The writing platform Wattpad, born in Canada and with a strong presence in India, is a parallel ecosystem for publishing in the country, with writers and readers meeting one another in a huge community. Devashish Sharma, Country Head, India, spoke to about how things changed for Wattpad during the pandemic, what the most popular stories on the site are like, and how writers make money. Excerpts from the interview:

It is almost common wisdom now that digital readership has gone up during the pandemic. What has been Wattpad’s experience?
Perhaps not surprisingly, one clear global trend during the lockdown was of more people turning to storytelling as a way to connect and cope with the situation. Users who were previously readers turned to writing as a way to express themselves. And writers on Wattpad told us that people were finding solace in the community of readers and writers. Being able to connect with fans and other writers has been a positive experience for them.

In spring 2020, we saw a global increase in sign-ups from pre-Covid levels, with a jump of more than 50% in April over early March. From January through April, the number of new stories grew 151%. In the same period, the number of new writers increased by 125%. Writer activity, overall, increased by 200% from January through April. In India, these growth trends meant a 50% increase in reading time, a 30% increase in new stories, and a 60% increase in writers.

What sort of stories emerged during the pandemic? Were they markedly different from earlier ones? What further changes do you expect in the future?
The stories that have been the most popular in this time span a wide variety of genres, from eerie science-fiction tales about a world in the throes of a pandemic to romance novels imagined in quarantine settings. In April, Beth Reekles, author of The Kissing Booth, started a quarantine romance titled Lockdown on London Lane. The story grew quickly in popularity and it will be published via Wattpad Books in 2021.

Did Wattpad India collaborate with publishers during the pandemic? How?
In India, publishers and authors are promoting their books on Wattpad to tap into the concentrated user base of nearly three million Indian readers, which was even more valuable to them during the pandemic. We worked with Penguin Random House India, HarperCollins India and Rupa Books. Among authors, we have worked with Durjoy Dutta, Ravinder Singh and Neil D’Silva.

Some of the ways we’ve explored working with publishers in India include masterclasses on different aspects of writing with authors like Ravinder Singh and Shonali Shroff, for instance; Ask Me Anything sessions with Wattpad users; writing campaigns around the theme of the book being advertised; and book excerpts.

As the lockdown eases out, physical book consumption is rising. How do you see digital publishing evolving from here, both for Wattpad and for the sector?
We’re not in the digital publishing business, we’re in the storytelling business. One of the best things about this is that writers not only find a safe space with us to share their voice and build a global community of fans, but also that there are multiple ways to make money working with Wattpad.

Let’s go back to your beginnings in the country. Why did Wattpad come to India? Can you talk to us about Wattpad’s operations at the moment?
In 2006, when Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen started Wattpad, it was based on the belief that readers would eventually read stories on portable devices. The only thing missing, of course, was the mobile internet and smartphones.

The scenario changed with the launch of Apple’s first iPhone in 2007. The App Store followed in 2008, and soon afterwards, Android devices grew in popularity. Decreasing data costs allowed more and more people to access the mobile internet. The rest, of course, is history.

In India, because of the deep penetration of smartphones and mobile web apps, there is high demand for digital publishing and reading. An added incentive is the fact that mobile data charges in India are low compared to countries like Canada, where Wattpad is headquartered. In 2016, for example, the launch of Jio changed the mobile landscape in India greatly, leading to a boom in e-reading.

It is not surprising then that Wattpad has been available in India, with stories in local languages, since our inception. The last few years have seen a certain organic traction in its global growth, particularly in India. We began to build a greater physical presence in India in December 2018, when I was hired as the first Country Head for operations in India. We began investing more, particularly after 2016 and the launch of Jio. In early 2019, Times Bridge became a strategic partner.

As part of our operations, we have a vertical called Wattpad Studios, which adapts some of the most exciting stories on our platform for TV, film, and print books. Let me explain how this happens. For instance, if there are 500 reader reactions to the third paragraph on the third page of a story on Wattpad, this obviously means that there is something that is either terribly exciting on that page, or something that resonates deeply among the readership community on Wattpad. This is unique to Wattpad.

For studios and publishing houses, it is easy to identify plots or genres that readers engage with and enjoy. The potential here is that an audience and user base is already attached to a work, so it increases the market value for the studio interested. For instance, one of our leading stories, After, has been accessed over 1.5 billion times. It hit the theatres in 2019, released by Voltage Pictures. It was a huge hit in the United States.

Its sequel premiered this year, during the pandemic, first in Europe and in the United States. We were initially apprehensive about how it would do, given the circumstances, but to our surprise, it gave Christopher Nolan’s Tenet over the first weekend. What made this possible? Because right from the beginning, After had the backing of millions of readers worldwide. Their chatter online marketed the story, and shepherded it to the screen. This is what we mean when we talk about our methods of disruptive entertainment.

This is an interesting prospect for a production company, because instead of a professional writer’s room creating a brand message, it is the audience (the readers) who are creating it. New audiences can then be unlocked with minimal effort. We believe this technique is much more authentic and personal than the traditional and more impersonal methods of advertising or marketing.

How do writers earn from publishing on Wattpad?
Wattpad India offers a number of methods for authors to monetise their stories, such as Paid Stories and Wattpad Studios. We personally select and vet the stories that make it into the Paid Stories vertical, the core of which is freedom for authors to monetise their writing on the platform. This is different from, say, a Kindle, wherein you have to buy the whole book. On Paid Stories, you can pay per chapter, which leaves it more flexible for the reader, as far as time commitment and payment abilities are concerned.

If, for instance, you are a creative head at a studio and you hear of a good new story on Wattpad, then you directly message the writer in question. This is changing with the establishment of a formal division – in Hollywood and Southeast Asia – to act as an intermediary on behalf of the writer, and to give studios informed data points about the story in question. Now, Wattpad Studios includes a publishing team, who represent authors and who work on adapting stories to new media formats. In India, too, we have a formal division to represent authors.

Can you tell us more about Wattpad Studios? Who are your global partners and what is the process for turning books into movies/series? Have you facilitated deals with Indian authors yet?
Wattpad Studios partners with the biggest names in entertainment and publishing to turn our top-read stories into movies, TV shows and books. Around the world, nearly 1,000 Wattpad stories have been published as books or turned into TV shows and films. Some of our film partners are Sony Pictures Television, Brazil’s Wise Entertainment, eOne and CBC in Canada, and Germany’s Bavaria Fiction

Wattpad Books, our US based publishing division, has a deal with Penguin Random House to distribute books in all English-speaking Commonwealth countries. The Kissing Booth was released by Penguin Random House UK, and the editing and formatting was done by their team.

We haven’t developed any TV or film projects in India yet, but it’s something you’ll see from us in the coming years.

How is publishing a story on Wattpad different from self-publishing or using a blog?

A blog is more of a tool for a creator to express themselves than it is a gateway to a community that you can be part of. The difference is that on Wattpad, there are already millions of readers, hungry for new stories. This is how some writers have built large audiences: for instance, Neil D’Silva, who primarily writes horror fiction; YA, romance and fantasy writer Hermyne Khaling, whose extremely popular story Silhouette is in the Paid Stories programme, which means she makes money each time a reader unlocks her story. She writes primarily young adult, romance and fantasy stories; or Aanchal Budhiraja, who writes humour, fantasy, and romance with a touch of darkness.

What kind of stories are the most popular on your platform?
Our data suggests that Indians love reading sci-fi and romance – in particular, stories that explore forbidden love and arranged marriages. We are also seeing a growing readership for genres like thriller and paranormal stories. During the pandemic there has been a lot of content based on mental health, and on less explored themes such as LGBTQ, body positivity, etc.

About 90% of our users in India are Gen Z and millennials (between the ages of 13-35), 65% identify as women, and 45% India are from the non-metro cities. I’ve been particularly interested by the high interest in non-metro cities like Raipur or Akola. The interest in learning and in being entertained.

You’ve talked about your unique ‘Story DNA’ technology. What exactly does this do?
It uses machine learning, deep learning, and recurrent neural networks to identify common patterns in popular stories. We look at what makes a story popular, what kind of user is attracted to the genre, and how far it can go in a new media or digital format. Elements like sentence structure, use of words, and grammar help us compare stories on and off of Wattpad. This technology helps us discover unique voices and trends among the nearly one billion stories that have been published on Wattpad.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.