Hollywood and book publishers are turning to this online platform for their next '50 Shades of Grey'

  • Wattpad is an online platform where users upload their own stories, making it popular for romance novels and fan fiction.
  • Anna Todd began writing "After," a One Direction-inspired fan fiction, on Wattpad. After being read 1.5 billion times, she's scored seven-figure movie and book deals.
"After" author Anna Todd
Valorie Darling
"After" author Anna Todd

Anna Todd was living in Fort Hood, Texas working odd jobs including a stint at a bakery, waitressing at Waffle House, working as a salesperson at Ulta and babysitting for friends. She also had an online life on storytelling platform Wattpad as user imaginator1D, the author of the One Direction fan fiction "After."

The 300-chapter story — which imagines the members of popular band One Direction as college students — soon became Wattpad's most popular story. To date, the chapters have been read almost 1.5 billion times -- yes billion. Its success has led to seven-figure deals, including a publishing contract with Simon & Schuster and Paramount acquiring the movie rights, said Todd.

Todd is convinced that her success would not have been possible without Wattpad.

"There's so many gatekeepers [in publishing]," Todd said. "It's just one random person that gets to choose all the books we read."

"Wattpad just feels like more of a community," she said.

Wattpad, which has raised about $67 million, is has become a source for budding fiction writers to post their stories — and for publishers, producers and brands to find source material. The platform allows people to upload their own stories chapter by chapter, and users can comment as the tales progress. Its mostly female readers have quickly become a hub for fan fiction and romance stories.

To find what stories may find a second life in film, TV or books, Wattpad looks at the number of reads, likes and user comments to figure out what's popular with readers. Writers retains story rights but Wattpad takes a split of the revenue if it facilitates a deal.

The company has helped facilitate more than 100 book deals internationally of stories which first appeared on its platform, including through HarperCollins and Macmillan. Paperback books based on Wattpad stories have more than 15 million copies in circulation and have been published in over 30 languages. It's also helped license dozens as TV shows, digital series or films, including 76 stories that were turned into TV episodes for the "Wattpad Presents" series in the Philippines. Another story called "No Capes" will soon be a digital series on Mashable, while "FANtasies" was a 10-episode series where social media influencers starred in the Wattpad stories inspired by then. It also has a development deal with Universal Cable Productions to turn stories into TV shows.

The company also makes money off sponsored deals and web ads. A project with Coca-Cola brought back characters from its top 10 most popular stories and had them "write" a letter to Santa as a bonus side story. Meanwhile, it also worked with SyFy's "The Magicians" for a short story contest to write material inspired by the show.

"One of the major factors that makes Wattpad Studios interesting to both Hollywood and the entertainment industry around the world is we have an audience… We know who is reading this today, how many people read it in the last 6 months and last 12 months. We can actually see that people liked this character more than that character, half the people think he's awful," said Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios.

Valorie Darling

Todd began posting "After" in 2013 at a rate of a 3,000 to 8,000 word-chapter each day.

"I had no idea how long books were supposed to be," Todd said. "When I was writing all this I didn't realize it was a lot."

Funnily enough while Todd likes One Direction's music, she admits she isn't a typical fangirl. The only adult fans she knows are her cousin and her husband who "kind of liked their music a little bit," she noted. Todd first got involved in One Direction fan fiction after reading "Imagines" on Instagram, or short paragraph stories about the singers. One of her favorite "Imagines" authors said she was going to complete the story on Wattpad, which prompted Todd to check the platform out.

Soon after Todd began trying her own story. She liked imagining One Direction band members as bad boy college students living in a dorm.

Todd began getting messages from literary agents, which she thought was a prank. It wasn't until Wattpad wrote to her directly telling her about the numerous agency requests about her story – and that it was so popular it was messing up their internal metrics – she decided to meet with them. Soon she signed a movie deal, and then after a whirlwind trip to New York City she decided to go with Simon & Schuster.

Currently, Todd is working on promoting "After" and writing a to-be-published book series, which will also have a version posted on Wattpad. She talks to "After's" movie producer Jennifer Gibgot at least once a week. And Todd did get a chance to meet One Direction at an awards show they were both attending. She declined.

"My publisher asked, 'Do you want me to introduce you?' I was like don't you dare! I just like the idea of them. I never needed to meet them. If they offered, I wouldn't be like no I wouldn't meet you. But especially writing fan fiction, I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable."

Note: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Cable Productions, SyFy E!, and CNBC.