SPECIAL ISSUE | Millions of Minutes a Month: How Fiction Apps Are Changing the Way We Read
Author: John Rodzvilla Emerson College
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The book, which, for the purposes of this essay, will be considered a linear composition with sequential pages, has escaped its foretold death several times over the past hundred years. It continues to be a primary mode of delivery for fictional narratives even as newer media with complementary narrative structures (e.g., film, comic books, television, and video games) emerge. For the trade book industry (the group of publishers who focus on publishing material for pleasure reading), the largest technological shifts over the last half-century centered on faster and cheaper production, not how readers interacted with narratives. Amazon’s launch of the Kindle e-reader in 2007 offered a large number of customers an affordable device to read digital text for the first time. In the five years after the Kindle’s launch, ebooks shifted from a negligible part of the market to about twenty-one percent of total dollar sales for trade publishing (McKinnon 2015). This ebook “revolution” is akin to the introduction of paperbacks in the 1930s: no real innovations in storytelling, just a widespread availability of a previously niche format. Between the release of Amazon’s digital simulacra of print—the Kindle’s e-Ink screen with its limited gray-scale capabilities that had very little support for non-textual content at launch—and Apple’s iPad (2010), which provided a full-color touchscreen, the industry gained devices that offered digital content, but retained print’s linear narrative. The Kindle, iPad, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook (2009) enlarged the market for digital reproductions while continuing to support a hegemonic model of linear narrative with a singular point of view (Cramer 2013, 71). Even with the hundreds of thousands of print and digital books published annually, little has changed for the reader beyond the surface on which that text is transmitted.
To see how technology has influenced narrative, one needs to look past book publishers and their ebooks to the publication spaces dedicated to born-digital texts that change the reader’s relationship with textual narratives. Visual novels, interactive video games that feature text stories in front of multimedia visuals long popular in Japan, created a multimedia experience around the text (Cavallaro 2010, 10-11) while the interactive fiction (IF) and electronic literature communities developed new, ergodic ways for readers to interact with text (Aarseth 1997). IF narratives like Colossal Cave Adventure (Crowther 1977) and Zork (Infocom 1982) as well as literary experiments like Ad Verbum (Montfort 2000) and Patchwork Girl (Jackson 2001) rely on elements of interactive choice in their telling. While these communities of storytellers have established themselves online over the past forty years, it was not until the wide-scale adoption of smartphones that these disruptive models of digital narrative were able to reach a more general audience.
The access points created through smartphones allowed a new readership to form around texts that are often ignored in discussions of literacy. Born-digital text are typically in-process, serial in nature and focused on low or middle-brow subject matter. As such, they are ignored in academic analyses, which still foreground print-based resources in discussions of what is literary (Driscoll 2014). Yet a few of these digital-first creations have proven to be some of the most successful printed texts in the twenty-first century. The fastest selling series of all time, E. L. James’s Fifty Shade trilogy (2012), started as online Twilight fanfiction years earlier (Boog 2012). Other bestsellers such as Anna Todd’s After series (2014), which was originally serialized One Direction fanfiction on the social reading app Wattpad in 2013, have also made the leap from digital to print (and then, like Fifty Shades, to the screen). When trade publishers purchase and republish these stories, often with changes to copyrighted material, a process that the fanfiction community calls “filing off the serial numbers,” the focus is on the quantity of physical and digital copies sold with little acknowledgement of the millions of minutes readers already spent online reading, commenting, and interacting with one another at the time of online publication.
Social reading and writing apps, examples of which include Wattpad, Radish, and Tapas, are often stand-alone apps dedicated to the reading and writing of fiction on handheld devices. Some of the apps offer classic works of literature or traditionally published books reformatted for a smaller screen, but this paper will focus on those apps that provided born-digital content created by readers/writers who consume and create their stories on tablets and smartphones. These apps provide more than just text, they offer an alternative space for writing that supports experimentation, including with narrative roles. This paper explores how these apps use both serialization and chat text bubbles to create a new way for their users to engage with fictional narratives.
EARLY PHONE FICTION
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, young female writers in Japan began to draft keitai shosetsu, or cell phone novels, that, by the end of the decade, would move from screen to print and come to dominate that county’s bestselling fiction list (Onishi 2008). As keitai shosetsu gained popularity in Japan, online fanfiction communities also developed in other parts of the world. The stories on these sites shared several commonalities with keitai shosetsu. Both included what critics decried as “characters [that tend] to be undeveloped” and “paragraphs [that] are often fragments and consist of dialogue” (Onishi, 2008). But writers of fanfiction did not need to do much in the way of character creation as they were using established, copyrighted characters from popular book and television series. Unlike keitai shosetsu, which were typically autobiographical in nature, sites like fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own offered their readers/writers a place to experiment with voice, pacing, and dialogue (both internal and external) to re-imagine their favorite characters in new situations. These sites provided free places for new writers to create content while interacting with one another through forums and comments to aid the development of dialogue and narrative arcs (Coppa 2017, 13-14).
While fanfiction sites continue to be popular with readers on desktops and laptops, they were not optimized for the smaller screens of the growing number of smartphones. Fanfiction sites would eventually update their designs for smaller screens, but not before app developers seized the opportunity to create native fiction apps that offered serialized storytelling optimized for small touchscreens. The limitations of early smartphones, including short battery life and small screen size, pushed these reading apps to encourage serialized stories that would come out in only a few hundred words per chapter, even if the story ended up being hundreds of thousands of words. Wattpad, the most successful of these apps, claims over 90 million users spending 23 billion minutes a month engaged on the site (Wattpad n.d.). Tapas, a newer service that offers both online comics and serialized text, has recorded 6 million downloads from 3 million users on over 88,000 series (Tapas n.d.a). As important as it is to recognize these apps as reading spaces, it is perhaps just as important to acknowledge how they created a space for young readers and writers to tell stories that reflect the interactive nature of being online.
THE CHAT FICTION APP
From the larger world of fiction apps, a specialized type of app, the chat fiction app, first appeared in the marketplace in 2015. Such apps are built upon the same strategies for dissemination and collaboration of the fiction apps described above, but the writers can only tell their story as if they had been transmitted over an online messaging system like Messenger, WeChat, or WhatsApp. Stories told through this imitation of chats reduce the narrative down to what can only exist within a chat box and limit the writer to a first-person point of view.
The first app to release stories in a chat format was Hooked, created by Prerna Gupta and Parag Chordia who applied principles from web design to test the engagement of their young adult novel-in-progress. They took excerpts from fifty best-selling young adult novels and played with the digital presentation of the work to see how readers responded. After examining the results from 15,000 test subjects, they found that the users were only reading a few hundred words of the digital text. They then began to experiment with different aspects of the story and found that readers had similar response rates to the work regardless of the gender of the speakers or if the work was in first-person present tense, a common model in trade publishing, or third-person past. They also tested adding graphics, but, according to Prerna Gupta, even telling the story as graphic novel didn’t “move the needle. No matter what we tried, reader engagement was still abysmal” (Gupta 2017). The next iteration presented the story samples as text message conversations and it had a one hundred percent completion rate in the first trial. They retested the iteration thinking it an error, only to see the same results. It is not clear from Gupta’s post if previously published excerpts were just posted as chat bubbles or if the text was modified so that it read as dialogue with plot and descriptions either removed or turned into exposition. Granted, young adult literature is often written in the first-person present tense so some of the stories would not lose much in a translation between formats.
What Hooked and the other chat fiction apps that soon followed ended up creating was a set of patterns in both the format and narrative that increased the engagement of the reader with the use of text bubbles. These bubbles, which, according to game design, would normally be a meta user interface, that is an interface that interrupted the user’s engagement in activity, became a diegetic element internal to the story that kept the readers engaged (Bowers 2019). By focusing on telling the story through bubbles that forced readers to touch the phone to read more, the apps were able to use an interface that acted as an active reading space.
These chat fiction apps also retained the episodic nature from the older fiction apps as a way to limit access and heighten the desire of the reader. Based on Gupta and Chordia’s surveys, the chat model maintained reader engagement as long as the stories utilized the narrator’s limited point of view and were short, both of which build suspense. The genres of horror, thriller, and romance, which soon found dedicated chat fiction apps, were perfect for a narrative model that created a high emotional response without much character description or world-building.
The final aspect of chat fiction apps that kept readers engaged was a heightened focus on the voyeuristic nature of reading (Hawthorn 2014). The fact that these stories were built within chat bubbles, an interface that was previously used to indicate direct correspondence between the receiver and writer of the text, meant that the reader of these stories will approach them with the understanding that they were intruding on a (fictional) private correspondence. This sense of intrusion signals to the reader that they should not expect some form of introduction to the internal world of the story as the reading of private correspondence is often done without much context. It is a perfect format then for horror narratives, which rely on the reader’s limited information about the protagonist’s world to create suspense and drama. This structure keeps the reader at a close remove while creating a heightened emotional pull using the forbidden. These chat fiction apps can be seen as digital descendants of the fictional diaries and letters used in eighteenth-century epistolary novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangerousness (1782).
THE NEXT GENERATION OF FICTION APPS
While chat fiction apps have multiplied across different US phone app stores since Hooked first topped Apple’s charts in 2016, other companies would soon push beyond the basic messaging format to add multimedia aspects reminiscent of Japanese visual novels to compete against the non-textual social media that had become more compelling to smart phone users. This next generation of fiction apps introduced avatars set against colorful backdrops on the blank canvas of the chat fiction app. The white and black screen behind the text bubbles became a stage for animated avatars to react to the story. The apps also added interactive elements into the chat to transition the reader from a voyeuristic position into an active participant. Apps like Episode, Choices, and Dorian have also added elements common to online games—in-app purchasing, delayed access to new content, and simple animations—into the chat fiction app.
Episode Interactive defines itself as a mobile storytelling component in the larger world of interactive entertainment. It launched in 2014 with the Campus Crush storyline before partnering with entertainers like Demi Lovato and properties like Mean Girls and Pretty Little Liars. The company also created Episode Studio, a place for reader/writers to develop characters, backgrounds, and dialogue with drag-and-drop menus. The company has released over 150,000 stories from their twelve million registered creators. Within each episode, the reader is presented with several choices to develop the story. In some cases, those choices require a payment of gems, one of the in-app currencies, to unlock. Other fiction apps offering a similar experience include Pixelberry Studios’ Choices and Crazy Maple Studios’ Chapters.
As indicated in the apps’ names, the stories are episodic in nature and provide multiple paths through the story from which the reader must chose to complete it. Some of the apps even group their stories into seasons and release chapters every few days. These companies often limit access to the whole story so that a reader can only read one or two episodes in a session unless they pay to unlock more of the story. For example, Episode sells passes alongside the aforementioned gems to readers. Where gems are used to buy things in the game, passes can only be used to read new episodes. Readers who run out of their allotted passes must either wait four hours before being able to read more of the story or buy more passes. Tapas, a fiction app that has a non-interactive model, features a similar system which requires readers to buy “ink” to unlock certain episodes from their premium stories. Tapas also provides a “wait for free” model that requires readers to set a time and wait until it finishes before they can access the next chapter. Previous online companies that offered access to online fiction quickly learned that without some way to slow down consumption, romance readers would read at a speed that, in the case of the digital book subscription services like Oyster, could quickly bankrupt the company. By limiting access to their library through a pay-to-read model, these apps have created a way to sell access to passionate readers and offer small royalty payments to writers: a fifty percent revenue share in the case of the Tapas premium program (Tapas n.d.b).
While the interactive model of digital storytelling is not new in terms of game play or even reading, this latest iteration of apps uses the twisty logic often found in adventure IF and applies it to the domestic worlds found in Young Adult and romance fiction. These platforms often incorporate narrative tools that were developed by a group of authors and interactors within the IF community who were fought to keep the community at the cultural fringes to protect it from commercial interests (Montfort 2003, 230). The new products have ignored the IF communities protective measures and use their tools to help a general readership who is not that interested in the cultural implications to create stories they want to read. The reader/writers of these apps are approaching the tools of IF without the required understanding of the history of IF that is part of the community’s gate keeping. Nor are they aware of the place of visual novels in the Japanese video game industry or even the coding that makes it possible. The apps provide these tools to an audience that is using the apps with a focus on storytelling over everything else. The experience of playing free mobile games and reading from Wattpad’s vast library is often enough for these readers/writers to create the stories they want to, and are willing to pay to, read.
What differentiates this new generation of interactive romance stories from both chat fiction apps and older IF is that they mix the narrative tools from both formats into something new. These stories still rely on the short narratives of chat apps, but they add the limited interactivity of choice-based gaming narratives (Aarseth 1997). Like the IF stories and visual novels that came before them, interactive romance stories are not true open world games as narrative choices are limited to only what the author has determined fits the storyline. Short texts, interactive paths through the story, and story arcs that are designed specifically for short reading periods create a narrative that gives the reader a new textual experience.
This paper has briefly explored different evolutions of fiction apps, including early forms based on fanfiction sites, ones that mimicked popular chat apps, and apps that have combined elements of different born-digital formats into a new form of online narrative. These apps developed from a passive experience of reading dialogue in text bubbles into more interactive storytelling where animated avatars react to chat bubbles filled in the blank space of the chat fiction app and the reader makes bifurcating decisions throughout the narrative. These fiction apps utilize the reader’s awareness of the online environment to change the narrative experience in profound ways. Several of these apps have taken a mode of storytelling that continues to be freely available in the fanfiction and IF communities and uses the freemium model of game apps to limit complete access to the story (unless a reader is willing to pay extra). Dorian’s option to create a discussion board attached to decision points generates an additional space where readers can talk about the options within the story. These apps have created new narrative spaces that deserve further study, specifically how they provide engagement though interaction in short story arcs and how they experiment with character interactions as a reflection of the reader’s online experience—something that has often been identified as one of the values of literacy.
 Oyster’s model was similar to other subscription services in that it offered access to content for a monthly fee. That fee would go towards the operation of the site and royalties to the content owners. Romance readers were reading so many titles per month that the royalties they paid were greater than the income from subscriptions.
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SUGGESTED CITATION: Rodzvilla, John. 2021. “Millions of Minutes a Month: How Fiction Apps are Changing the Way We Read.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published June 1.
John Rodzvilla is an Assistant Professor in digital publishing at Emerson College. His research includes work on ebook specifications and the digital culture of online texts. He was the editor of We’ve Got Blog (2001), a collection of early writings on firstname.lastname@example.org