Compared to other industries, publishing can be slow to evolve. The invention of the printing press essentially set the stage for how books are published today.
But publishing also isn’t immune to the wider transformations that technology has ushered in to all sectors. Like nearly every other industry, data is creating new opportunities for readers, writers, and publishers. Today, new technologies—and the insights they bring—allow us to better understand what readers want, while also helping us find new voices, to diversify who gets published.
At Wattpad, we’ve developed machine learning technology that allows us to analyze, understand, and discover trends and new voices from the more than 500 million story uploads on the platform. That’s right: half a billion stories, from millions of writers, being read by more than 65 million users all over the world. At this scale, we’re able to understand what readers are looking for in every genre imaginable. We can see how different countries engage with different types of horror, romance, sci-fi, and everything in between. For example, a few years ago we saw that people loved stories that use mermaids in interesting new ways. Fast forward to 2018, and the year’s biggest Oscar winner, The Shape of Water, is a movie about a creature from the sea.
Trends represent the macro view of how genres and groups of stories grow and take shape across regions and populations. But we also have unique insights into how fans interact with those stories. Comments are just one way that people interact with a story on Wattpad. Looking at comments alone—apart from the many other metrics we analyze—means access to billions of data points across millions of readers, showing how people engage with their favorite authors, each one giving us a micro view of how people enjoy stories they love.
These advances are helping new writers build massive global audiences, and they’re helping publishers understand—and anticipate—changes in consumer tastes. But even more importantly, data and technology are helping open up traditional publishing to new voices and perspectives. Some of the biggest trends we see on Wattpad involve self-organized communities of readers and writers creating space for minorities and underrepresented people.
Anyone in publishing who has spent time online knows that there are major movements to increase the diversity of voices. What readers aren’t finding in bookstores they are now finding online. All over the world, readers are turning to amazing, creative writers they discover on places like Wattpad.
One of the best examples here is the explosion of LGBTQ voices on Wattpad. Since January, the global Wattpad community has spent billions of minutes reading LGBTQ stories. Just this past June, for Pride Month, that includes 700 million minutes reading LGBTQ stories—of which 151 million were in the U.S. In that same period, writers on Wattpad shared three million new LGBTQ story uploads.
These trends are pushing all genres into new territory, and tapping into new audiences for them. In 2017 we saw a massive increase in fantasy and science fiction stories featuring a diverse main cast. These stories averaged 4.8 million minutes of reading per month last year. Throughout 2017 we saw an 84% growth in reading time for genre stories with diverse characters.
Diversity and inclusion were a major trend across all categories on Wattpad in 2017: every month, stories with diversity tags such as #PoC, #Diversity, #DiverseLit, #FreetheLGBT, and #LGBTQ+ reached an average of 30 million reading minutes.
Technology is empowering marginalized writers to tell their stories and build massive fan bases around the world. And that same technology is what will push publishing into new territory, creating a more open, equitable, diverse, and profitable future for the industry. All of this is changing how writers create, how fans engage, and how publishers understand what people want.
This combination of technology and diversity is the future of publishing, and it’s a future of which I’m proud to be part.
Ashleigh Gardner is the deputy general manager of publishing at Wattpad Studios.