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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Anna Todd’s latest One Direction-inspired fan fiction novel, Before, hit shelves Dec. 8, but parts of it already had been read more than 6 million times online. The sneak peek was authorized thanks to a clause in her mid-six-figure Gallery Books deal that allows her to maintain much of her work on Wattpad, a self-publishing site where her initial three-book After series has attracted more than 800 million reads.
Todd rose to fame through the online publishing site Wattpad, which allowed her to self-publish her story — a romantic tale between a Harry Styles-inspired bad boy and a sweet college girl — one chapter at a time online, and interact with Wattpad’s 40 million users who left comments to help her shape the next chapters. After her body of work hit more than 800 million reads in summer 2014, Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books won a bidding war for the publishing rights in a mid-six-figure deal.
“There are whole relationships in the comments,” says Ashleigh Gardner, head of content at Wattpad, which represents Todd. “We were looking for a company that would make something additive for fans rather than taking something away.”
It turns out Todd and Wattpad (which represented her in the deal) had made a unique demand in her contract that allows her to keep all of After on the site, as opposed to taking it down like other self-published authors — including Fifty Shades of Grey writer EL James and The Martian‘s Andy Weir — did when they got book deals.
Gallery Books senior editor at Adam Wilson, who works with Todd, says about the deal: “It was definitely experimental for us. We didn’t know what would happen at the beginning, but fortunately it bore fruit.
With the three-part After series, which has 5 million copies in print worldwide, behind her, Todd next wrote Before, which, much like James’ recent book Grey, tells the same story from the male protagonist’s viewpoint. She’s now working on two more books, Nothing More and Nothing Less, spinoffs based on one of the characters from the original After series. Several scenes from Before are already on Wattpad (it’s received more than 6 million reads) because Todd is allowed to put about 30 percent of the final book onto the site; she’ll do the same for Nothing More and Nothing Less.
“I know most publishers probably don’t let their authors write on Wattpad all the time, but mine are pretty open about it,” says Todd.
It makes sense that Todd would want to maintain a strong relationship with Wattpad, which continues to represent her. While writers retain ownership over their work on Wattpad, Todd, as one of the site’s biggest celebrities, has been earning plenty of cash after her humble beginnings. Her After series was picked up in a film deal with Paramount (Susan McMartin just turned in a draft), and she’s been earning money through writing sponsored content for Wattpad, such as a story for AT&T’s anti-texting and driving campaign.
“The options are beyond just publishing a book as a writer,” says Gardner. “Writers are making money from writing on Wattpad now.”
It’s a new model for authors, but as Wattpad expands into publishing and film (the site signed with UTA, and Paramount is developing an After movie), some warn Todd’s deal might be a one-off. “It’s one data point,” says Wilson. “She’s a unique case in a lot of ways.”
Agrees Anne Jamison, an English professor at the University of Utah and a fan fiction expert: “Anna Todd was responsible for a huge amount of Wattpad’s traffic. I don’t know if you can really make a marketing model based only on Anna Todd’s success. I would caution any other writer from using her life success as a basis for their own.”
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