Margaret Atwood on Wattpad and the value of taking risks

Margaret Atwood doesn’t really need to find new ways to get attention: after all, the 72-year-old Canadian-born author and poet has already won a slew of awards, and is seen by many as a candidate for a Nobel Prize. Most authors her age would be resting on their laurels somewhere, but Atwood seems to have an unquenchable curiosity about new things, including Twitter. Now, she is working with the online writing community Wattpad to try and encourage new writers, and is also involved in a crowfunded effort to create a service called Fanado that authors can use to connect with their readers. Other authors may want to slow down, but Atwood seems to have no interest in joining them.
Wattpad is a Toronto, Ontario-based startup we’ve written about before that recently raised $17 million from a group of venture backers including Khosla Ventures and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang. An online writing community that writers can get involved with either through the web or via mobile apps, Wattpad has more than 3 million users and over 5 million pieces of content uploaded to the network. And as Khosla Ventures partner Andrew Chung pointed out after the firm financed the company, the kind of interactive model that Wattpad is based on is very different from more traditional self-publishing services, which is one of the things that attracted Atwood about it.

Wattpad allows young writers to experiment

Instead of just uploading books, many members of Wattpad’s community upload unfinished chapters that are still in development, or pieces of poetry they need feedback on, and then get comments and advice from other users of the service — both other writers and readers. In a piece she wrote for the Guardian recently, Atwood talked about how that process could help young writers experiment and develop their own voices, giving them tools that writers of her generation never had at their disposal:

No one need know how old you are, what your social background is, or where you live. Your readers can be anywhere. And if you’re worried about adverse reactions from your teachers, your grandmother, or others who might not like you writing about slavering zombies or your relatives, you can use a pseudonym… [and] not only that, you’ll have readers who leave encouraging comments on your message board, thus boosting your morale.

In the past, Atwood says, writers like her had to scribble in notebooks or journals, experiment with poems in high-school yearbooks and keep their most heartfelt writing “in our sock drawers” for fear of ridicule. As they grew older, they helped to create literary magazines and journals that were chronically underfunded and handed out in coffee houses and other locations after Poetry Night or other open readings. The feedback that Wattpad writers can get, she says, is not only invaluable but actually recreates the kind of process that writers like Charles Dickens got when they serialized their work in magazines.

Atwood also notes that networks and communities like Wattpad aren’t necessarily a replacement for the traditional publishing industry, but more like an enhancement or addition to it. Some members of the Wattpad community have already gotten interest from mainstream publishers based on the response and the following they’ve gotten from other members of the service (in addition to becoming a member of Wattpad and posting poems of her own, Atwood has agreed to judge a Wattpad poetry contest). As she describes it:

Publishers bring a lot to the joint venture that is producing a book. Not everyone wants to read those kinds of books, and not everyone wants to write them – but they remain a huge aspiration for many. For those who want to hone their writing skills, schools and tools are increasingly available. In my view, Wattpad is not a replacement for publishers, but a gateway leading to them.

Atwood is also helping to create an interactive artists’ platform

In addition to her work with Wattpad, Atwood is one of the founding artists involved with a startup called Fanado, which is trying to raise funds through the crowdfunding service Indiegogo in order to launch a kind of digital-community platform for artists. The campaign, which closes at the end of July, has already raised $53,000 towards its goal of $85,000 and offers a number of perks — including the chance to become a character in a new Atwood novel, which comes with a donation of $10,000 or more (one fan has already claimed that perk, but two more are still open).
The idea behind Fanado is to give authors tools that they can use to interact with fans remotely, including the ability to share live video and audio of readings or get-togethers with a community, and to sign and distribute both electronic books and printed books, as well as CDs and other offerings related to a work. In some ways, Fanado is the logical extension of an earlier project that Atwood was involved in, which led to the development of an electronic book-signing device called the “Long Pen” — which authors could use to sign physical books in remote locations while on a virtual book tour.
But my favorite part of Atwood’s piece defending her experiment with Wattpad is when she talks about how people seem to see these projects as undignified in some way, as though they are beneath someone of her advanced age and/or standing in the literary community. As she puts it in the Guardian post:

Once again people are giving me strange looks… “But Margaret,” you can hear them whispering. “You’re a literary icon at the height of your powers; it says so on your book covers. Why are you sneaking out with an online story-sharing site heavy on romance, vampires and werewolves? You should be endorsing Literature, capital L. Get back up on that pedestal! Strike a serious pose! Turn to stone!

At her age, the literary legend argues, “you can afford to be undignified; you’re free to explore, and to guinea-pig yourself, and to stretch the boundaries.” Not only is that what Atwood wants to do, in multiple ways, but her support of Wattpad seems to stem from the belief that young writers need somewhere to do that as well, and that writing as a whole is better off for it — and that’s a pretty inspiring message.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and Peter A. Wolf