I’m an Agented, Published YA Author — Why Did I Publish a Book for Free on Wattpad?
Why would any author pass up being paid for their work? Here’s why…
This year, I published a YA sci-fi novel called We Make Mayhem on Wattpad as an experiment (I wrote about the process here). But I’m an agented, published YA author — why would I give a book away instead of finding another way to share it? Like… a way that would have gotten me paid?
I generally agree with the maxim that writers should never write for free. We deserve to be compensated for our work in some way. I don’t submit to non-paying markets for my non-fiction, so why did I do it for a whole novel?
I’m going to get real, here.
My debut novel was published by a small press, and though I love it and thoroughly appreciate everyone who helped me bring that book into the world, it wasn’t exactly a bestseller. The opposite. The odds are stacked against any small press book, but I was unprepared for just how small an impact my book would make on the world. My family loved it. My mom’s friends loved it. My favourite high school English teacher loved it.
It sounds very conceited to say I was disappointed, but being a part of the online community of YA authors gives you a bit of a false impression about what publication means. You work for years, years, to make this happen, and you’re so ready for it. You get bookmarks designed, you write guest blogs posts, and you get ready to promote the hell out of your book on social media, because that’s what all your author mentors told you to do.
And then… silence. You’re not famous. You’re not on the bestseller’s list. Despite all your childhood dreams, your debut novel doesn’t immediately change the world. This was tough for me to reconcile. Growing up, I was always The Writer. I had wrapped myself up in this identity so thoroughly that to not be validated by monetary success and prestige was a major blow to my ego.
Though I was sad, I did what I had always done before: I wrote a new book. And another. And another. I learned a new lesson: just because you’ve had one book deal doesn’t mean another is guaranteed. It’s entirely possible that many of your fellow debut author friends will have second, third, fourth, even fifth book deals before you get another (and you’ll have one friend with seven books before you have a second, and it’s a struggle not to hate her). All those articles about being a debut author neglect to mention that.
Last January, my agent and I went out on submission with what we hope will be my sophomore book, but this time, I didn’t have any illusions. When I soul-searched, what made me the saddest about my debut experience wasn’t the lack of millions in my bank account — it was how few readers my book reached.
The publishing industry is generally a good tastemaker and gatekeeper, but it has its issues when it comes to reaching readers. Books are expensive to buy, especially for teens, and YA authors face many barriers in the school library market. Books with swear words and sexual content are often excluded from purchase in more conservative parts of the U.S., especially. Though it feels very validating to be accepted by the publishing industry, I decided that what I wanted was to reach readers who would love my work.
That became my singular goal. Everything else was secondary. I already knew that making a living wage on my writing was more or less impossible, so I decided to drop that as a goal. Once I did that, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to juggle the two often competing concerns of audience and compensation anymore, so I could put my energy toward the one that I knew would be more validating in the long term.
That doesn’t mean I don’t need money. I struggle to keep my head above the poverty line at the best of times. But I’ve always written despite that. The writing is going to happen anyway, so if I can’t seem to sell any of it, why don’t I give it to people who will love it and build on that?
Dropping the goal of earning money also sharpened my focus on the goal of gaining readers, and even made it easier. With no paywall, there was no barrier to readers finding my work, and there was also almost no “ask.” Unlike with my debut, I didn’t have to convince anyone to pay $25 to read my work. All I was asking was for them to click a link and give the first chapter a read.
With all that considered, the best and easiest way to do that was to publish on Wattpad. Wattpad has 80 million monthly users, a simple interface — I didn’t have to learn how to specially format an ebook, for example — and the proven capability to launch careers. Many of my author friends got their start there, and many Wattpad books have gone on to sell a lot of copies and be made into films, like After by Anna Todd and The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles.
So I wrote We Make Mayhem, a splashy, fun YA sci-fi story full of romance that I thought would do well on Wattpad, and published three chapters per week until it was posted in its entirety.
It picked up steam pretty quickly, reaching a thousand reads a little more than a month after the first chapter was posted, and 4,500 reads by the time all the chapters were up. Wattpad has a system where readers can “vote” for a chapter, which helps the story in the algorithm, and the mobile app allows readers to add in-line comments, often reacting to twists and turns in the story in real time. As I posted chapters according to my schedules, the same readers would vote and comment on the chapter. Their comments were hilarious, and they quickly fell in love with my characters. That core group of readers grew a little every week.
That was all I wanted. Even if We Make Mayhem stays small, doesn’t get picked up for promotion or publication by Wattpad’s new imprint, I’ll be happy because it found a couple hundred people who love it. It made them smile, swoon, and berate me when I left them on a cliffhanger (heh). It made them feel.
That was what I wanted. Not a ranking on a bestseller’s list, not a million dollars. Those things are the icing on the cake of writing stories. Readers, even without the accolades, are what matter.