Phoebe Pineda: Publishing in the Age of Instant Gratification: A Wattpad Case Study
Spectrum reader Phoebe Pineda examines the effects of the site Wattpad on contemporary publishing.
Perhaps the most relevant innovation of the digital age to aspiring writers is the rise of online writing platforms. The most famous of these, Wattpad, claims ninety million users, and in the decade-plus since its December 2006 launch, it has spawned two feature-length film franchise adaptations (After and The Kissing Booth). Sites like Wattpad have made publishing more accessible than ever, with a new generation of emerging writers (myself and my peers included) coming of age in these online arenas.
Working on Spectrum while having an ongoing conversation about Wattpad with a high school friend who was discovering and experiencing the site for the first time gave me new insight into two very different sides of the publishing industry. On the one hand, you have Spectrum, a long-running literary magazine produced on an undergraduate campus in the same building (or, this year, the same hypothetical corner of cyberspace) where most of our staffers spend hours plugging away at their own creative projects. As such, they are acquainting themselves with the traditional publishing process from both sides of the editor’s desk. On the other hand, there’s Wattpad, which cuts out the middleman altogether, allowing writers full control over when and what they publish, regardless of whether it’s been edited or looked over by another person.
The appeal of Wattpad is simple: in an industry that can prove not only intimidating but inaccessible to beginning writers, online writing platforms provide an alternative—condensing a normally lengthy and extensive process involving numerous working parts into a few clicks and a pretty interface. Rather than spend months on end querying literary agents or dealing with a slew of rejections from publishers, writers can bring their work directly to the reader, hot off the press. Like all forms of social media, the site thrives off instant gratification, and the dopamine rush that a vote or comment notification can bring is no different than getting likes on an Instagram post—amplifying the sense of validation and accomplishment that comes from having written and published a story. For young or inexperienced writers, it’s a great way to build confidence and community, enabling them to meet readers and fellow writers and get their stories out there without the added pressure of having to impress overworked editors at publishing houses.
Missing from the typical Wattpad user’s experience, however, is an in-depth understanding of the revision process and the art of giving (and receiving) constructive criticism. The workshop is one of the most important tools in a writer’s arsenal, but it’s understandable why online writers may find it daunting: where Wattpad comment sections are generally places for readers to revel in their enjoyment of a story, peer feedback in a structured workshop can be much more nerve-wracking, evoking anxiety in even the most experienced of writers. In workshops, the reader’s job is not to enjoy but to improve, to identify a piece’s weaknesses and help the writer find ways to strengthen it—a task that is often more difficult than it sounds and generally occurs at multiple stages and levels of the story’s development.
Peer-editing on Wattpad is a strange process, owing partially to the fact that authors tend to revise drafts that have already been published and read and partially to the collective inexperience of its users. Wattpad users will often either solicit or offer “reviews” of works published on the site covering everything from developmental issues with plot and character to correcting typos, pointing out awkward syntax, or even improving cover aesthetics. This informal, scattershot editorial process, in order for the feedback to be effective, relies on both writer and reader knowing how the critiquing process works and what to look for. On a site whose user base skews young, with no official standardization or guidelines for peer-editing, it is likely that the majority of potential reviewers are unfamiliar with the revision process and how to maximize its value.
Alarming, too, is the Wattpad user base’s preoccupation with numbers. While observing a conversation between members of the community, I was struck by how much of the discussion was devoted to statistics—from reads and comments to daily word counts and even typing speeds (which in my perfectionist experience have no bearing on word count output, let alone quality of work). These conversations are understandable, albeit a bit neurotic: without the backing of a publisher, the online writer is left to market their work themselves, which entails knowing which genres attract more readers, as well as how author’s notes and other forms of fourth-wall breaking can drum up traffic by encouraging more comments. Wattpad prides itself on taking a data-based approach to publishing, relying on “audience insight,” i.e. popularity and engagement, to determine who is worthy of making it to print. This means writers fixate on gaming the algorithm, obsessing over how to attract readers and get their story noticed in a sea of millions.
Wattpad’s data-driven culture permeates every aspect of the site, but perhaps most unfortunate are its effects on the site’s already-suboptimal editorial process. Peer reviews become enmeshed in a system geared toward reaching the widest possible audience, muddling the original purpose—helping writers strengthen their stories—by conflating marketability with quality of work. Reviewers dedicate as much feedback to the publicity aspects of a story—title, cover, and blurb—as they do to the story itself. Writers begin to view their works not as stories, but products to be sold.
I came to college, and eventually to Spectrum, as an online writer. I’d always shied away from learning about the world of mainstream publishing because the thought of rejection terrified me, and in my little corner of the Internet, that rejection didn’t exist—if you liked your work enough to publish it, there was no one to stop you. Gaining firsthand knowledge of how that process works from the inside (in my case, through reading for Spectrum) makes it feel a lot more approachable, and it allows you to empathize with potential readers of your own piece: you learn that rejection is not always a bad thing, and that it’s worth trying and failing and trying again, just to get a foot in the door. That said, while it’s good to get your words out there, you want to make sure whoever’s considering your piece is reading the best possible version of it—your piece should be as polished and revised as you can get it. In the slush pile, there are no covers, no blurbs, no stats or analytics or comments from enthused readers. At Spectrum, we judge our submissions solely on the merit of their content—on whether the author can not only hook us into their world, but convince us to stay.
Spectrum, unlike Wattpad, has a modest readership. It is a hidden gem within a hidden gem, tucked away among the many treasures UC Santa Barbara has to offer. The publication process, while relatively short, still comprises multiple stages of screening, discussions, spirited disagreements, and mind-changing before the table of contents can be finalized and the magazine itself put to print. Our writers this year have been asked to exercise even more patience than usual as we navigate the pitfalls of publishing during a pandemic. I doubt any of these writers expect to become an overnight sensation, and it is likely they will never meet many of their readers. Yet in this age of instant gratification, self-marketing, and algorithmic anxiety, we don’t need our submissions to grab millions of people. All we ask of our writers is that they tell a good story.
*This post was written with assistance and insight from Ryan Talvola. Thanks, Ryan!