TORONTO — Not since the heyday of Dickens, Dumas, and Henry James has serialized fiction been this big.
In 1841, excited readers swarmed the New York docks to ask travelers from England whether Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop” was dead.
In 2014, they are turning to their phones to keep up with the latest adventures of sweet Tessa and outrageous Harry, who meet on their first day of college and have a heartbreaking and inspiring relationship.
Every few days, Anna Todd uses Wattpad, a storytelling app, to post a new episode of this couple’s torrid tale. Chapter 278 of “After” came out last week, moments after Todd, a 25-year-old former college student in Austin, Texas, finished writing it.
The first comment appeared 13 seconds after the chapter was uploaded. By the next day, there were 10,000 comments: always brief, overwhelmingly positive, sometimes coherent. “After” has more than a million readers, Wattpad says.
The Internet long ago revamped publishing and bookselling. Now technology is transforming the writing of fiction, previously the most solitary and exacting of arts, into something nearly the opposite. It is social, informal, and intimate, with the results not only consumed but often composed on the fly. Wattpad is a leader in this new storytelling environment, with more than 2 million writers producing 100,000 pieces of material a day for 20 million readers on an intricate international social network.
Wattpad is not the sort of site where writers talk about suffering for their art or spend hours searching for the mot juste. Much of the most popular work is geared to young women and draws its energy from fan fiction. (Harry in “After” is inspired by Harry Styles, the teen heartthrob from the band One Direction.) Other popular categories are vampire fiction and mysteries.
The writers — who are not paid for their work, as on any social network — put up stories, recast them, abandon them, and delete them on whims, in the process making more traditional e-books look as eternal as a Knopf hardcover.
This is writing reimagined for a mobile world, where attention is fragmentary.
“Almost all our writers serialize their content,” Allen Lau, Wattpad’s chief executive, said in an interview at the company’s offices in Toronto. “Two thousand words is roughly 10 minutes of reading. That makes the story more digestible, something you can do when standing in line.”
Before the Internet collapsed time and space, a vast gulf existed between writers and readers. J.D. Salinger was a little extreme in asking his agent to destroy any fan mail, but in general the more successful the writer, the greater the distance between the author and the reader. The writer was an imperial figure, an artist who dwelt on Mount Olympus. The reader was nowhere.
Wattpad eliminates any remaining distance between creator and consumer. The reader has been elevated to somewhere between the writer’s best friend and his ideal editor, one who offers only adoration. “This sentence literally broke my heart,” exclaimed one “After” reader. Enthused another: “What’s the point of life without ‘After’?”
Acquiring such fans is the most important job of a Wattpad writer. Then comes keeping them happy, not only by doling out new work on a regular basis — for a while Todd posted a chapter a day — but also by responding to their comments and questions.
“My first priority is my fans,” said Rebecca Sky, whose paranormal novel “The Love Curse” attracted an enthusiastic following on Wattpad in 2012. “Writing fiction is for weekends.”
The reason: “If you can go to a publisher and say, ‘I have 15,000 fans,’ that counts for more than someone who comes out of their basement with a perfect manuscript who knows no one,” Sky said.
Besides letting readers post a public comment, Wattpad allows them to send a private message to the author, vote for a work, or become an official fan of a writer. Fans can also dedicate a chapter of their own novel to other writers, make covers for books, and create YouTube and Pinterest tributes.
They can offer casting selections for a favorite story as if it were a movie. Starting a few months ago, they could insert comments directly into the text of a story through in-line commenting, which all readers can see. They can even sponsor a writer with money.
The traditional publishing industry is watching Wattpad closely.
“As an industry, publishing does not have great ways of showing fan love,” said Dominique Raccah, the chief executive of Sourcebooks. “Wattpad lets readers add to the story and gives them so many more access points. It’s more visceral.”