Algorithms, trends and partnerships: the inside story of Wattpad books

Algorithms, trends and partnerships: the inside story of Wattpad books

Last week saw the launch of Wattpad Books, the first-ever publishing division from the hugely popular global storytelling platform. Combining human editorial with Wattpad’s Story DNA Machine Learning technology, the imprint will select stand-out stories from the more than 565 million story uploads on Wattpad, and use audience data to guide which titles make the transition from social success to official release.

Ashleigh Gardner, deputy general manager at Wattpad Studios in the publishing department (below) will lead the new division. We caught up with her to get the inside story on why and how the project has developed - and how she's hoping that a mix of human skill and smart tech will produce a series of hits.

Wattpad Books seems a natural extension of the platform - what took you so long?

In recent years we’ve made enormous advances in our Story DNA Machine Learning technology. We can find stories faster than ever before, and we’ve had great success in adapting Wattpad stories for TV and film.   

We’ve worked with publishing partners around the world for years, turning hundreds of Wattpad stories into best-selling books. Wattpad Books is a chance to do more of what we’re already doing with partners: use data to find great stories, help diverse new writes find an audience, and turn Wattpad stories into hit books.

How have you developed the algorithm which will winnow down the best? What is it looking for?

Using machine learning, deep learning, and recurrent neural networks, our Story DNA technology allows us to better understand and discover stories among the more than 565 million uploads on Wattpad. Story DNA deconstructs stories into their elemental features, such as sentence structure, word use, and grammar employed. Combined with audience data, such as reading and engagement time, reads, commenting volume and sentiment, we have a data set unlike any others, allowing us to find stories that could be the next best-seller.

We are then able to compare stories to other content on Wattpad, as well as other public domain stories. The result is a rich and complex system that can identify a wide range of stories, styles, and genres at a scale that has never been possible in human history.

But don’t forget the human experts! Understanding stories is a combination of art and science. We use a combination of Story DNA machine learning technology and our human content experts to find great stories. We are looking at much more than just popularity: we are looking at all the data points that help us understand how audiences engage with the story, as well as the traditional elements of what makes a story great.

What sort of 'audience data from global reading trends’ are you drawing from to establish your publishing criteria?

Audience data helps us understand what people want. It means access to new genre trends that the traditional industry may not recognize. For example, last year, Wattpad users created exciting new narratives dedicated to people who identify as #Transgender, #Agender, #Genderfluid, and #Nonbinary. These are real people embracing diverse stories and storytellers who are not adequately represented in traditional publishing. Reading time for stories with these tags saw an increase of 18 per cent to 32 million minutes for the year. Uploads grew by 56% in 2018, with a total of 15,000 new uploads in 2018.

These types of insights, built on diversity and new voices, is foundational to Wattpad Books. We’re able to take these types of insights to empower and elevate a diverse group of storytellers, bringing their stories to bookshelves everywhere. This diversity is part of what makes Wattpad unique, it’s something publishing needs more of, and something people want!

We don’t have a set criteria for publishing Wattpad Books. Every list will be different. Some lists could feature 100% diverse voices, while others could be 50%. There are millions of diverse storytellers on Wattpad, and now we have a direct way to bring them to bookshelves.

What’s important is that we plan to build every list through an intersectional lens. We will always be conscious of who we are publishing and make sure we are elevating unique and creative voices from marginalized communities.

How did the publishing partnerships develop?

When we started to build the foundations for Wattpad Books we knew we needed partners with the industry clout and infrastructure to help us get our books onto as many shelves as possible. Our partnerships with Macmillan in the US and Raincoast Books in Canada do just that. These are some of the best companies in the business, and they instantly understood our vision for Wattpad Books.

We’ve established an amazing sales and distribution partnership with each company, which will help us get Wattpad Books into bookstores across North America. This involves utilizing their warehouse, supply chain, and sales force to ensure our books are for sale in all the major accounts, and we’ll work together to ensure their success in the marketplace. In Canada, Raincoast Books will also provide additional marketing support, giving our books an even better leg up in the territory.

Having an experienced trade sales department in both countries will set the press up for success. With our large UK audience, we’re having active conversations with local partners to bring Wattpad books to the UK, and should have more news soon.

What formats are you releasing the books in and why?

All books in our 2019 Wattpad Books list will be available in print and e-book. Hardcover editions will be available for some of our 2019 list at launch.

Are you working in an editorial capacity to refine the books? Have you had to recruit new staff?

Every book from Wattpad Books will be professionally edited. Just like the editorial process from a traditional publisher, we’re working with our authors to hone their stories and make sure the final version reflects the same quality of everything else in a bookstore.

What are your long-term plans for the imprint?

We want to publish more Wattpad authors, helping them reach new audiences around the world. In 2019 we’ll publish six books, in 2020 we’ll publish 18 books. With half a billion stories on Wattpad the sky's the limit for how many books we could eventually publish.

What’s been the biggest challenge in creating Wattpad Books?

Our biggest challenge has been narrowing down our list of books! From half a billion story uploads we needed to narrow that down to thousands, then hundreds, and finally a small list of our favourites. This is no small task.

Everyone on our team had stories they were passionate about. But in the end we came to a solid consensus and are thrilled with our 2019 list.