How storytelling app Wattpad is propelling its authors to offline stardom

The Toronto-based company is increasingly looking to take its most popular stories mainstream, with partnerships for books, TV and films.

Traditional entertainment companies take Wattpad's most popular stories mainstream via movies, books

Author Anna Todd poses for a portrait at a bookstore in Mexico City in this May 2015 file photo. Wattpad is venturing well outside the digital realm as the Canadian-born online storytelling service propels its galaxy of creative stars further into a multiplatform universe. (Dario Lopez-Mills/The Canadian Press/AP)

The Canadian online storytelling platform Wattpad has proven to be a popular hangout for passionate readers eager to embrace the work of new writers, particularly when it comes to fan-fiction tales inspired by pop stars, actors and literary characters. 

Now the Toronto-based company is increasingly looking to propel the work of its creative stars more into the mainstream, with partnerships for books, TV and films.

Traditional entertainment companies have taken notice of Wattpad's growing influence with engaged young readers. The company says it has 60 million active users and 2.5 million active writers each month.

Last year, Wattpad joined forces with Universal Cable Productions — a division of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment — to develop original content for TV.

And it was recently announced that Wattpad will work in tandem with HarperCollins Children's Books and its executive editor, Sara Sargent, on choosing teen stories already shared on the platform to be brought to market through traditional publishing. French fiction publisher Hachette Romans will also translate Wattpad stories in print and digital book formats beginning in September.

Wattpad employees are seen in this undated handout photo. The company says it has 60 million active users and 2.5 million active writers each month. (Wattpad/Handout via Canadian Press)

"Not only do we have phenomenal stories from unique, diverse storywriters all over the world, we also have audience and data behind it," said Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios. "We know what countries their stories are biggest in. We know how many people read it last month. … We know there were parts they love and parts they hate.

"There's a lot of things that change from the moment we work with a producer or publisher to put out a movie or publish a book. But when you're starting with a built-in audience, people who love that property, you have a way higher chance of success than you would if you're just taking a dusty manuscript out of a drawer."

From fan fiction to film

Among the company's biggest success stories is Anna Todd, who transitioned from a Wattpad reader into one of its most popular authors. Todd's After series, inspired by superstar boy band One Direction, netted millions of reads, transforming the fledgling Los Angeles-based fan-fiction writer into a bestselling publishing powerhouse. The After series has been translated into more than 30 languages and a film adaptation is on the horizon.

"She had a brilliant voice," said Levitz. "She talked about subject matter that was interesting, new and different, and it didn't matter that the character's name was Harry Styles — she's a good writer, period. So, it was easy for us to take that to Simon & Schuster and say: 'Let's change his name to Hardin Scott and publish this thing.' And it was easy for us to go to Paramount and say: 'This is a major motion picture; let's get this thing into development."'

Wattpad's analytics can also offer clues about whether interest is surging or waning in a particular artist or project, he noted. "We know what celebrities are having a good or bad week by how many people are talking about them in their stories, or casting them in their stories," said Levitz.

"It can be quite predictive in not only finding the next boy band or seeing which franchises have peaked, because those superfans that are writing that fan fiction or reading that fan fiction, when they start leaving to do other things, that's a notion we can look at."

Wattpad's success has been fuelled by the fact that writers love the interaction they get from the community of readers who are thrilled to engage with their favourite authors, Levitz added.

"You hear our biggest writers say: 'I wrote my first thing because I wanted to, but I wrote my seventh, eighth and ninth book because the audience egged me on.' That's really what fandom is about: sharing that love and that passion."