Editor's Note: This story appeared in the December 2015 ORANGE Issue IV.
When Anna Todd began writing One Direction fanfiction, she was too embarrassed to tell anyone, including her own husband. After one billion reads online, a half-million dollar publishing deal and a movie adaptation with Paramount, she’s decided to stop caring so much what people think.
By Lauren Beccue
The 26-year-old former Waffle House waitress grew up in the small town of Dayton, Ohio. After marrying her boyfriend right out of high school, the newlyweds relocated to Texas, where the Army had stationed him at Fort Hood. She bounced between majors at the local community college, unsure of what she wanted to do with rest of her life. “My dream would’ve been to be a writer, but I didn’t think it was realistic, so I didn’t even entertain it,” Todd says.
She found it difficult to relate to the other Army wives at the base, many of whom were older than her and already had children. That’s when she began to spend more time on her computer, eventually discovering and immersing herself in the online world of fandoms — from “Harry Potter” to “Twilight,” to ‘90s boy band Hanson. “I felt like I had somewhere that I fit in finally,” she says. “It was just a place where everyone loved the same thing.”
I felt like I had somewhere that I fit in finally.
The One Direction fandom, whose fervent dedication to the British boy band borders on hysteria, was one of those places that Todd found a virtual home. By following fan accounts on Instagram and reading Tumblr posts, she found stories featuring the band members. Written by fans, the fictional tales were posted on Wattpad, an online writing community that’s part publishing platform, part social network. The books were updated chapter by chapter, and users could comment on each paragraph or even message the author directly. After devouring all of the books on the site that she deemed “readable,” she ran out of material. One day, since no one was updating with new chapters, Todd decided to write a story she would want to read herself.
Written under the pen name imaginator1D, “After,” which has now evolved into a five-book saga, reimagines One Direction member Harry Styles and the rest of his bandmates as normal college students at Washington State University. The erotic romance centers on the tumultuous relationship between Tessa, a college freshman and Harry (renamed Hardin in the published book for legal reasons), an alcoholic student with anger issues. Apart from his tattoos and other described physical attributes, the volatile character bears virtually no resemblance to the actual boy band member.
Todd, who wrote the majority of the book on her smartphone, updated her story on Wattpad with new chapters multiple times a day. She finally began to realize her story’s unprecedented popularity when it received over one million reads in two months. Suddenly, offers from book agents and publishers flooded her inbox. “Honestly, I thought it was fake at first,” she says. “Like it was a teenage girl pranking me or something.”
The email from Wattpad offering to represent and promote “After” to publishing houses turned out to be very real. Getting a publishing deal wasn’t difficult either, given the number of reads online. “They were like, ‘We’re going to go to New York and meet with all these publishers and then you get to pick one,’” Todd says. All of the so-called “big five” publishers — Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Penguin Random House — vied for the rights to her story. Todd eventually settled on a four-book deal worth around $500,000 with Simon & Schuster. A week later, Paramount acquired the movie rights.
Nobody today can deny that authors rooted in fanfiction offer something positive in terms of discoverability, publicity and reach.
While critics were swift to denounce Todd’s perceived lack of writing prowess and the novel’s origins on Wattpad, the potential for success was undeniable. E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” had already proven that despite critical panning, a fanfiction written by a first-time author could top bestseller lists around the world and produce a blockbuster film. By the time “After” came around, publishers had stopped scoffing and started catching on to the phenomenon.
Jennifer Bergstrom, vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint, says that while she and others in the publishing community were “skeptical” of fanfiction early on, they’ve taken the approach of evaluating each novel on a case-by-case basis. “I would venture to say that few publishers have the same reserves that they did a few years ago, and nobody today can deny that authors rooted in fanfiction offer something positive in terms of discoverability, publicity and reach,” Bergstrom says.
While fanfiction has a longer history than just the past few years, its proliferation and visibility is something new. Wattpad now boasts more than 40 million users, with 11 billion minutes spent reading on the site each month. This rise in online self-publishing has made it possible for authors to acquire sizeable platforms and readerships before they ever approach a publishing house.
Todd, who recently returned from a European book tour, attributes the majority of her success to these story-sharing sites, as well as social media. Without Twitter and Instagram, she says she doubts “After” would have ever been published. Despite the series topping bestseller lists around the world, she still doesn’t have a literary agent and doesn’t plan to get one in the near future. “They just don’t get Wattpad and the Internet and fandoms,” says Todd, whose fifth novel “Before” hit shelves Dec. 8. But the “proud Wattpader” knows better than to abandon the online fan base that made her famous. After all, the Internet is where she found her first home.