Wattpad when she needs assistance. Instead, she says, she’s looking for an entertainment manager, reflecting her desire to do “more than just books.”

So how was this woman in her mid-twenties with no experience in publishing and no representation fielding film options and book auctions?

That’s the question I put to the excellent Ashleigh Gardner at Wattpad. If, as Todd tells it, she only realized she should pay attention to urgent emails about the work when they came from Wattpad itself, how was all this happening?

Gardner’s answer is carefully oblique but fascinating:

When we noticed After’s velocity, we reached out to Anna to get to know her and what her dream scenario would be.

Wattpad licensed After and we worked closely with Anna in an agent-like capacity. With our contacts, we helped make introductions, facilitated negotiations, and made sure she was represented by the best and most appropriate partners — helping to make those dreams come true.

In short, the house is not publishing but brokering. The informal model here is not quite Authonomy, it’s potentially much better, at least from the author’s standpoint. Instead of one publishing house owning the community and picking and choosing what it wants, this is an independent community able to support a writer in going many directions.

My next question for Gardner is: how formalized a service for Wattpad authors is this? Is it a kind of white-glove agenting function? Is this what Gardner spends a lot of her own time handling?

Cordial Canadian silence. Toronto doesn’t come back on that one. So we keep our eyes open and watch how things develop.

UPDATE: Gardner, cordially, lets me know now that this wasn’t the Ontario Silent Treatment, but just a really busy workload, and, good God, do I understand what that’s like. We’re going to confer at Frankfurt Book Fair. About German boy bands. Achtung, baby.

Meanwhile, Todd is interesting on this point of how Wattpad’s staff took on that “agent-like” role for her:

I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And when Wattpad contacted me, they said, “We’re not sure what we can do, but would you like to team up and see what we can make happen?” They had never done this before, either. They’d never worked with one of their writers to do anything like this. They didn’t work with agents or anything…but basically, it turned into this bidding war. I got to go to these publishing houses and basically pick one. Which I thought every writer gets to do. Which is obviously not true. The first time I told this to an established writer and saw the look in their eye, I thought, “Oh, this is not a normal thing.”

Her choice of S&S’ Gallery Books, Todd says, was influenced by a couple of things. For one, they allowed her to keep the initial work on Wattpad, available to users, rather than requiring her to take it down. She also is extremely happy with her editor there, Adam Wilson, who has moved forward with her on a new round of four books.

Before is the first of the new contract. It and two others are related to the After series. The fourth new book will be a standalone.

Anna Todd's 'After' Series is displayed in a shop window in Copenhagen. Image: Tweeted by an 'After' fan, @superjaro1D
Anna Todd’s ‘After’ series is displayed in a shop window in Copenhagen. Image: Tweeted by an ‘After’ fan, @superjaro1D

‘Even The Young Readers Are Going To Grow Up’

Not the writing-by-committee effect that many observers think Wattpad is, Todd says that most readers offer encouragement to their authors rather than backseat driving.

And she sees Wattpad gaining some more mature readers, “and they want to stay as far away from fan fiction as they can.” She encourages writers to try all kinds of material on the site. “Even the young readers are going to grow up. I’m starting to see some memoir. That’s great, I think everybody should consider putting their work onto Wattpad.”

Todd has become a lucrative, gleaming example of what can happen when this mighty, frequently misunderstood social platform generates salable material. This is the Authonomy of a couple of futures beyond 2008.

“I genuinely think that if it weren’t for Wattpad, I would never have written anything.”
Anna Todd

Wattpad’s Lau and Gardner and their team are riding the wave with admirable finesse so far. Not every company would be willing to explore its capabilities in a new development like this group is doing. That tolerance for the experimental has to be a key to what has made Wattpad develop into such a force. Authors who can learn how to reckon with it as Todd has done may find its writing-in-public essence the same boon she does.

For her part, only in retrospect, Todd says, has she realized that being in her mid-twenties and married for eight years “is an advantage.” So is a fondness for travel because she’s flying a lot, meeting foreign publishers who are producing her books in 36 languages so far.

Germany came out in April, and Spain — I’ve been to Spain twice. France twice. Two more times in the next six months. I will have spent almost half this year traveling.

Before this, I’d only been on a plane one time in my life. TC mark

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