When Anna Todd started posting fan fiction stories online, she never expected that her love of boy band One Direction would turn her into a sensation with a reported six-figure publishing deal. But it did.
Now, Todd is a bona fide best-selling author thanks to a story she wrote mostly on her iPhone.
Her five-book “After” series has been published in 29 countries and read over a billion times on Wattpad, the digital reading platform where she originally published it. Paramount even recently purchased the rights to turn “After” into a movie.
Todd’s fanfic success story is far from a fluke. Publishing houses and movie studios are increasingly looking online for fresh stories that have a built-in fan base. “Fifty Shades of Grey” was first published online, presented as fan fiction based on the “Twilight” books. As writer E.L. James’ audience ballooned online, mainstream publishers and movie studios took note. She became a best-selling author and her story was then adapted for the big screen, making millions at the box office.
And now, Todd is following in her footsteps. The main difference between their trajectories, though, is that Todd had the added benefit of the digital publishing platform Wattpad accelerating the process. So how’d she do it?
A few years ago, Todd was working odd jobs and waiting tables after having taken some classes at college but never graduating. She’d married her high school boyfriend at 18 and moved to Texas to follow his Army career.
After becoming obsessed with One Direction, she started writing standalone fan fiction short stories about the boy band on an unlikely medium: the photo-sharing app Instagram.
“I had no intention of [formally] publishing them,” she said of her stories. “I just wrote what I wanted to be reading.”
Even when restricted to writing her stories as lengthy Instagram captions, though, she started gaining a following. A fellow fan took notice and turned her on to the much more writer-friendly Wattpad.
Starting in April 2013, she wrote and published “After” one chapter at a time on Wattpad, without any outlining or planning for the plot. “After” reimagines One Direction’s Harry Styles as a bad boy college student with a girlfriend named Tessa Young. And yes, its sex scenes are just as bodice-ripping as those found in any romance novel.
“After” was written almost entirely from Todd’s cell phone. Often, she’d write while standing in line at Target or the grocery store.
She dedicated five hours a day to writing “After” and another three hours to promoting it within Wattpad and on social media. Soon, it turned into a 100-chapter, one-million-word juggernaut that was rapidly attracting a fan base in the hundreds of thousands. Todd become famous on Wattpad.
The only issue: Wattpad and its writers don’t have much name recognition beyond the site’s rabid fan base.
Wattpad is a platform for reading and self-publishing, and its reach is quietly enormous. The Toronto-based free digital reading site has more than 40 million users, more than the entire population of Canada. These numbers are constantly increasing, with over 24 hours of new reading content being uploaded every minute, Wattpad CEO Allen Lau told TI.
So while Todd’s fame on Wattpad was growing, her life continued normally. She kept waiting tables in her Texas town. But soon, all that would change.
Wattpad had noticed how popular she was. They reached out to Todd and, within six months, helped her score a book deal with Simon and Schuster in April 2014. This was just one year after Todd had shared her first “After” chapter on Wattpad.
The “After” now available in stores is an edited version based on Todd’s Wattpad writings. The 100-chapter saga has been broken down across four books, while the original version is still available on Wattpad.
When she got the book deal, Todd had to change her character’s name from Harry Styles to Hardin Scott for legal reasons. This is a common practice when online fan fiction is adapted for print. Since “Fifty Shades of Grey” started out as ‘Twilight” fan fiction, the character names and settings were also changed when the stories were published.
Since the first “After” book was published in October 2014, her audience has only continued to grow.
“At [book] signings, I’ll have everyone from 15-year-old girls to 45-year-old women coming up to me,” Todd explained.
Todd’s success has opened the door for other fanfic authors. Wattpad writers like Doeneseya Bates and Bel Watson have gained millions of reads on the platform for stories featuring characters like Justin Bieber and, of course, members of One Direction.
Despite their fan fiction origins, there’s still one major difference between “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “After.” While Todd’s books have plenty of sex scenes, the couple isn’t suspending each other from the ceiling with rope.
“If you read ‘After,’ you won’t find any BDSM stuff,” Todd said of her characters’ sexual encounters.
“After” is also inspiring a new generation of readers.
“A lot of parents have said, ‘My daughter never read before your books and now she loves reading,” Todd told TI.
“Love fanfic or hate it, it’s getting thousands of people to read and write who otherwise would not have,” she told TI. “Reading and writing isn’t supposed to be this exclusive club, it’s just supposed to be entertaining.”
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