By Kevin DiCamillo
Craig Mod, advisor to Medium.com and other start-ups, as well as a writer and former designer for Flipboard, delivered The Yale Publishing Course Keynote on Sunday night. The official title of the talk was “An Equilibrium in Digital Publishing?: Have We Hit a Point of Stasis For the Immediate Future of the book?”, but the sub-text (or warning to start-ups) was simply: “‘Beat Amazon!’ is Stupid!”
Instead of concentrating on “beating Amazon” (which isn’t bloody likely in Mod’s view), publishers — indeed, any and all who are interested in keeping publishing alive (let alone relevant) — should at least try to capture the “essence” of start-ups like Wattpad. Wattpad is a particularly attractive model because it is still “cool”…if, by “cool” you mean that over half the audience at the Yale Publishing Course had never heard of it. Which is strange since it’s been around since 2006, raised $46 million in funding just this spring, and has about 70,000 new “stories” uploaded every day.
But perhaps the most important part of what’s right with Wattpad (and wrong with Amazon) is that it provides a nourishing and encouraging platform and forum for aspiring writers. At its worst, Wattpad sounds a lot like an MFA writing program where only positive feedback is given. And only stories about forbidden love affairs between vampires and werewolves, or plucky teens who need to somehow save a dystopian apocalyptic planet save the day need apply.
Therein lies part of the genius, per Mod: aren’t these simply variations on the wildly-successful series that include The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, and reaching back to Harry Potter? Wattpad lets — indeed, encourages – writers who want to be successful to write in the same (admittedly well-trod) genres of writers like Collins, Roth, Meyers, and Rowling who have become wildly successful.
And though it stretches the timeline of “start-up,” Wattpad sure looks like it isn’t investing a ton of cash into looking pretty — the homepage is particularly un-noteworthy. And unlike the start-up glut of The Bay Area or even New York, Wattpad was founded in and maintains its headquarters in Toronto.
“The last step,” per Mod, “is to do beautiful better.” So while other publishing companies are funneling millions into attractive dust jackets that have been through a half-dozen focus-groups and redesigning their websites to be “hip” or “slick,” the best startups may not look hip, but they are exactly that.
“The best start-ups are kinds of accidents,” Mod posits. And they are simple, too. Wattpad’s mantra seems to be “Let’s have you write something and see if some readers find you.” This “Weirdly utopian, almost naïve way of thinking” has worked well for Wattpad and has turned Allen Lau’s baby into “an infinite gold-making machine.”
Lau’s goal, per Mod, is to have “a billion people reading every day — and loving it.” It’s that codicil that makes Wattpad so successful: its readers and writers are also its lovers. No one loves Amazon. Perhaps we hypocritically use Amazon while complaining about it, but as Mod pointed out, Amazon has an unbeatable tech monopoly. This is bad for any number of reasons, but in particular it leads to a lack of innovation.
And while Wattpad may look dated, the Amazon Kindle page is dated. Quite simply, “Amazon has no incentive to change” and this has led, in Mod’s view, to Amazon’s “Ebook innovation stagnation.” While Amazon almost actively discourages discourse between author and audience, this is Wattpad’s raison d’etre.
Lest this appear an apologia for Wattpad, other start-ups are certainly worth noting, but few have had the longevity of Wattpad (which makes one wonder when a company ceases to be a start-up). ReadMill was a German-startup that was bought by DropBox: “A good concept, but perpetually hamstrung by DRM.” Goodreads was, of course, purchased by Amazon. And PushPopPress, an enhanced ebook publisher “that produced — still to this day — one of the most beautiful standalone books-as-apps ”, was bought by Facebook.
The Yale Publishing Course, which turns five this year, chose Mod to follow in the footsteps of more “traditional-publishing” keynote speakers including Michael Jacobs, CEO of Abrams (who will give this year’s closing address) and John Sargent of Macmillan. An admitted outsider to New York book publishing per se — Mod lives in Tokyo most of the year — his talk was a refreshing dose of common sense. Quit trying to “beat Amazon” — just get readers to love your writers, wherever they may find them.