Turning the Page: How online self-publishing platforms have transformed the literary landscape

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June 13, 2021 2:30 AM

Online self-publishing platforms have not just opened up the arena for new authors and connected them with readers, but also aided them in landing lucrative publishing deals.

The platform not only empowers diverse voices to share their stories, but also allows readers and writers to express themselves freely and talk about topics that are often under-represented.The platform not only empowers diverse voices to share their stories, but also allows readers and writers to express themselves freely and talk about topics that are often under-represented.

American author Anna Todd loved spending time reading fan fiction by amateur writers. It was a matter of time before the bug bit her too and, in 2013, she published the first chapter of her book After on online self-publishing platform Wattpad. The young-adult romance novel was inspired by the music and fandom of the One Direction music band, and the protagonist was modelled on singer Harry Styles. Before she knew it, Todd had become a writing sensation. Today, After has been read more than 1.5 billion times on Wattpad and is a bestselling book series, with more than 11 million print copies sold, thanks to a deal Wattpad struck for her with Simon & Schuster.

Todd is one of the many budding authors around the world who have gained significantly from the emergence of the various self-publishing platforms online. With increasing access to internet, reading and writing communities such as Wattpad, Inkitt, Scriggler, Critique Circle, among others, have helped the community grow leaps and bounds. These platforms also allow readers to give feedback, which aids authors in the writing process. For instance, Scriggler, which was launched in 2013, is a place where anyone can share their stories, essays, poetry, research, ideas or reflections. Then there is Critique Circle. Launched in 2003, it has more than 3,000 active members and over one lakh stories, with over 24 million visits.

One could very well call online self-publishing platforms the ‘social media for literature’. In fact, if numbers are anything to go by, self-published authors have transformed the industry, accounting for around 30-34% of all ebook sales around the world as of 2020, as per reports by the official book trade market. If one were to compare, the average trade-published author earns approximately 7.5% of their book’s cover price (those with agents lose a further 15%), while indie authors who sell directly to readers, having garnered a readership on online self-publishing platforms, take home up to 96% of the value of the book. According to Report Buyer’s (a platform that gathers market research reports from top publishers) 2019 book printing report, the global book printing market is anticipated to reach around $49 billion by 2024, growing at a CAGR of more than 1% during 2018-2024. Within that, self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment with a CAGR of approximately 17% during the forecast period, the report says.

Self-publishing platform Inkitt has been revolutionary in multiple ways. It is a reader-powered site, where the engagement and support of readers determine if a story gets published. Readers can also review stories similar to Goodreads. The core aim is to discover hidden talent and turn them into successful authors, says founder and CEO Ali Albabzaz. “We analyse reader behaviour data on stories and then offer the authors of high-performing stories publishing deals,” says Albabzaz. Inkitt started in 2013 with the aim to provide writers a platform to upload excerpts or entire manuscripts to connect with readers and get feedback. Inkitt also has its own immersive reading app called Galatea, which enhances stories with music, sound and visual effects, allowing the reader to literally ‘feel’ the story. On Galatea, each story is broken into a series of 10-minute episodes and users receive one episode for free each day. According to the company, over 25% of published authors on Galatea make more than $100,000 per year in sales.

Inkitt has seen many popular works come out of it. One of these is The Millennium Wolves (2014) by 24-year-old Israel-based author Sapir Englard. The book earned $3 million yearly and the writer used her Galatea royalties to fund her college education in the US. Another bestselling work is 22-year-old Indian student Seemran Sahoo’s The Arrangement, which has a $2-million yearly run rate on Inkitt. Other published titles include Chase and Chloe (2017) by Simone Elise, which was later published by Barnes and Noble, Espar Files (2016) by Egan Brass, among others.

One of the biggest players, however, remains Wattpad, which has over 600 million story uploads and more than 80 million users who spend over 22 billion minutes per month on the platform. The revenue comes mostly from ads on the site and from stories sponsored by companies which want to advertise alongside a specific writer or genre.

Wattpad was founded in 2006 by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen, but it took around two years before a user uploaded an original story on it. After that, there was no looking back. Wattpad also gives its writers access to certain metrics such as the number of page views and likes a story gets, and allows readers to comment on each paragraph and mark the best parts. One of their star writers is 25-year-old Welsh author Beth Reekles, one of the first online writers to transition to traditional publishing with her romance novel The Kissing Booth (2012). The book received 19 million reads on Wattpad when she was just 15. Reekles was listed as one of TIME magazine’s ‘Top 16 Most Influential Teenagers’ in 2013 and even ranked number six on The Times’ ‘Top 25 Under 20′ list in 2014. The Kissing Booth was later adapted by streaming giant Netflix.

Reekles says it took a lot of courage to post something of her own online. “In 2011, I started uploading The Kissing Booth and the response blew me away. It won the Watty Award that year for Most Popular Teen Fiction and an editor messaged me via Wattpad to say they were interested in publishing the book,” she says, adding, “The instant feedback is such a big motivator to keep going… it’s something I’ve really missed in traditional publishing. Publishing something in any format can be scary, which is why it’s so important to find that community online.”

There are other success stories on Wattpad too. French author Mathilde Aloha’s Another Story of Bad Boys (2017) received 3.2 million reads on Wattpad. When Hachette Romans published the story in two parts in 2017 (with a third in 2018), each novel became a bestseller, selling more than 60,000 copies in total. Then there is British author Abigail Gibbs’ vampire trilogy The Dark Heroine (2012), which reached 17 million reads on Wattpad before HarperCollins published it in a six-figure deal when she was 18 years old. Birmingham-based Nikki Kelly, too, reached a million reads before her book Styclar Saga was published by Macmillan in 2014.

Wattpad has put together more than 100 book deals for its authors, collecting 15% commission. Clearly, it’s a win-win situation for all. Wattpad is like the YouTube for written stories, says Devashish Sharma, India head, Wattpad. “Writers and readers can connect and comment, exploring characters, plot twists, etc. We make sure that readers are also involved in the process of final publishing,” he says. Speaking about the Indian audience, he says, “Indians are more hooked on to the platform than any other country. About 37 minutes are spent daily per user in India on Wattpad.”

Online self-publishing has democratised publishing, as traditional publishing is not very accessible to most. Plus, it’s also bringing in the moolah, as ebooks and audiobooks generate billions in global revenue each year. The biggest success story till date has been of author EL James who blogged a fan fiction of Twilight that turned into the bestselling Fifty Shades series. It was even made into $150-million-budget movies that grossed $1 billion at the global box office.

Online self-publishing provides the ease of putting your work out for people to read and gain a wide and devoted reader base, says 44-year-old Mumbai-based author Neil D’Silva, who is known for his 2015 book Maya’s New Husband, which was self-published on Wattpad. “The reason why despite being published with traditional houses such as Penguin, Rupa and Hachette India, I still returned to online self-publishing for What The Eyes Don’t See (2020) is because the readership I get there is much higher than with a traditionally published book,” he says.

The reader-writer interaction on online self-publishing platforms allows a writer to understand how readers are responding to their story or characters or even particular scenes, which helps them identify the high points of the narrative.

Author Hermyne Khaling, a sociology graduate who hails from a small village called Khangshim near Imphal, has published her stories on both Wattpad and Inkitt. The first work the 23-year-old published was her most popular book Silhouette (2016), which has 18.9 million reads on Wattpad. Her other works include a short fantasy story titled Xachariel: The Fourth Brother (2017).

When asked which platform she enjoyed using more, Khaling says both have their own unique approaches, but she enjoyed writing on Wattpad more than Inkitt. “I feel Inkitt is more focused on books that are ready-to-read probably because it’s also a reader-powered publishing site. But Wattpad feels more liberating to me. Many people don’t only write stories, but also their thoughts, opinions and even random things… Wattpad has an audience for everything, even silly jokes,” she says.

The platform not only empowers diverse voices to share their stories, but also allows readers and writers to express themselves freely and talk about topics that are often under-represented. “The community acts as a safe space to talk about topics-for example, LGBTQ rights-that are under-discussed. Not many in mainstream publishing take up these topics,” says Sharma.

Indian online self-publishing platform Pratilipi, too, has been making inroads into the sector. It has over 2.70 lakh writers who have published more than 30 lakh stories in 12 languages, which are read by over 25 million people every month. It also has its Pratilipi Comics platform, which is available in Hindi, and an audio storytelling platform called Pratilipi FM, which includes podcasts, audiobooks, etc. “Pratilipi is a storytelling platform where people can share their stories with each other without any barriers, including languages, devices or formats,” says CEO Ranjeet Pratap Singh, adding, “Even for bestselling authors, there are relatively fewer avenues to build a direct bond with readers. Our fundamental belief is that we need to remove as much friction as possible for writers to share their stories with their audience and build a stronger relationship with them.”

On Pratilipi, one doesn’t need to wait for authorisation or approval from the team, says Marathi writer Neha Dhule. “You can connect with your readers at any time. Self-publishing offers creative liberty,” she says.

Another writer Harshil Padsala, whose book Hanuman and Lakshman: The Quest for the Golden Lily was published in 2019 on Pratilipi, says the bonding between the reader and writer is at an all-time high on such platforms. “The comments and encouragement from readers and fellow writers boosted me to write down my thoughts more,” he says.

Clearly, self-publishing is here to stay, creating more and more opportunities for authors to carve their own niche. As author Khaling says, “It gives a chance to be loved, appreciated, corrected and taught.”

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