For years now, I’ve been following the fortunes of Wattpad, an online reading and writing community that has roughly 90 million users; about 90 percent of its audience is Gen Z or Millennial. Most stories on Wattpad are free to read and written in-progress, installment by installment, for an eager audience. Unlike some other corners of the Internet, it is largely seen as an encouraging and optimistic place for its creators/contributors, who are compelled to keep writing their stories partly due to reader support.
However, when I mention Wattpad to a roomful of writers of a certain age, it is often dismissed or overlooked because of its association with younger readers and writers. I think that’s a shame. So I asked the folks at Wattpad if they’d be willing to point me to some of their successful writers who are outside of that key demographic, so I could ask them why they contribute to Wattpad and how it’s worked out for them.
These are the writers they brought forward to answer my questions.
- Rebecca Phelps originally started her career in LA as an actress and screenwriter. Rebecca’s debut YA book, Down World, is the recipient of a Watty Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019 and has been published by Wattpad Books, an imprint of Wattpad WEBTOON Book Group.
- Sondi Warner got her start as a songwriter—Beyoncé once requested she write a hook for one of her songs! On Wattpad, Sondi writes stories about LGBTQ+ polyamorous romance. Her hit novel Lead Me Astray has been published by Wattpad WEBTOON Book Group’s adult imprint, W by Wattpad Books.
- Tamara Lush is a Rita Award finalist and former Associated Press journalist who started writing fiction at the age of 43. Her hit stories Drive and Crash have been published by W by Wattpad Books and received more than 4.5 million views on Wattpad.
Jane Friedman: When I speak with writers who didn’t grow up with platforms like Wattpad—which includes myself!—sometimes they believe they’re simply “too old” to do well there. Maybe they don’t feel very tech capable, or they think it’s just for teenagers, or they wonder why they’d post their work for free (some worry about theft). But you decided to jump onboard. Did you “get” Wattpad right away and have lots of comfort with it?
Rebecca: I definitely found the site daunting at first, and for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. When I first started on Wattpad, I didn’t realize that the goal was to post chapters serially in order to gain a readership, so I just uploaded the whole book at once. (I also didn’t realize short chapters = more “reads,” which would have been good to know!)
I took the leap anyway because I knew it was the most direct way to get my book in front of teen readers. I made a simple cover for Down World on Canva, put the book up, and waited…because I honestly didn’t know what I was supposed to do next! Luckily, the editors at Wattpad discovered my book, which led to a Watty Award and, eventually, a three-book publishing deal. After years of trying to break in traditionally, it turned out that taking a chance on something new was the best decision I could have made.
Sondi: As someone pushing forty, I can relate to feeling insecure about being older, putting myself out there amongst a very bright cohort of Gen-Z writers. Sometimes women, femmes, and nonbinary people experience a reduced fit within society as they age because they’re judged as being past their prime. Society seems to have a more positive impression of maturity and the increased social capital that comes with age for masculine-presenting individuals.
I think this might be the generation to change that, however. Gen-Z is notoriously difficult to corral into neat social constructs like class distinction, race norms, or gender. They invariably gravitate toward what they like, regardless of the status quo. That wasn’t the case before the internet became ubiquitous. What drove popular trends in literature, music, and fashion for Millennials and Gen X were celebrities and the limited cultural offerings on cable television.
Today there is a smorgasbord of niche interests churned up by really shrewd social media algorithms that allow people of all ages to enjoy things that are unique to them. This is irrespective of whether they think the creator is cool or hip or en vogue. So, even if you’re a writer who believes Wattpad is just for teenagers, this is a generation with a complex, uninhibited cultural palate, and they may be the readers for you.
As for me, when I hopped onto Wattpad, it was at the urging of my then 14-year-old daughter. I didn’t worry about not being tech savvy enough. I quickly saw that the platform is easy to use, inclusive, community-based, and full of diverse readers and writers who motivate each other. I didn’t worry about being plagiarized because Wattpad has security features to help writers feel safe and confident that their work won’t be stolen for profit. Not only did I get comfortable with the platform right away, but taking that leap of faith to put a story out for free rewarded me with a global readership.
Tamara: I did! I started experimenting with the Wattpad platform early in my fiction writing journey, but got serious about it a few years later! Wattpad is actually far easier to use than most publishing platforms, or social media networks. It’s very intuitive, and quite simple to use. I was comfortable from the beginning, even though I am much older than many of the readers. It’s easy to have a dialogue with readers on the platform, and I enjoy that the most.
What do you think writers, especially those who you would consider your peers, get wrong or misunderstand about Wattpad?
Rebecca: I think a lot of people think it’s just for amateurs. Sure, there’s a lot of that, but there are also a lot of really quality books on the site, written by people who have been working at their craft for years.
Wattpad is a great resource to workshop new ideas; to write the rough draft of a book and iron out the kinks before diving into draft two. I think the key is to shift your thinking from “I’m giving my book away for free” to “I’m getting invaluable feedback directly from my target audience, and I don’t even have to pay for it!”
Sondi: Misunderstandings I’ve encountered center around a lack of awareness that the site is free to use and gives you the chance to share your story with the world. Some writers rush to the platform, expecting instant fame and recognition, but they’re missing what I think is the best-kept-secret perk of joining a community like Wattpad: reader feedback.
We can get so trapped in the old model of the writing circle that we overlook tools like Wattpad as the roundtable we’ve always wanted. Early in my career, when considering indie publishing, I sought a book coach to give me pointers on my first draft. I had no luck finding one within my budget. As soon as I got on Wattpad, I started reaching out to community critique readers, official Wattpad reading lists, and my friends and family to put Lead Me Astray in front of lots of other eyes and ask for as much feedback as possible.
Doing so allowed me to get instant critiques each time I updated a chapter, like having beta readers on standby. I was able to incorporate that feedback into my final draft to give my readers exactly the story they wanted, which shows the incredible give-and-take relationship of our community.
Developing a relationship with your readers is the cheat code to building a readership, whether you’re traditionally published, indie published, or using a story-sharing platform. In my honest opinion, nobody facilitates that relationship better than Wattpad and Webtoon. Writers who share remarkable stories, edit and polish those stories, promote them, engage with their readership, and apply that driving ambition to standing out will see the best results.
Tamara: Some believe Wattpad is for fan fiction only, and many are surprised when I say that I write original fiction on Wattpad, and that I’ve never read fan fiction. It’s a place where people can be as creative as they want, with their own fiction. The breadth of stories on Wattpad is quite impressive. I don’t believe there is a place with more diversity in publishing, or in readership. I have readers from literally every corner of the globe, and that’s so gratifying to me.
I’m also surprised when people in publishing haven’t heard of Wattpad. Older people need to understand what the younger generations are reading, and where they’re reading—and that place is Wattpad.
How has Wattpad changed how or what you write, if at all?
Rebecca: Well, in the most literal sense, I wouldn’t have written the two sequels to Down World if I hadn’t gotten the publishing deal on book one. And I’m grateful I did, because now the whole trilogy is being published!
But the biggest thing I’ve learned in terms of craft is that what really drives readers to be invested in a book is the interpersonal relationships of the characters. It’s not that they don’t care about the plot—they absolutely do!—but most of the comments are always about the love stories, the family dynamics, and the characters’ motivations. For me, writing YA sci-fi, where the plots can get pretty complex, was an important reminder to never neglect the characters’ emotional stakes.
Sondi: My writing has evolved by leaps and bounds here. I think it’s because I shifted gears from seeing writing as a job to having a blast with it. Wattpad is my sandbox. I trial-and-error my wildest ideas and anchor my flights of fancy with the technical expertise I developed as a ghostwriter and freelancer for over a decade.
The other day while working on the sequel to Lead Me Astray, I noticed the ease of my drafting and the richness of the descriptions, the intricate dance of well-timed plot points, even the particular language I used. It stopped me in my tracks. I thought to myself, “Wait a second, I think I’ve developed my voice!”
How did that happen? I’ve been reading The Spark and the Grind, and bestselling author Erik Wahl believes that when creativity marries the grind, or the effort it takes to manifest an idea into reality, magic happens.
During my stint as a ghostwriter, it was important to stick to the rules and conventions in order to stay hired. That was the grind. Yet, I suppressed a revolutionary streak. Switching to writing on Wattpad taught me how to marry the two sides. To unite the fun and freedom of wild ideas—my own revolutionary brand of creativity—and the cliché formulas and techniques of writing romance.
Wattpad lets me showcase this relationship between my skillful mechanics of writing, my vivid creative spark, and my instinctive grind in the name of art, which essentially helped unlock my voice. I’m profoundly interested in learning more about myself and my writing simply by being a part of this visionary story-sharing platform. I would be unsurprised if future historians point to the advent of Wattpad as a groundbreaking move in the right direction for diversity in literature.
Tamara: It’s really taught me how to write books that make people keep turning the pages. Learning to write an excellent serial fiction novel has helped my work in general. When I write my traditional cozy mysteries for an older audience, I use cliffhangers and end some chapters in the middle of the action. It’s inspired me to take risks. It’s also taught me that readers, and reader feedback, isn’t a scary thing. I’ve grown to love comments from readers on Wattpad, and wish I had that for my traditionally published books. I adore the immediacy of releasing a chapter and getting near instantaneous feedback.
One thing that’s certain in both life and publishing is that things change—frequently. So aside from writing and publishing on Wattpad, what has helped you consistently advance your career or protect it from the ups and downs of the overall market?
Rebecca: For writers, there’s no getting around the fact that most of the business end of our job is completely out of our control. Even now, my agent is out to editors with my first adult contemporary book, but my previous success is no guarantee that it will sell. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true for everyone, even people who have sold a dozen books.
I wrote screenplays for years before attempting a novel, and I watched as script after script did well in a contest, or even got optioned, and then died on the vine. When I posted Down World on Wattpad, I honestly was just hoping that the book would find a few readers, and maybe it would help some young people dealing with grief. After years of struggling as a writer, I wasn’t expecting any more than that. And then life surprised me.
All we can do is write. We write the best books we can. We learn from our mistakes, and we try again. That’s true for life, and it’s true for art. And I don’t know how to do anything else.
Sondi: To be a brilliant writer is to be like water. Life is a wave, which is why we talk about the “ups and downs,” but it oscillates more like a sine wave than an ocean wave. There are intervals of a scaling upwards of the amount of work available, the margin of profit that can be made, and the opportunities given for whatever demographic of author is in-demand, but once critical mass is reached, what seems like an unexpected crash and sudden loss of gains can usually be traced back to tiny signs of a tipping point revealed along the way.
Understanding cycles helps me prepare for these rolling changes, and I don’t mean by predicting booms and busts, but by anticipating that they will come.
It helped me make sense, when there was a dearth of creative writing opportunities and the terrain of the publishing industry seemed frozen to me, that it wasn’t personal. I lost my biggest ghostwriting client in what felt like one fell blow and had to pause writing for a living, but I learned to channel my energy during that time into resting and exploring new ideas.
Industries always heat up. By not getting discouraged, by playing around with a radical new story just for fun, I didn’t lose my edge as an author, which put me in position for when the atmosphere changed. Now I can hardly keep up with the work gathering in my career sector, and it’s a thrilling challenge. I can’t even tell you all the amazing ways I’m slated to share my creative spirit with you this year, and fresh opportunities are on the horizon.
I know from experience that there will come a time when all these blessings rain themselves out, returning me to that quiet period, that resting and exploring period. However, it won’t be the great fall from glory that many people imagine it to be when they don’t understand cycles. It’s in keeping with the laws of the universe that what goes up must come down. How else do you dream up something new without the calling to rest?
Of course, some of us don’t realize that we can either stop and take a break or let nature take its course. I used to be one of those people. I had to be placed on the sidelines by life events in order to remember that I’m only human. As a result, how I’ve advanced my career while grappling with the ups and downs of the market is by learning to recognize what angle of the arc of the cycle I’m in at a given moment and by letting myself go with the flow.
Tamara: Don’t take anything personally. This is the media—things are always changing. (I worked for 30 years as a reporter, including for The Associated Press.) If a publisher passes on a book, if a reviewer doesn’t like my book, if someone makes a less-than-stellar TikTok video about my book, it doesn’t bother me. It’s not an indictment of me as a human being. It’s someone’s opinion, which they’re entitled to. Not everyone will like my work, and that’s okay! In the words of the late, great Jerry Garcia, “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.