The Atlantic has an interesting article about a recent self-pub-to-trad-pub success story. Anna Todd wrote One Direction fanfic on her smartphone, posting it to Wattpad a chapter at a time, gradually building up a devoted fan following. This ended up leading to a 4-book publishing deal with Simon & Schuster (with a name-change for the One Direction lead singer-inspired protagonist), and subsequent movie adaptations that Todd is producing.
If this sounds familiar, it’s only because it is. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as self-published Twilight fanfic, after all, and I’ve heard that a lot of Twilight fanfic stories get re-self-published with serial numbers filed off to varying degrees of success. So perhaps the most interesting thing here is not so much that it happens, but that it is continuing to happen. I speculated in the first-linked post in this paragraph that the Fifty Shades phenomenon might be a fluke—but here it goes happening again.
Just as I mentioned in that first post, fan feedback is filling in for some of the services traditional publishers provide. And Todd is leveraging that feedback, effectively writing her books “socially.”
Rather than outlining her books—“it just messes up my entire story”—she prefers to “write socially.” With After, she’d review the comments on her most recent chapter and then tweak the story’s plot: If readers finished the section feeling happy, she’d throw in a twist to make them sad. If they were incensed at Harry, she’d have Tessa misbehave. “I had feedback every day, all day,” Todd said. “I always just felt like a puppet master playing with everybody’s emotions and doing this with the characters.”
The article goes on to note that she’s returning to self-publishing for her latest book, which she’s posting chapter by chapter on Wattpad, because she “just wanted that control back.” It adds that she even opted to rewrite the book completely after getting feedback from her closest fans, which sounds an awful lot like what one does when they get feedback from an editor. Todd explains, “When I realized that I can invest in my own marketing and do exactly what I think needs to be done—well, then it just feels like: What is the benefit of having a publisher?”
What, indeed? I’m starting to suspect that traditional publishers versus self-publishing is going to be analogous to print books versus ebooks. There’s always going to be demand for print books, because some people just prefer them. Likewise, traditional publishing will have enough benefits for enough writers and readers that there will still be enough demand to keep them afloat at some level (though it’s possible there might well be a great die-off at some point until their numbers dwindle to a new equilibrium point). But not all readers will reject ebooks, and not all writers and readers will want to write or read trad-published books—for all that, as Author Earnings’s reports show, self-publishing’s share of the market is growing ever larger.
But it’s not just self-publishing for money that draws the readers. The newer generations of readers are considerably more comfortable with technology than their forebears, and some of them are voracious (just ask Scribd!). These voracious readers will seek out new material to read wherever they can find it, including fanfic and other free writing sites—which is why so many of them found Anna Todd’s works when she was just writing for free on Wattpad.
Another interesting thing is that traditional publishers are aware of these new publishing media, and seem to be treating them like a communal slushpile—as in the cases of E.L. James or Anna Todd. Since the most popular works develop huge followings, this slushpile is essentially self-sorting—the most popular stuff floats to the top, and comes with a built-in market for the professionally-published versions that come later.
Is posting your writing to Wattpad for free a good idea in terms of building publicity and fandom before going the self-publishing-for-money route? I don’t know. Just because it works for some writers doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. But on the other hand, if you’re posting what you’re writing for free anyway, a community site like Wattpad will serve to concentrate readers in the one place—it’s a lot easier for them to find new stuff on Wattpad than to find it on some random site across the Internet. I’m even considering reposting some of my Internet fiction there, just to see if I can get a few new readers.
In any case, it continues to be fascinating watching the brave new world of 21st-century publishing grow and develop. Who knows where it might go next?