Self-publishing startup Wattpad looks to move its stories to the TV airwaves

Toronto-based Wattpad has signed a partnership deal with Universal to turn some of the 300 million stories on its self-publishing app into TV shows.

Could there be another Mr. Robot hiding in the stories being shared on this Toronto-based app?

Toronto-based startup Wattpad helps novice writers get their stories published online, providing a platform that boasts 45 million readers who consume 15 billion minutes of content every month. (CBC)

Since launching 10 years ago, Wattpad has become a popular place for budding writers to cultivate their voices online — a space where they can post and receive feedback on self-published stories. Now the Canadian app is hoping to bring these stories to another medium: television.

Wattpad's own success story can be told in numbers: more than 100,000 writers share mainly works of fiction on the platform, one chapter at a time, with 45 million users worldwide, reading 15 billion minutes each month.

Those readers — and the millions of stories they consume — have led to Wattpad's latest chapter: a move toward becoming a full-fledged entertainment company.

The Toronto-based company signed a deal last month with American media giant Universal Cable Productions, an arm of NBCUniversal that produces television shows, including Mr. Robot, Suits and Colony.

The idea is to comb through Wattpad's 300 million stories to find ideas for new concepts, turning the most popular works into hit TV shows.

The deal has meant expanding Wattpad's staff of 130 editors, technologists and marketers in downtown Toronto.

'Higher chance of success'

Aron Levitz got a new job in the deal: head of Wattpad Studios.

"I often say I have one of the easiest jobs in entertainment," he said. "Because I don't have to guess what's important — I only have to listen to millions of people [telling] me what's important."

We have the unique voices that aren't coming from the traditional industry but they have built-in audience.- Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios

Levitz says the site's user data can show which genres and themes are becoming popular with readers — something that was key to the deal with Universal, as that data could give television producers a jump on the next big thing.

"I can't ever guarantee that a story coming from Wattpad is going to be a hit," said Levitz. "But we are definitely going to give you a higher chance of success because more people are going to show up night one to tune in. And I think that's what [Universal Cable Productions] is looking for."

The dedicated fans of Wattpad's star writers were the other major factor in this deal. Many wait with anticipation for the latest chapter from their favourite writers. 
First-time writer Anna Todd's book After — fan fiction inspired by the band One Direction — has been read one billion times on Wattpatt. It was picked up by Simon & Schuster and went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Anna Todd is a 27-year-old Texan who started writing on Wattpad two years ago as a hobby — a new way to explore her love of reading. As she began uploading chapter after chapter of her first story, After, she started to gain legions of fans.

After — a fan fiction inspired by the British band One Direction — became so popular so fast that publishing house Simon & Schuster acquired the rights, asking Todd to produce a three-volume version that has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller. Paramount Pictures later acquired the screen rights to After.

It was a massive opportunity that Todd says she wouldn't have been able to realize in any other way.

"If I would have sent in After to a publisher, there's no way they would have picked it up," she said. "But the people — literally, that's the only reason they picked it up."

And it's that kind of fan dedication and resulting success that Wattpad hopes to bring to the TV concepts derived from the company's online stories. 

Universal marks 2nd TV deal

"We have the unique voices that aren't coming from the traditional industry but they have built-in audience," said Levitz. "And that audience wants to see this story exist in other places — whether it's TV, whether it's a digital series, whether it's a game, whether it's [virtual reality]."

With two recent TV deals, Wattpad CEO Allen Lau hopes to transforming the app into a full-fledged entertainment company. (CBC)

When Wattpad's co-founders Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen launched the product a decade ago, they weren't thinking it would be heading in this direction. But a few years back, Lau says, they had an "Aha moment" and realized that growth would require a re-invention of sorts.

"We had in our minds [the idea of] expanding from an app that let people read and write stories, and expanding into an entertainment company," he said. "And that's where the company is heading right now."

Wattpad signed a similar partnership deal last June with another U.S. cable giant, Turner Broadcasting System, but that was only focused at turning horror stories into TV concepts.

Wattpad expects the first story generated from the Universal deal to hit TV screens early in the new year.


Ron Charles

CBC News

Ron Charles has been a general assignment reporter for CBC News since 1989, covering such diverse stories as the 1990 Oka Crisis, the 1998 Quebec ice storm and the 2008 global financial crisis. Before joining the CBC, Ron spent two years reporting on Montreal crime and courts for the Montreal Daily News.