Data, diversity, and the future of publishing

Photo of Ashleigh Gardner

As Deputy General Manager, Wattpad Studios, Publishing, Ashleigh Gardner works with writers and publishers around the world to turn Wattpad stories into books. Under Ashleigh’s leadership, the Wattpad Books team is reshaping the publishing industry, leveraging data and insights from more than 500 million story uploads on Wattpad to find future bestsellers. In addition to publishing stories under the Wattpad Books division, Ashleigh creates meaningful promotional and editorial partnerships with publishers around the world. Ashleigh Gardner will join us at Tech Forum 2019 to deliver a talk called How Publishing is Attacking the Diversity Problem: A Data-Driven Approach.

At the beginning of 2019, Wattpad made an historic move when we announced our first-ever publishing division, Wattpad Books. The promise of Wattpad Books is the promise of Wattpad as a whole: we use data and technology to identify and elevate new storytellers, by taking current and up-and-coming Wattpad hits from diverse voices and making them mainstream hits with a broad audience around the world. Wattpad Books takes this formula and adds physical books and new potential readers to the equation.

Wattpad values diversity

Wattpad Books is built on the idea that data and diversity are the future of publishing. These are things that have been foundational to Wattpad as a whole. We’ve long recognized that building a team made up of different experiences and perspectives makes both our company and our product stronger. That’s why we’ve taken a leadership position in creating a company culture and product that truly values diversity.

We were founded by two immigrants in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Today, we’re a majority-women company, with women making up more than half (56%) of all Wattpad employees. That strong representation is reflected across the company: nearly 80% of our product team are women; women make up 50% of our Leadership Team and our User Experience and Design Team. We’ve also taken an intersectional approach to building our team, and today, people of colour make up nearly to half (45%) of all Wattpad employees and 41% of our Leadership Team. Company-wide, 21% of Wattpad employees are Women of Colour, 15% are non-native English speakers, 8% identify as having a disability, 13% identify as LGBTQ+, and 3% are transgender.

When we talk about diversity, we're acknowledging both the diversity of the global Wattpad community and our staff. That’s why diversity is so important to Wattpad Books. It’s an evolution of what we’ve always done, with new technology innovations to expand that vision into new territory.

Diverse communities

Our Story DNA Machine Learning technology allows us to identify exciting new stories and voices from around the world. Using machine learning, deep learning, and recurrent neural networks, our technology helps us better understand and discover stories among the half a billion uploads that have been shared on Wattpad. Story DNA deconstructs stories into their elemental features, such as sentence structure, word use, and grammar employed to find the next bestseller.

We find great stories, with lots of potential, and then we publish them. Sound familiar? This is exactly what traditional publishing is all about. Except we have the largest library of unpublished stories on the planet, the most diverse community of readers and writers, and the technology to find the best of it. Technology allows us to find great stories faster, meaning we’re making human editorial choices in a superhuman way with technology.

There are many many examples of how this works. But some of the most exciting involve the diverse communities on Wattpad. For example, our data has shown a growth in narratives embracing characters and stories that support the #transgender, #agender, #genderfluid, and #nonbinary communities. People spent 32 million minutes reading stories with these tags in 2018, up 18% from 2017. Uploads also grew, with 15,000 new uploads last year alone.

"At @Wattpad, our technology allows us to see communities forming around diverse writers and genres."

The trends don’t stop there. Categories reflecting the LGBTQ+ community have all grown in 2018, with stories tagged #asexual or #demisexual accumulating millions of reading minutes.

At Wattpad, our technology allows us to see communities forming around diverse writers and genres.

Desire for diversity in romance

Romance is another great example here. Our trends data showed us that there is a real drive and desire for more diversity in romance. In fact, in 2018 #Muslimromance stood out as an emerging category for diverse romance narratives. Readers spent an average of 1.7 million minutes each month last year reading Wattpad stories tagged #Muslimromance, #Muslimlovestory, and #Islamiclovestory. This trend represents a 51% increase in reading time from 2017.


Our data validates the popularity of these stories, while also showing that there is real market demand for them. For 13 years, Wattpad has been a place where marginalized voices have shared their stories and formed communities. With Wattpad Books, we now have a means to directly publish some of these incredible writers and bring them to an even bigger audience.

But as anyone can tell you, machine learning is only as good as the data set it starts with. Fortunately, we are starting with the most diverse set of stories ever found in one location. Our data reflects the global Wattpad community, which is 70% female and includes minority and marginalized voices from around the world.

Wattpad is known as one of the safest places online because it’s an open and welcoming environment for everyone. We’ve long recognized that diversity is our strength. Our company culture, our teams, our ability to innovate, and ultimately our product, are all made stronger by the variety of perspectives, experiences, and voices that make up Wattpad.

The data we start with reflects all of this.

After elevating diverse voices online, we’re now using technology to directly impact and elevate diverse voices in publishing. Our human editors will always have a role in this, and we will always take an intersectional approach to what we finally publish. But technology is changing the publishing industry, and one of the most important consequences is the opportunities it creates for new voices.

We’re thrilled to be part of this evolution.

Ashleigh Gardner will be talking more about data, diversity, and the future of publishing at Tech Forum on March 20, 2019 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.