When I was first mooting the idea of putting ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ out in the world in some shape or form, one of the ideas I had was Wattpad, a site where authors post chapters of their work for readers to enjoy for free. I signed up and tried it out, although I came away rather bemused (you can read the results here).
Now that a number of chapters have been posted on the blog, and the necessary steps for publication are underway, it seemed like a good time to revisit the Wattpad idea. About three weeks ago, I started posting chapters there, the first four, followed by a couple a week until it catches up with the blog (because if I had to cope with two different sites at different stages of the book for long, my head would explode).
The first advantage is immediately obvious: it’s dead easy to use. I simply copy the text straight out of Scrivener, bang it into Wattpad, add a chapter title and away you go. For the first upload, I had to choose two categories from a preselected range (I chose Fantasy and Romance), and as many tags as I could think of (things like epicfantasy, action-adventure, magic, barbarians, and so on). You can add more later. Wattpad takes care of all the boring stuff like linking to the next chapter, notifying people there’s a new chapter, etc.
This is a vast improvement on doing things manually in the blog. Here I have to create all the links from one chapter to the next, and on the front page, send out emails to those who’ve signed up, send Tweets, Google+ alerts and all the other social gubbins. Myself. By hand. Well, OK, some of it is automated, but that doesn’t always work. Wattpad is a whole other level of convenience.
The second advantage is for readers. Instead of reading in a blog, a Wattpad story can be read on a mobile (cell) phone, a tablet or whatever gadgetry the reader desires to use. On a phone, there’s an elegant, clean interface, with a readable font and it’s easy to swipe from page to page and then straight on to the next chapter. And it remembers your place.
However, all is not quite as peaches and cream as it sounds. Wattpad is big. There are 25 million Wattpadders and 40 million stories. I don’t know quite how they define a story (a chapter? a multi-chapter unit?), but it’s still a big number. How on earth do readers find anything in there, let alone anything they might enjoy reading? There’s no review or stars system, but readers can add comments to chapters, and ‘vote’ (a sort of thumbs-up option), and the number of reads is counted: each individual reading one page of a chapter counts as one read. [EDIT: The rule seems to be: one chapter = one read, but on a computer the chapters are broken into pages, and each page is a separate read. I think.] So stories are sorted by reads, votes and comments, and there are lists of hot stories (with lots of reads and votes) in the various categories. Inevitably, this means that the popular stories show up on lists, and therefore stay popular. You can search on tags, and Wattpad also attempts to suggest stories with tags that match other stories you’ve read: a ‘you might also like…’ feature. But all of it forces authors to scramble for popularity if they want to be noticed.
How do you do that? Well, Wattpad is a social site, so… Yes, you can see where this is going. Yet another site where you have to make friends and socialise and diligently work to generate the contacts who will read your book. As if we didn’t already have enough social networking to do. The snag with Wattpad is that you want to make contact with the 90% of members who are there solely to read. However, the people you mostly meet on the forums and reaching out a friendly hand are actually the other 10%. That is, they’re authors too, and while they might read your work they want you to read theirs in return. It’s very difficult to escape from the authors-only sandpit and make contact with the vast numbers of readers who would love your book, if only they could find it.
I’ve taken it slowly, adding a couple of chapters a week, and spending a little time every day on the site, building a network of contacts. I read other people’s work and comment on it, I post replies to forum threads, I root out interesting authors, especially those also starting out, and I follow them, and some of them also follow me. But it feels like a lot of running around for very little result. So far I’ve had close to 100 reads, almost all on chapter 1, and a handful of votes and comments. Anyone with an existing following on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or any of those other absorbers of free time can pull those people across and get started a lot quicker. To be honest, for me it feels like a long, hard slog, but I’m willing to do that for the sake of having the book out there for people to read. Once I’ve uploaded every chapter of ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, it can stay there for anyone to read for free, possibly indefinitely.
What can Wattpad do for an author? Well, one thing it won’t do is help you sell squillions of books. Wattpadders sign up and stay loyal because they want the free reads. When they’ve finished your (free) book, they go on to read another (free) book, and they don’t rush off to Amazon and buy everything else you’ve written. It may sell a few copies, but don’t do it as a marketing exercise.
If an author already has a book on permafree, it doesn’t hurt to give it a bit more exposure on Wattpad. Equally, if (like me) you just want to get the book out there and have people read it, Wattpad is as good a place as any. Just bear in mind that Wattpad is public, so posting a book there counts as publishing it and uses up your first publishing rights. If you plan to submit a work to agents and/or publishing houses, you should NOT under any circumstances post it to Wattpad. There are a few people who’ve got traditional book deals and even movie rights after building a following on Wattpad, but that’s orders of magnitude less likely that winning the lottery, so don’t build it into your plans.
Another thing Wattpad won’t do is help an author to improve their writing skills, or at least not very much. There is a comment system, and yes, it’s perfectly possible to use that to point out grammatical errors and the like, but most of the comments are very brief – words of encouragement and expressions of enjoyment. It’s also quite difficult to comment in detail on a piece – there’s no easy way to quote, for instance. So this isn’t a place for beginning writers who are serious about improving.
It is, however, a fantastic place for young writers to try out their wings in a supportive environment. Anyone of age 13 and upwards can join in, and it has fan-fiction and all kinds of other fiction, and non-fiction as well (porn is allowed, but it gets an R rating and is shuffled out of sight). Sometimes it feels like a high school, full of excitable teenagers writing werewolf romance and squeeing over fanfiction, but actually there are plenty of more mature writers too, they just take a bit more finding.
Wattpad is a brilliant idea, cleverly executed. For readers, it provides endless free reading. For authors, it offers exposure and contact with readers, but it’s a lot of work to get noticed and it’s unlikely to sell many books, so regard it as a goodwill gesture.