Who Watches the Wattpad?

For online fiction creators like Claudia Tan, the medium is what matters most

November 19th saw the return of Wattcon, a one day event in Los Angeles after a three years of being on hiatus because of COVID-19. There’s a certain irony to that–Wattpad as a publishing platform has only increased in importance since that time, with the pandemic only making a bad situation for books that much more difficult. Wattpad, if you’re not familiar with it, is a website by which users can publish their own novels online. Some of them are actually quite good–but as the experience of Claudia Tan shows, more than quality, the significance of Wattpad likely lies more in who can tell stories with it than it does with what those stories actually are.

Claudia Tan is was born in Malaysia in 1998. She first became recognized as a writer on Wattpad in 2015. Her chief output is romances, specifically the Perfect series, one episode of which, Perfect Addiction, is now set to be made into a movie, starring Ross Butler in the leading role. Claudia Tan writes romances, and Perfect Addiction in particular has a mixed martial arts revenge theme going for it. Her work is a notable bright spot in a genre of fiction writing that’s suffered some pretty severe public relations disasters recently in terms of promoting work that implies the victims of genocidal massacres might have provoked their own deaths.

I was able to ask Claudia Tan some questions about her career to date. And what really stood out was her relative obliviousness to many of these greater issues, or even the greater history of webnovels in general. Claudia Tan’s dreams of becoming a writer were pretty standard. In high school, she enjoyed reading and wanted to make her mark in the publishing industry somehow. When she started on Wattpad, she described herself as still getting her bearings with writing, and wanting to figure things out on her own before pitching manuscripts to anybody. Fundamentally, she had faith in the meritorious nature of the publishing industry, and still maintains generally positive opinions about overtures made by the publishing industry to persons of color in recent years.

Authors Claudia Tan, Loridee De Villa and Bella Higgin with their published books at WattCon 2022 (photo: Sabena Singh).

But teenage Claudia Tan didn’t have access to the publishing industry. She had access to Wattpad readers, who she describes as incredibly supportive and who give amazing feedback. Claudia Tan also knows her target audience, having specifically looked for communities on Wattpad that enjoy steamy romances. On the basis of this career arc, Claudia Tan didn’t need to query publishers at all. They sought her out, but she still wasn’t ready and confident enough yet to try and publish, and by the time that she’d refined her stories enough to merit publication, Wattpad Books had just the right pitch to convince her to sign with them.

The story of Claudia Tan represents a fairly fundamental irony of novel reading and writing in the modern age. Everyone likes to complain (and I’m no exception) about how terminally online everything is now, and how it seems more likely that a work of fiction will come under fire for something the author did or an offhand line or even just an offensive cover than it will for whatever the book’s actually about. Yet Wattpad is, in the literal sense, the most online platform possible to publish fiction. It has eighty million users per month, most of which easily spend at least half an hour a day reading on it. Wattpad is also a truly international platform, popular in many countries in Asia. However you look at it, Wattpad and other similar platforms are significantly more democratic and diverse than traditional publishers as we know them.

But then that’s the trouble with thinking about novel-writing in actually democratic terms. A lot of people just want to read stuff that’s not high art, and Claudia Tan’s work is a fairly representative success story in that regard. There is, to be clear, nothing wrong with enjoying steamy romance novels. There’s just no way to do so while holding a pretense about changing the world for the better, an increasingly important subtext underlying commercial entertainment despite the lack of evidence that the typical consumer even cares.

It’s still tough work. Claudia Tan estimates a 5-1 ratio in terms of writing versus marketing as far as her personal output goes. But at least her work is relevant; she’s making it for her fans, rather than the maw of the discourse.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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