By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Developing Children’s Books: ‘Reverse Engineering Projects’When she started at HarperCollins Children’s Books three years ago, executive editor Sara Sargent says, “My general mandate was to be really looking at pop culture and sourcing books from alternative content.
“So looking at influencers, looking at social media, and really bringing people from other spaces into the book space” was a key to what she was doing. “Sometimes that means I get things through agents who are repping individuals or projects. Sometimes that means I’m reaching out to random humans on the Internet and saying, ‘You want to write a book?'”
Sargent got an appreciative laugh with that line when she spoke at BookExpo in New York, but she was there to show her audience something not so commonly in sight: a major publisher working after almost a year to identify the content it needs from Wattpad.
We wanted to get back to this conversation because, as it turns out, it reveals something of how Wattpad—the 12-year-old Canadian company that now supports more than 50 languages—has become proficient at something more than attracting writers and readers: it now functions as a content curator for publishing and production partners who might now find what they on Wattpad by themselves.
Publishing Perspectives has written about how Wattpad has worked with other companies in France (Hachette Romans), the Philippines (TV5 Manila and Summit Media), and the States (Simon & Schuster). But what Sargent was describing was the data-driven capability that the Toronto-based reading-and-writing platform is using to surface potentially usable content that may be right for development by a publisher still looking for that first big collaboration.
As Wattpad Studios’ deputy general manager Ashleigh Gardner said, more than 500 million works of some kind have been posted to the platform, but those can be anything from “the first poem a 13-year-old has written to bestselling books.” An average user spends 30 minutes or more per day on Wattpad, and 90 percent of those visitors either millennials or members of “Generation Z.” When a company working with Wattpad starts looking for material to develop, the Toronto-based IT team goes to work using algorithmic tools to locate potentially appropriate storytelling.
HarperCollins Children’s began working with Wattpad a year ago this month, in July 2017. The process of getting to know each other and how to work together, we learned in this discussion moderated by Publishing Perspectives, isn’t necessarily as quick or as obvious as it might seem when Wattpad “Star” writer Anna Todd’s After comes out as a series of books from Simon & Schuster or as a film from director Jenny Gage.
“Especially because I’m working in the kids’ space, doing picture books, middle grade, and YA,” Sargent said, “my job is to have my finger on the pulse of what kids really want to read about.
“There’s a whole amazing part of our industry that we’ve dedicated to the sorts of books we all grew up reading. But at this point, I’m now dedicating myself to doing things in a completely different way, and really reverse-engineering a lot of projects and looking into media, pop culture, trends, turning books around really quickly.
“In children’s we’re used to maybe 18-24 months’ publication time,” she said, but in the more quick-response approach she and her team are using now, “We’re looking at a 12-month lead time” in general, “and certain books have a six-month lead time. That’s a really compressed timeline.
“Especially because I’m working in the kids’ space, doing picture books, middle grade, and YA, my job is to have my finger on the pulse of what kids really want to read about.”Sara Sargent
“So, thinking about that as my general mandate, when the opportunity to collaborate with Wattpad came along, it really felt like such a natural fit because I’m very much aware that it’s such a crowded, noisy marketplace. The best thing you can do for yourself as a publisher is to figure out who already has a standing online or wherever it is to get their fans to come and be readers for your publishing house.
“To be able to have this platform with all these stories and storytellers, and to be able to talk with Ashleigh and her team gives us insight into types of stories we wouldn’t necessarily have insight into if you were sitting at your desk waiting for an agent to come in. That’s a pretty passive experience. You have very little choice in what comes in other than networking with agents. But in this case, it’s an active role I get to play, looking for things with Wattpad helping us to bring in what we’re looking for.
“We’re having a lot of conversations where we’re able to say, ‘You know, we’re seeing thrillers peaking in YA right now,’ so we go to Wattpad, and we say, ‘What are some of the things that are really working well on your platform in these particular genres?’
“It’s just a much more proactive way to get out there. And then, when you decide you want to bring a story to a traditional publishing house” from the platform, “you’re also bringing with it millions of people who already love the books.
“You’re both looking at what’s hitting now and buying things in 18 or 20 months, so you’re anticipating. We can say to Wattpad, ‘Do you have anything that would be a perfect fit for what’s happening?'”Sara Sargent
“So for me,” Sargent said, “it’s made a lot of sense, in that you’re combining a non-traditional way of sourcing books with traditional storytelling.”
It also makes sense for the tricky trend-timing element of publishing, as well, Sargent said, especially in the children’s and YA space.
“You’re both looking at what’s hitting now and buying things in 18 or 20 months, so you’re anticipating. We can say to Wattpad, ‘Do you have anything that would be a perfect fit for what’s happening? And what are you guys seeing peak in your marketplace'” of online readers “that we could potentially roll out in 18 to 20 months.”
That last point, of course, is one of the best-known elements of the Wattpad offer: a built-in audience for projects developed from its most popular content.
Out of the Garage: 102 Million Reads
As Gardner and Wattpad author Lindsay Summers, who also joined the panel, confirmed, one of the biggest attractions for publishers is that the fans on the platform stay in touch with favorite authors, find out information about coming trade editions, and work as a massive international street team to support a coming release.
Summers’ Textrovert (May 2017), which began life on Wattpad as The Cell Phone Swap, has been published by Kids Can Press in Toronto and has already had translation rights sold into Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Indonesian editions. At the platform, it shows 102 million reads, and this is part of what powers its popularity on the market in its more traditionally published Textrovert iteration.
The Hawaii-born Summers’ book is her debut, written during a rough patch when she was living in her parents’ garage. She talks of how she named herself @DoNotMicrowave on Wattpad “so if it bombed, nobody would know it was me.”
The book took her three years to produce. And in a point that editors like Sargent also note, editing, of course, was a key when it was picked up by Kids Can Press for publication. “It was about 120,000 words on Wattpad,” Summers said, “and came out at about 50,000 words” in its book form.
That tendency for books to run long on the platform, we should point out, isn’t necessarily a signal of lazy writing but a consequence of the serial format that ‘s all but demanded by Wattpad readers. “In serialization,” Summers says, “you end on cliff-hangers and you want to keep those readers,” so each installment need to be written as a satisfying full read to keep the fans coming. Another of Summers’ works, Colors of Us, is underway at Wattpad, a story of suicide’s impact already drawing more than 54,000 reads.
Gardner made the interesting point during the discussion that in first contacting Summers to talk about how well The Cell Phone Swap was doing, the Wattpad offices were doing something many publishers may not experience: finding out who and what an author really is. “What’s so funny about Wattpad,” Gardner said, “is that anyone can be anyone from anywhere.” When your potentially marketing authors are working as “@DoNotMicrowave” and releasing sporadic batches of material onto the platform, research, in other words, is necessary just to find out how serious and workable a personality might be behind the content that the algorithms have picked up as compelling.
Gardner’s team identified Summers–”We talked to her and found out what she wanted,” Gardner said, “and said, ‘Let’s do this together.'”
Summers’ book would become the second book in North America after the Anna Todd material that Wattpad would introduce to a publisher on the author’s behalf–the author always retaining her or his rights at Wattpad–and the work was parlayed into a published novel.
Readers on Wattpad “felt like they’d had a hand in publishing ‘Textrovert.’ They wanted to hold it in their hands in the stores and send a picture of themselves with it to me to show me that they helped me.”Lindsay Summers
“Lindsay was lucky to have several offers,” Gardner said.
And Summers went with Kids Can Press not least because, “I got to work with the editor of The Hunger Games, Kate Egan. I was a newbie. I wanted someone who could steer me in the right direction, I was craving that editing process.”
Tellingly for publishers looking for reader loyalty, Summers also said that by the time the book was coming to market as Textrovert, “Many of them felt like they’d had a hand in publishing it. They wanted to know, where can I buy it now? They didn’t want to get it online. They wanted to hold it in their hands in the stores and send a picture of themselves with it to me to show me that they helped me.”
‘And Of Course You Have to Pull It Down’ (Not)
In a bit of a coda to the discussion, Sargent said that one of the most counter-intuitive elements of acquiring material that appears first on Wattpad is that you don’t take it off the platform, even has you develop it for traditional publishing.
“The best thing you can do for yourself as a publisher is to figure out who already has a standing online to get their fans to come and be readers for your publishing house.”Sara Sargent
Sargent said she ran into this while at Simon & Schuster when the Anna Todd After trilogy was under consideration.
“The gut instinct of any publisher, of course,” she said, “is ‘Oh, you have to pull the story down'” from the site, “because there’s no way that anybody’s going to buy the book if you leave it up there for free. But the more time I’ve spent with Ashleigh and her team, and have looked at how other stories have fared” in traditional publishing, “the clearer it’s been that you have to leave it up. It does you no good to pull it down.”
On the site, the book, in fact, becomes an advertisement for the coming trade edition or film or television work. And taking down its original incarnation can risk annoying the very fans who have made it a hit on Wattpad.
“And of course, it will go through an editing process, and what you end up with in a book is somewhat different. … You have to be careful and respectful of the fans who brought this to where it is” in terms of its clout on the big platform. The risks of major changes can be like those of producing a film from a book with an entirely different ending.
“Bottom line is the story will stay up. And then it’s a more editorial, strategic, marketing conversation about the degree in which you may choose to change it in any considerable way.”
More of Publishing Perspectives’ coverage of Wattpad is here.