Ebooks: What does Wattpad offer established authors like Margaret Atwood?

Those doomsayers predicting the death of the book need look no further than Wattpad for confirmation of the power of fiction in the digital age

Margaret Atwood: brave commitment to exploring contemporary issues. Photograph: Damon Winter/New York Times

Margaret Atwood: brave commitment to exploring contemporary issues. Photograph: Damon Winter/New York Times

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 01:00

On a recent visit to Dublin, as part of Dún Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea Book Festival, Margaret Atwood spoke fervently about the opportunities that digital books offer the publishing industry for developing new relationships with readers. Atwood has always been interested in the future and in the impact that science and technology may have on the evolution of society.

From her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale (Kindle edition £5.98) to her most recent climate-change trilogy, which culminated earlier this year with the publication of the final instalment, MaddAdam (Kindle edition £8.75), the Canadian writer has displayed a brave commitment to exploring the most contemporary of issues, from the genetic modification of food to genetic selection.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the 73- year-old has adapted so readily to new publishing formats, launching herself as one of the leading entrepreneurs of digital publishing. She conceived the LongPen, an innovative device that uses a tablet PC to record the pen strokes of an author’s inscriptions and reproduces these movements on paper in ink via a robotic arm. She also recently launched Fanado!, an app that allows ebook owners to connect with favourite authors, transforming the generic digital form into something personal by facilitating author signatures and personalised illustrations.

Atwood’s zealous adoption of new narrative formats in her work is equally impressive. For the past few years she has acted as the public figurehead of Wattpad, a free self-publishing, social-networking site that allows writers to get immediate feedback from readers, who can submit stories to the site from their computers or phones. Founded by fellow Canadians, Wattpad has a monthly international readership of more than 10 million, with contributors writing in more than 25 languages.

Atwood has used the site to release poetry and short stories to this virtual community of readers, as well as a serial novel, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, which she wrote with the novelist Naomi Alderman and which has been read by almost 800,000 people since the first instalment was published, in October last year.

Although this readership figure seems extraordinary by traditional publishing standards, it is conservative alongside some of Wattpad’s most popular books. The Cell Phone Swap, filed under Teen Fiction by the pseudonymous Hilarity N Suze, has had more than 17 million readers since it was uploaded, in March of this year.

Atwood’s publisher, Bloomsbury, is fully on board with her use of the site for digital self-promotion. In the run-up to the publication of MaddAdam it licensed excerpts from the earlier instalments, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, to be published without charge on Wattpad. Whether Bloomsbury will capitalise on the digital success of The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home by releasing a print edition is another matter.

But a number of Wattpad authors have made the transition to print with large publishing houses after self-publishing stories on the site. The fantasy writer Abigail Gibbs published the first instalment of her Dark Heroine series, Dinner With a Vampire, on Wattpad when she was just 15, and it was picked up by HarperCollins, which published a paperback in 2012. The first 20 chapters are still freely available on Wattpad (the full novel is available on Kindle for £3.49). The second book in the series, Autumn Rose, has just been published (Kindle edition £1.99).

But Atwood is an established name, with a history of critical as well as commercial success, so what does Wattpad offer her? In terms of developing her craft, perhaps very little. Atwood surely doesn’t need the plot suggestions of her fans to fuel her fertile imagination.

But Wattpad has, crucially, given her access to a younger audience. The predominant users of the site are young adults, and Atwood has tailored the work she has made available on the site to their dominant tastes . While Atwood has linked her collaboration with Alderman to the Victorian serial tradition used by Dickens among others, the popularity of the form among Wattpad readers more likely reflects the influence of television formats, particularly the soap opera.

It is the younger age group, however, that will cause many a discerning digital reader to defect from the site. Most of the work available on Wattpad reflects youth interests: fan fiction, fantasy and teen romance are the most popular genres by far. But it is the execrable quality of many of the entirely uncurated contributions that will really turn many a reader off. (The writing standards displayed by readers in feedback sections is even worse.)

What traditional publishing routes offer is the outside eye of an editor, and when so many of Wattpad’s contributors ignore the fundamentals of grammar and spelling it can be difficult to take the work seriously.

Still, the numbers cannot be ignored. Those doomsayers predicting the death of the book need look no farther than Wattpad for confirmation of the continuing power of fiction in the digital age. Even so, Atwood and Alderman are almost the only recognisable contributors to the site, and publishers would be wise to recognise that Wattpad is perhaps the ultimate tool for self-promotion for established, as well as aspiring, authors and for writers of all descriptions – as long as they can make their voices heard among the howls of werewolves and vampires baying for young blood.

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