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Q&A With Anna Todd, the Breakout Fanfic Star Who Writes Everything on Her Phone

A year and a half after she started typing on a tiny screen, Todd has written a million words, her first book is in stores and Paramount bought the movie rights.

Behind every debut book, there’s a first-time writer dreaming of an instant hit. Anna Todd may soon be able to count herself among that rare group. She’s already a surprise success online.

Her romance novel about a bad boy and a good girl — starring a fictional Harry Styles of One Direction with a toned-down-but-still-sexy version of the plot of “50 Shades of Grey” — improbably became the most popular read on Wattpad, an online community of readers and writers, and now book publisher Simon and Schuster wants to cash in on her popularity.

Todd’s “After” — which she originally wrote entirely on her phone — is now being turned into a four-book series by the publisher in a deal that hit six figures, with the first installment released this week. Fans reported it was sold out at many bookstores.

It’s also being optioned by Paramount Pictures.

On Wattpad, “After” has been read more than one billion times. The multi-part book has just under 10 million unique readers, who have left 6 million comments. It’s crazy. To make bestseller lists, authors generally sell tens of thousands of books per week. Then again, reading on Wattpad is free.

Todd’s method is madness, too. Just out of college, she wrote the million-word series in largely unedited spurts from her Android phone, over the course of a little more than a year. She told Re/code she started writing because she was an avid fanfic reader and was bored without new installments from Wattpad writers she followed. So she pulled out her phone and jotted down her own, typos and all.

Todd finalized the book contract in June of this year, just before wrapping up the epic story. For the print version, the character named after the real-life pop star “Harry Styles” — an abusive jerk with a heart of gold (well, maybe) — has been renamed Hardin.

“After” takes the “50 Shades of Grey” formula and turns it up a notch, while losing the S&M. Where E. L. James originated the mommy porn series as fan fiction about the Twilight vampire romance series, and it had at least tens of thousands of readers online, the original work was scrubbed from the Internet when the publishing deal came around. The real popularity came after the series was in print — more than 100 million copies sold.

“After,” meanwhile, was published chapter by chapter to a growing audience that eagerly received multiple installments per week, chatted with Todd on social media and contributed fan art. And with the print book in stores, the Web version will live on, even as the books and maybe movies clean up, recast and reshape the story.

Of course, there’s no indicator “After” will have anywhere near the success of “50 Shades” — it has only been out for a couple days, after all. And who knows if the movie option will actually come together.

But judging by their Vines and tweets, readers are extremely invested in Todd’s book release.

“It’s kind of like ‘American Idol,'” said Wattpad general manager Candice Faktor. “You don’t know the outcome, and you feel really supportive and committed to the people performing.”

I would be shocked if any book critic has anything positive to say about “After” (though I’ll admit, it’s full of suspenseful cliff-hangers that keep you reading longer than you think you might). But on Wattpad, at least, that’s not the point. “I have no comment on the critical success,” Faktor said. “We define success by: ‘Have you entertained an audience and made a personal connection?'”

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of Re/code’s interview with Todd this week on the day her book hit the bookstore shelves.

Liz Gannes: I saw on your Instagram and Twitter that your readers are posting pictures and videos when they buy your book in person. It’s pretty impressive they are swarming to the stores considering if they’re already a fan, they’ve already read your book.

Anna Todd: It’s just amazing. Since they have so much to do with it, we all are celebrating together. Everyone wants more of what they love. So reading it on your phone is amazing, but it’s not the same as actually having something. Holding the book, I think, is different.

Starting a bit further back, what were you doing before this and what inspired you to write?

I was going to college just to go to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I worked at a makeup counter, I worked at the IRS as a tax clerk, I worked waitressing. And I was an avid reader, and started I reading fan fiction, One Direction fan fiction specifically, on Instagram.

That’s crazy — how do you read on Instagram?

Yeah, it’s insane, it’s a fandom thing. You post a caption under the picture and it’s a really mini tiny little chapter. So then Wattpad kind of took over that, and everyone I was reading on Instagram started posting on Wattpad, which was amazing since it’s so much easier to read.

So I made a Wattpad account, and I was reading five months silently [and not participating], and I was between stories and got impatient waiting for updates. I thought I’d just write something to entertain myself. So I wrote it and posted it and had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Is there any one moment where it felt like it went to the next level?

The role-play accounts for me are when I started realizing that people really loved it. I don’t know if you’re into fandom, but if people make role-play accounts they’re pretty serious about it. When I started seeing Tessa and Harry tweeting each other I was like, “Wow, this isn’t just a book, this is something that people are spending their day pretending to be these characters.”

Where and how do you write? I saw in the beginning of “After,” you warned people there were going to be typos because you write on your phone.

For me, I don’t know how to write any other way. I was a reader turned writer. It’s on my phone when I’m in the grocery store, those times when you’re bored walking around. It didn’t really matter at the time that it had typos, because it was just a creative outlet. I had no intention of publishing it, I didn’t know that was even an option. You can interact and comment on your phone on Wattpad, so it just made sense to me.

What kind of phone do you have?

I used to have a Galax, but it kept crashing when I was on apps all the time. I wrote most of it on the Galaxy, and now I [have] an iPhone.

Are you sitting at your house writing on your phone? Why would it be more convenient to write on your phone than a laptop with a full keyboard?

I think as I got used to it, it seemed easier to use the small keyboard. Most of us are on our phones 90 percent of the time. I’m actually more familiar with the text keyboard than I am with an actual laptop, so it just seemed easier.

I know you are really active in talking with your fans. Do they influence the story as it’s being written?

I have a lot of twists and shocking things in my stories, so I would put a lot of hints in, but when I see in the comments that they were starting to catch on, I would add something to throw them off. It was more, I was the creator and they were really, really involved in it. If they were more mad at a certain character, I would make the other character do something so there would be an equal anger so it wasn’t one-sided.

Where did you come up with some of these techniques? I know you got some of your inspiration for the characters and the story from One Direction and “50 Shades of Grey,” but what about for the format? How did you figure out you wanted to release so often, and make each chapter ending suspenseful, and release so many chapters?

It was totally unintentional. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. Having a live audience when you’re writing definitely motivates you to write more and more. It became almost a daily thing, I put up a chapter almost every day. Even if I wasn’t writing or posting, I would be telling them I liked their haircut or telling them when I’m eating. They support me; I give them content.

Do you feel like you’re writing to your peers?

They’re really nice people, positive, very passionate. Most of them are female, late teens, they’re very into their phones. I’m 25, so I’m older than some of my readers; the Harry Styles thing brought in One Direction fans.

When did you start thinking about working with a publisher and how did that happen? Did you have a day job that you quit?

Right before I started writing I was in school and I thought I wanted to work for the government, so I was going to job interviews. My husband thought I was crazy because I was like, “I literally can’t work, this is taking up all of my time.” It takes a lot of time writing and being on social media for hours every day. Wattpad approached me about taking it to the next level and I wanted to see where I could take it.

Was your husband a fan or a reader?

I didn’t tell him about it for a long time. I didn’t tell anyone in my actual life. I was halfway through the second book when I told him. My husband just thought I had a phone addiction or something. He didn’t know I was writing entire books on here.

So when did you come clean?

It was when it got really big. I was getting random messages on Wattpad from people saying they were agents. So I was just like, “Hey, I kind of wrote this story,” and I showed him the edits and videos and that I had millions of reads, and he was like, “Whoa, when did you do that?”

Then he became a fan?

He was really supportive. He has always known what he wanted to do, he was raised to be in the military. For me, I had no idea. I got married at 18 so I was just this young army wife trying to find my own identity. So “After” definitely gave me my own identity, something that’s mine, and he’s really proud of that.

How did this turn into a printed book? It all happened very fast, right?

Wattpad helped with that a lot. I went to visit publishers in New York in March of this year, I think it was May we announced the publishing deal with Simon and Schuster, and then October was the first book.

I have to imagine it’s relatively easy for the publishers to take a ready-made manuscript to reformat for books. Your fans probably wouldn’t like it too much if it were substantially changed.

Yeah, but we just had lots of typos and things to work on. With serialized writing you’re just writing a continuous story, and with a published book you have to have structure. And I’m not the same writer that I was a year and a half ago. Reading the first book I was cringing. I was like, did I forget what a comma was? So we tore it apart and put it back together.

Do you think that changing the names of the characters lessens the effect in any way?

I don’t think so. I think the people who already love it will have the Wattpad version in their head. My character is nothing like the actual Harry Styles, so I think it’s important to make a line there.

Do you know if the actual Harry Styles has any idea what you’re doing?

I have no idea.

If this does get made into a movie and the characters are played by different actors than you envisioned, would that take away from the original fantasy?

I don’t think so. I was nervous for the published version — what if these big bad editors come in and take everything away — but it totally was not like that at all. I think with the movie producers, they know fandoms well enough to leave what people love. So I don’t have any worries.

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