No writer has ever locked himself in a dingy room, emerged with a perfect work, and thrown it directly into a fireplace. Writing is a lonely process that invariably turns social at some point. It’s taken from draft, to finished work, to published material with the help of cantankerous editors, patient family members, and an audience waiting to read the finished result. Anyone who tells you that they write only for pleasure or that their work never needs editing is either a liar or a damned liar. (Or a statistician.)
An increasing number of services, from collaboration-focused writing tools to self-publishing upstarts, are working to dispel the myth of the lonely writer and make us all much more social much quicker in the process. Services like Editorially and Fidus Writer make it easier to share writing with others and get their input as it morphs from an embarrassingly bad draft to something worth publishing. Wattpad and Widbook — a Brazil-based self-publishing platform releasing its Android application tomorrow — are trying to help writers find and interact with their audiences.
Tools like Editorially and Fidus Writer are often accepted as welcome advancements of old technologies. (Lookin’ at you, Word.) Services like Wattpad and Widbook, on the other hand, are sometimes scoffed at because self-publishing might be the worst thing to happen to the written word since we changed the definition of “literally.”
Any schlub with a half-witted idea and a keyboard can join the ranks of “the published,” putting “Twilight” fan-fiction on the same level as something that had to make its way through old-school agents and publishers and then sit on a shelf for months until an interested reader decides to buy it. (Which already happened, by the way.)
But that case is the fringe one. Just as the Web has made it possible for anyone to be a rockstar or a filmmaker or an artist, the popular ones tend to still come through gatekeepers. Even Justin Bieber leveraged professional managers and handlers to get beyond YouTube. Many argue the reason there are so few examples of the democratic Web surfacing the next Martin Scorsese is because gatekeepers actually serve a purpose.
Margaret Atwood, an award-winning Canadian author, calls those people snobs. In a Guardian column defending Wattpad in 2012, she wrote:
Once again people are giving me strange looks. Why Wattpad? And, indeed, what pad? Wattpad, as in wattage, the kind that makes the lights turn on. “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!’
Atwood, who has won more literary awards than most, if not all of those who rail against self-publishing, remains bullish on the concept. (And specifically on Wattpad.) As she told PandoDaily last July:
We tend to be “Golden Age” about everything. We imagine a past about things being better, but we’ve forgotten a lot of stuff. Out of the Gutenberg printing presses poured lots of pornography, which we decided to forget. The classics are just the part of the iceberg that is still visible.
The point is when you make things more accessible and visible as they are on the Web, it doesn’t make things a lot worse. It’s just all in front of you, and you can see it.
That’s what I keep reminding myself as I browse Widbook for the first time. Seriously, I have to keep telling myself this again and again. To put it kindly, the service isn’t exactly overflowing with award-worthy stories, despite boasting 36,000 users and 1,500 self-published books.
But the lack of quality doesn’t mean Atwood is wrong. The fact is that people are spending hours upon hours writing and reading the books that are published on the site, whether I enjoy them or not. There is something compelling about being able to self-publish a book online and know that someone might enjoy it.
It may not yield war and peace, but this is what the Web is all about. Hell, if blogs hadn’t disrupted old media you probably wouldn’t be reading anything from me right now. (Please direct all complaints to Sarah.)