The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), the standards body in charge of the EPUB standard for digital book publishing, puts on a conference-within-a-conference called IDPF Digital Book inside the gigantic Book Expo America in NYC each year. Various panels and hallway buzz at this year’s event, which took place last week, showed how book publishing is developing regarding issues we address here. I’ll cover these in three installments.
First and most remarkable is the emergence of Wattpad as the next step in the disruption of the value chain for authors’ content. The Toronto-based company’s CEO, Allen Lau, spoke on a panel at the conference that I moderated. Wattpad can be thought of as a successor to Scribd as “YouTube for writings.”
There are a few important differences between Scribd and Wattpad. First, whereas Scribd had become a giant, variegated catchall for technical white papers, vendor sales collateral, court decisions, academic papers, resumes, etc., etc., along with more recently acquired content from commercial publishers, Wattpad is focused tightly on text-based “stories.”
Second, Wattpad is optimized for reading and writing on mobile devices, whereas Scribd focuses on uploads of existing documents, many of which are in not-very-mobile-friendly PDF. Third and most importantly, Scribd allows contributors to sell their content, either piecemeal or as part of Scribd’s increasingly popular Netflix-like subscription plan; in contrast, Wattpad has no commerce component whatsoever.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about Wattpad is that it has raised over $60 million in venture funding, almost exactly $1 million for each of the company’s current employees. But like YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and various others in their early days, it has no apparent revenue model — other than a recent experiment with crowdfunding a la Kickstarter or Indiegogo. There’s no way to buy or sell content, and no advertising.
Instead, Wattpad attracts writers on the same rationales by which YouTube attracts video creators (and Huffington Post attracts bloggers, etc.): to give them exposure, either for its own sake or so that they can make money some other way. For example, Lau touted the fact that one of its authors recently secured a movie deal for her serialized story.
Apparently Wattpad has become a vibrant home for serialized fiction, fan fiction, and stories featuring celebrities as characters (which may be a legal gray area in Canada). It has also become a haven for unauthorized uploads of copyrighted material, although it has taken some steps to combat this through a filtering scheme developed in cooperation with some of the major trade publishers. Wattpad has 25 million users and growing — fast.
This all makes me wonder: why isn’t everyone in the traditional publishing value chain — authors, publishers, and retailers — scared to death of Wattpad? It strikes me as a conduit for tens of millions of dollars in VC funding to create expectations among its youthful audience that content should be free and that authors need not be paid.
There’s a qualitative difference between Wattpad and other social networking services. Copyright infringement aside, TV networks and movie studios didn’t have much to fear from YouTube in its early days of cat videos. Facebook and Tumblr started out as venues for youthful self-expression, but little of that was threatening to professional content creators.
In contrast, Wattpad seems to have crossed a line. Much of the writing on Wattpad — apart from its length — directly substitutes for the material that trade publishers sell. Wattpad started out as a platform for writers to critique each others’ work — which sounds innocuous (and useful) enough — but it’s clearly moved on to become a place where the readers vastly outnumber the writers. (How else to explain the fact that despite the myriad usage statistics on its website, Wattpad does not disclose a number of active authors?)
In other words, Wattpad has become a sort of Pied Piper leading young writers away from the idea or expectation of doing it professionally. Moreover, there are indications that Wattpad expects to make money from publishers looking to use it as a promotional platform for their own authors’ content, even though — unlike Scribd — it can’t be sold on the site.
By the time Wattpad burns through its massive treasure chest and really needs to convert its large and fast-growing audience into revenue from consumers, it may be too late.