Wattpad, the bustling, cultic book-sharing platform, was where authors drew online personae, escaped their day jobs and took readers on a journey of quirkiness, love and the occasional typo. One of Godoy’s first novels, “Through My Window” or “A Traves De Mi Ventana,” went viral there — landing her a book and movie deal.
Then, 12 years and 950 million reads later, Godoy’s writing went viral again. But this time it was different: It went viral from a post she hadn’t posted or even knew about. It went viral on TikTok.
The internet culture of books has changed a lot over the past decade. Wattpad can (and still does) book deals for amateur authors, but TikTok sends established authors into the stratosphere. There’s a tradeoff, though: on Wattpad, authors retain a lot of control, but on TikTok it’s hard to know when and how a story will go viral, and when authors try to control the story, they can be punished for it. Cue much more control – but also much more sales.
Wattpad started in 2006 as a platform for users to share and read original stories for free. While the company still prides itself on being a place for budding writers to get started, they’ve also launched several modes to help their writers make money.
“I think in many ways Wattpad has pioneered book culture, especially from smaller authors,” said Jeanne Lam, president of Wattpad. “I think part of what makes [book culture] cool is understanding all the different versions of books and reading. With Wattpad, there was an understanding that we can be nerdy together and that’s okay.”
In recent years, other forms of internet culture for books have sprung up — such as BookTok, a popular side of the video-sharing app TikTok, where readers discuss their favorite books in short narrative bursts. When books go viral on BookTok, sales skyrocket. Movie deals are being made. It can turn a self-published author into an overnight sensation.
According to Anna Todd, author of viral book series and movie franchise “After,” there was a period when interest in reading seemed to wane between the peak of Wattpad in the early 2010s and the rise of BookTok in recent years. Across the board, there was less interest in romantic stories, Todd said, and “people just got tired of it” [them].” During this kind of hiatus, it seemed like there was less of a public obsession with certain types of romance books.
But that silence ended abruptly with the rise of BookTok during the pandemic. Suddenly, self-published indie authors could go viral again and book sales skyrocket. In the first quarter of 2021, book sales increased by almost 30 percent compared to the same period in 2020, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale. Even as the book market kicked off another night out, sales of adult fiction such as the novels by former Wattpad author and BookTok mainstay Colleen Hoover continued to soar.
Todd noticed the impact of BookTok when the first episode of her One Direction fanfiction, “After”, hit the big screen. Suddenly, her fans didn’t just exist on message boards or Tumblr pages. Which meant she got a lot more readers. And much more hate.
Authors who published on Wattpad were not examined in the same way. Potential readers who encountered an author’s writing on Wattpad knew exactly what they were getting. Judging twenty-somethings who’ve never heard of fanfiction don’t.
“It depends on how [a book] going viral because lately I’ve seen this trend of people destroying authors,” Todd said. “There is always a downside when people can say anything on the internet. But I definitely think sometimes it’s good for the author not to have a lot of control, especially if they’re not really comfortable marketing themselves.”
To fully understand the power BookTok has in making or breaking a career, you have to go to BookTok itself. Part-time content creator Tishni Weerasinghe started creating BookToks in December 2020. Since then, she has had the opportunity to be “one of those people in the book world who influences bestseller lists”.
But like Godoy and Todd, her internet book journey started way back with Wattpad. Unlike the authors, Weerasinghe remained just a reader, occasionally leaving a comment and messaging her favorite authors in the app. It wasn’t until BookTok that she realized that there is an opportunity for readers to be content creators too. And while it was a rewarding experience, she reiterates Todd’s point: going viral isn’t always a good thing.
“There’s the dark side of BookTok,” Weerasinghe said. “I feel like a lot of people are starting to get on their high horse and judge people by what they read — which goes against the whole point of BookTok, which is to not judge people for what they read.”
While criticism can ruin a book, positive reviews can become a bestseller. And increased sales isn’t the only positive thing about BookTok. There is power in making book culture mainstream, by taking it out of a limited space and into the land of algorithms. For younger readers, BookTok also brought loving books out of Wattpad’s shadow and into the mainstream.
“It became okay for people to just say, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m a reader,'” Weerasinghe said. “In the old days, when you heard someone say, ‘Oh, I’m a reader,’ you think of a grandmother. Now when someone says, ‘I’m a reader,’ I think of a cool 20-year-old, someone who has everything going for her venti Starbucks.”
It is especially difficult for authors to rationalize what is easier. More reads or more community? More love or more hate? But in the end, clicks pay the bills. Godoy realized this when the Spanish version of her book ‘Heist’ went viral on TikTok. She even remembers how she found out.
Godoy was inundated with reports – from both book sales and social media tags. She clicked on one of the many notifications on her phone one morning and was greeted by a brunette. In her left hand was Godoy’s book, and below it a small icon that read ‘16.4K likes’.
“Isn’t it crazy?” said Godoy, laughing and then pausing. “It’s not even that long. The video is only 15 seconds or something like that. Readers are just in control now – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
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