‘Thank God we have that’: Wattpad author says writing gig became coronavirus emergency fund

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The Future of Work: Freelancing and the gig economy
WATCH: Conference Board of Canada Chief Economist Pedro Antunes explains how gig economy workers have been impacted by the pandemic and how this may change the growth of this type of working arrangement. – Apr 22, 2020

When Caroline Richardson’s husband was temporarily laid off in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, money became a concern.

The family of four was down to one income and the bills kept coming. There was the mortgage, car payments and two kids who wouldn’t stop growing and needing new clothes just because the economy was going through a rough patch, she recalls.

Luckily, though, Richardson’s long-time hobby came to the rescue. Government employee by day, Richardson is a writer of — in her own words — “mature, steamy romantic stories with a happy ending” in her free time.

It’s a labour of love she’s kept up for years, says Richardson, who has four book-length stories under her belt. But it wasn’t until one of her most recent works took off on Wattpad, an online storytelling platform, that her pastime became a lucrative side-gig.

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Richardson’s novel Two Cream, No Sugar — later re-titled Out of His League — became a Wattpad sensation, eventually hitting 1.1 million reads. The platform quickly included it in Paid Stories, its paid content program, where readers can buy novels in full or as chapters.

Soon, Richardson received her first cheque at the beginning of 2020.

Richardson had planned to use the money for a trip overseas to visit an old friend in England, but when the pandemic hit, the money became a much-needed financial cushion.

“Thank God we have that,” she says.

Richardson has since received another quarterly check from Wattpad for an amount she calls “very helpful.”

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Born as a free platform for readers and writers of fiction, Wattpad has grown into a juggernaut, with a monthly readership of over 90 million and five million active writers.

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It launched its paid content program in 2018 and is also now publishing its own books and co-producing its stories for both TV and film.

The company says it has seen a 151-per cent increase in the volume of new submissions from writers between January and April, as the world huddled inside amid COVID-19 restrictions.

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Are freelance platforms a good way to make money in a pinch?

Amid record job losses linked to the pandemic, millions have turned to online gigs to make ends meet.

A recent study by Upwork, a freelance job platform, found the share of U.S. professionals who freelance full-time has reached 36 per cent of the U.S. workforce, eight percentage points above its level in 2019.

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Onlyfans, a subscription-based social media platform famous for its racy content, reported 3.5 million sign-ups in March, with 60,000 of them new creators, according to the Daily Beast.

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Substack, which lets writers monetize newsletters, has seen its number of readers and active writers double, according to WIRED.

In Canada, the COVID-19 outbreak has also driven up interest in online freelance platforms.

The volume of links to Wattpad shared on Twitter in Canada between March and October was up more than 40 per cent between compared to the previous four months, according to audience intelligence company Pulsar.

Substack, online freelance workplace Fiverr and Teachable, which lets users create and sell online courses, have each seen growth of 20 per cent or more, a Pulsar analysis shows.

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Platforms that connect freelancers to businesses and individual clients can be a quick way to monetize work-from-home skills, says Jackie Lam, a freelance personal finance writer and expert on gig work.

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It doesn’t take much to create an account or profile page and start advertising your services or bid on projects, she says. If you’ve never side-hustled before, platforms are an easy way to survey what other similarly qualified freelancers are offering, how much they’re charging and how they’re promoting themselves, she says.

They can also help you quickly get an idea of what kind of work you like to do and how long different projects take, she notes.

But be prepared for competition, Lam warns.

Platforms, she says, “can be a very saturated market.” Unless you can carve out your own niche, there will probably be lots of people offering the same services or vying for the same projects.

“It could easily be a race to the bottom,” Lam says.

While platforms can be a freelancer’s training wheels, seeking out clients on your own may eventually turn out to be more lucrative, according to Lam.

But Pulsar’s Davide Berretta calls the likes of Substack and Teachable the “next generation” of platforms.

They’re “for creators who want to have that direct audience relationship, that is not just about content, but it’s also about commerce and it’s also about selling access to that premium content.”

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On Wattpad, writers retain the rights to their work, says general manager Jeanne Lam. They can approach literary agents and publishers on their own — success on the platform can serve as proof of concept — or they can publish through Wattpad Books.

The company uses machine learning technology — combined with flesh-and-bone editors — to sift through millions of stories and identify those with publishing or paid-content potential.

So far, there are more than 400 writers in Wattpad’s paid stories program Lam says. And nearly 1,000 stories from the platform have been turned into books or adapted for TV and film.

Richardson, for her part, says she wasn’t thinking about the money when she joined Wattpad. She cherished the ability to reach out to readers all over the world and the chance to hone her craft, she says.

The cheques have been a nice surprise that happened to materialize exactly at the right time.

And if her book one day becomes a movie, she says, “why not? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

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