With a cutthroat publishing industry where only a few make it big, Wattpad is a thriving reading and writing community which has opened doors for authors from diverse backgrounds.
Nicole Nwosu, 22, always felt like she was a different kind of girl. One that was kind of “boyish”. She loved sport and knew basketball and football like the back of her hand. Though, there was one place she did not feel like an anomaly, and that was in the world of books. Nicole loved to read. Contemporary romance was her thing. And Wattpad was her place.
She was 12 years old when she first discovered the free online platform for readers and writers alike and was introduced to a whole other realm of fiction other than what was already shelved in the library.
People were publishing complete novels on the app at the click of a button. So when Nicole’s friend suggested Wattpad, her immediate response was “What the heck is that?”
When Nicole turned 14 two years later, the first draft of her Wattpad series The Badboy & The Tomboy had garnered 100m views and counting.
In 2015, just one year after her story’s release, she won the Watty Awards – Wattpad’s annual celebration of the “electrifying, visionary, and diverse voices that choose to share their stories on Wattpad every year.”
She received the news as she was walking in her high school hallway with her three best friends. After checking the app, she gasped as if she could not believe it: “I won an award!”
Despite all this popularity being thrust at her at such a young age, Nicole remains humble as she speaks to me, feeling awkward about giving an introduction.
“This is always the weirdest part,” she answers me as I ask her to tell me about herself.
“It was the summer before grade nine when it all started,” the author from Toronto, Canada, explained. “At the time (2014), there were so many bad boy stories that were circulating the platform. They were really a trend.
“I kept reading them but I couldn’t find a girl who I could relate to because a lot of people would stereotype their main character. It would always be a girl who was kind of mousy or she was always reading.”
After hours spent on the platform reading books, Nicole wondered why it was a struggle to find a girl with her same love for sport in those stories she so often indulged in.
“I asked myself, why do none of these girls play sport? I was really confused.”
There was only one thing she could do. Take matters into her own hands. She decided she was going to have to write this story herself.
“That’s usually my standard role for all of the books that I like – I’m just gonna have to write what I want to read. That’s basically how The Badboy & The Tomboy got started because I couldn’t find a girl who, at the time, had more boyish traits. So I felt like I’d give her a little platform. I did it with that story and it worked out really well.”
Nicole never imagined that a book she wrote over the summer in her sweats on the couch of her living room could become something so big. She was an only child. Her mother worked a lot.
Writing was all she did for hours on end at the time, churning out a chapter in under four hours. Around five years later, Nicole received a phone call. It was her manager. This time, she was sitting in the middle of a student centre at her university.
Wattpad had offered her a book deal. This came after the brand’s publishing company launched in 2019. “I kept asking her, are you sure? She told me in the bluntest way possible. And I sat there in shock for like a good minute before I kept asking questions,” she explained.
Entering the publishing industry is no easy feat. For the non-Watty Award winners, it can be a competitive area to delve into, especially at the age of 16 like Nicole did. This makes it even harder for some people, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds, to push past this barrier and have equal opportunities in the publishing world.
Black authors continue to be severely underrepresented in the publishing industry, as the Publisher’s Association revealed that they only make up 3% of the workforce in the UK as of 2022.
And regrettably, this number has not increased since 2018. While the representation of ethnic minority groups in general did increase to 17% in 2022, Black authors make up the smallest fraction.
Traditional routes into the industry are hard to come by. Which is why unconventional methods like Wattpad have changed the game and opened up opportunities to many more people regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc.
“I like that Wattpad has given another path to having a different option,” Nicole said. “I’m happy they made a whole publishing house because it really does give writers another way to get into the traditional publishing market. Usually people go through sending their manuscripts to a lot of literary agents before that process even happens.”
Although she had Wattpad as the main ticket into this competitive industry, there were still other obstacles to worry about. As a black woman who was passionate about featuring a range of diverse characters in her stories, Nicole always had to consider whether her publishers felt the same.
“I feel like there are specific challenges, for instance, I want to publish one of my stories that features a character that looks like me,” says Nicole. “And it does create an obstacle towards which agent I want to reach out to because I’m wondering ‘what is their client market?’, ‘What do they usually look for?’.
“And I don’t want my characters to have specific stereotypes. I feel like if I had to put my stories that feature characters that look like me out there, I would want to be working with someone that will understand that my characters are like this for a reason.
“That it’s not because of some type of prejudice you formed in your mind. It’s that you understand why they’re that way and I hope that you’re not stereotyping them because of their skin colour in that sense.”
It was important that her publisher respected the characters that Nicole brought to life. It was a deeply personal affair because she saw herself in the character of Macy in The Badboy & The Tomboy. And the stereotypical narratives needed to change.
“That’s the goal,” she said. “I want to work with someone that would understand that, so I feel like that in itself could be an obstacle for me.”
Clearly writing outside the norm worked well for Nicole as she is now a published author along with the sequel to her original book; Hitting the Crossbar, which was published in April this year.
Her first realisation of her book’s popularity was when a girl approached her in the middle of the school hallway in the 10th grade. “She was showing me the screen with my book in her hand and she was in shock, screaming about it in the hallway.
“And I was like oh, so real people actually read this? I don’t know why it hit me when she said it. I was in panic. She was in panic. I was like will we just stop panicking? Stop, stop, stop. It was so funny.”
A similar incident happened at her university when Nicole was approached by two girls on her American football team.
“There were 70 girls on this team and they’re people from different places around the world, not just Canada,” she said. “I had two of my teammates come up to me and tell me that they read my book when they were growing up and every single time someone does that, I get a ‘what the heck’ kind of feeling.”
For Nicole, the feeling of reward always follows the initial shock.
Despite her success, Nicole claims she was not always a great writer. It was an acquired skill. Although it did not take many chances for her to make her big break. Just as they say, third times the charm. She had posted just two stories on Wattpad at first.
In her words, they were terrible – so much so that she instructed me that I could not ask her anything about it. Neither could my research take me there because she has deleted any trace of them.
However it is not the past that matters, as Nicole has now become part of a much bigger movement in diversifying the overwhelmingly white book industry at present. Through impressively free opportunities such as Wattpad, now also expanding across other platforms including Tumblr and Archives of Our Own, and even self-publishing; there is a greater chance for writers to evade the already homogenous publishing world.
“Keep writing,” Nicole added. “Keep writing and talk to other writers. It’s probably one of the best things you could do.”
If you liked this post then read Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important or Five books to read when you’re feeling ‘spicy’ next.
Nicole grew up in Toronto, Canada, and first started posting her stories on Wattpad in 2014. Her most popular story The Bad Boy & the Tomboy has accumulated over a hundred million reads on the platform and won a 2015 “Cover-to-Cover” Watty Award. When she’s not writing, Nicole spends her time catching up on binge-worthy TV shows while balancing her studies at Western University.
Shruthi is a journalism student with a passion for reading, travel, food and music. She likes to spend her free time at Waterstones or journalling whenever she can. She’s passionate about human connection and relationships in books, so that we can learn to better ourselves and how we communicate with others.
Favourite genre: Contemporary romance.