How author Roberto Ricci turned a Wattpad hit into a cross-platform empire

How author Roberto Ricci turned a Wattpad hit into a cross-platform empire

A couple of weeks ago, news broke that media conglomerate Ryan Carassi Omnimedia Europe (RCO EUROPE) - an omnimedia enterprise dedicated to theatrical, digital and broadcast distribution, home entertainment, and music publishing activities worldwide - had taken on the broadcast rights to The Red Harlequin.  

It's only the latest triumph for this YA fantasy "book-based property" created by author, journalist and former kids media executive, Roberto Ricci (right), who is a fascinating example of a author with a hybrid publishing strategy and a 'new media' outlook.

The Red Harlequin series, which draws inspiration from events such as the Arab Spring, Indignados and Occupy Wall Street, tells the story of Asheva - an aspirational teenager living in a complex world divided among Chrome Nations, where everyone lives hidden behind a mask. The first novel was published on Wattpad, where it reached #12 on the Adventure/Fantasy list within two weeks and received 10,000 reads a month. Since then the franchise has developed across several different platforms, including publishing, graphic novels, music and licensing.

We sat down with Ricci to ask how he conceived the series, and the challenges and insights he's experienced as he's developed the books into a truly cross-media publishing venture.

How did you build the vision of the multi-platform world into your original writing and publishing strategy?

The story of The Red Harlequin is a highly personal one for me as it talks about embracing diversity and overcoming prejudice in a dystopian fantasy world that is upside down, where the harlequins are the wise ones without masks and the so called normals (Chromes) are the masked buffoons.

From the start, I conceived this tale as a highly visual one, with people forced to wear masks and belonging to a single color as a sign of political and cultural identity.

And I’d say that when you write about fantastic worlds, you are naturally lending the story to a number of different platforms. The more intricate or complex your world is, the more opportunities you have to narrate that world from a different perspective or medium. So the vision of making The Red Harlequin a multi-platform world from its inception came out almost instinctively.

For example, given the highly visual scenes, and given the importance that colors have in the story, making a graphic novel for the series was a natural platform extension. The same applies to film and TV, perfect mediums for a richly visual and immersive world.

Another interesting thing that we did was create a music project around it (before HBO did it with Game of Thrones!). Our single 'Behind The Mask', is like a rebellious anthem of the Harlequins in the story. And even though music is an entirely different platform from publishing, I see it as another way to narrate the story or at least part of the story.

And then finally, the other interesting thing that happened was that the more narrative platforms we built, the more people started taking notice and that’s how we began to obtain interest from the TV and film industry, which again, makes for another perfect narrative platform for a story like The Red Harlequin.

But going back to books, taking the multiplatform approach is not just about different media platforms but also about different online platforms where different reader communities are.

Like many authors, I felt the urge not only to write the story but to also make sure it reached readers. It’s as if the characters sent you on a mission: to make them come alive through readers.

And so I began to think of different ways to reach potential readers. In 2013, Wattpad was quickly emerging as the platform to reach teen readers and luckily, after posting the first book of the series there, it became a featured story and reached thousands of readers in a matter of days. From there, I moved into self-publishing on Amazon where the books have sold quite well in the US, becoming best-sellers in several categories.

How did you consider what this generation of readers wants from a book?

The main takeaway I received from the new generation of readers is the appetite for serialization. Serialization is very big on reading platforms like Wattpad for example but it’s also very current on other media platforms such as Netflix.

The other takeaway was size. These days, many readers read all their content, including books, on their smartphones. So placing a 700 page book to read on your smartphone may not be as effective as dividing the story into smaller, serialized e-books which you can read in an hour or so.

What have been your greatest challenges in translating the book across the various platforms?

The greatest challenge is probably the fact that every platform has a dedicated audience and that each audience is different from another so you can’t communicate or market the same way to each audience and platform. Wattpad for example has a great teen global audience full of enthusiastic readers (and writers). Amazon also has a great global audience of digital readers of YA fantasy books - but they are a completely different generation from Wattpad’s, so you have to communicate with each one differently. One of the interesting things about The Red Harlequin is that it has been able to be cross-generational.

What frustrates you about the book publishing world right now?

To be honest, as an author, I am not particularly frustrated by the publishing world right now. On the contrary, I think the current state of affairs allows authors to be more flexible and choose the best strategy that works for them. The Red Harlequin is self-published in the English markets, but is traditionally published through Editions Ada in the French markets and we are in talks with other traditional publishers.

What excites you about the book publishing world right now?

What excites me about the book publishing world right now is that the digital revolution has only just begun and has already brought so many incredible new elements into this industry. A perfect example of this is the author-reader interaction. It’s immediate and powerful. Readers can reach you with their comments in real time or write them on social platforms such as Goodreads which also gives the author great tools to learn more about your audience. The other exciting aspect of publishing today is that, through digital distribution, it is incredibly easy to reach a global audience. One reader from Chile asked me when the series was going to be available in Spanish because he liked the story so much he wanted to share it with his wife but she didn’t speak English. I thought that was such a romantic thing to say regarding one’s spouse and I was honored that he felt that way about my books.

What should authors and publishers be doing to get more young people reading?

They should entice them by proposing the story or aspects of the story across their preferred media first. It’s like leaving a trail. Young people are curious. Once you spark their curiosity about a character or a story, be it through a quote on Facebook, a song on Spotify, or an illustration on Instagram, they’ll start following that trail all the way back to the book(s).