Georgina Boyes-Macintosh loves to read. The mother of four from New Zealand recently raced through a steamy romance novel series about love and betrayal among a territorial pack of werewolves in the pine forests of the American West. But she couldn’t just pop into Whitcoulls, the local bookstore chain, to find out what happened to the protagonist’s secret baby with her unfaithful werewolf ex-husband. She could only access the next installment by spending coins earned on the Asia-based social reading app Dreame, where new chapters arrive weekly. “I read as a form of escapism from reality,” Boyes-Macintosh told Rest of World.
The central characters of many of Dreame’s most beloved werewolf novels often inhabit Americanized settings, but the authors don’t typically live in the U.S. Rather, they come from countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, and China – and often write novels in their second or third language. One student in Bangladesh, who writes under the pen name Anamika, spends five hours a day, seven days per week writing romance novels. She ends each chapter with a cliffhanger to keep readers hooked. Each book earns her up to $300, along with adoring messages from Western fans. “They are very sweet,” she said. “Their comments are my encouragement.”
The emerging web novel industry spans the globe, taking a business model from Asia, assembling a global supply chain of authors in lower-income countries, and paying them to churn out thousands of words a day for English-speaking readers in the West. Rest of World spoke to four current and former employees at these platforms, who described how the art of novel writing is broken down into a formula to be followed: take a popular theme like werewolves, sprinkle it with certain tropes like a forbidden romance, and write as many chapters as you can. Some novels have hundreds of chapters, most ending on a cliffhanger to keep readers engaged and eager to read on.
The platforms, some backed by Tencent or TikTok’s parent ByteDance, thrived during the pandemic amid a surge in demand for online content – jobs that can be done from home. Dreame, GoodNovel, Webnovel, and Fizzo consistently rank among the most-downloaded reading apps in the U.S., the U.K., the Philippines, and Indonesia, and together rake in millions of dollars in revenues every month. The model has proven so successful that, in 2021, Amazon launched Kindle Vella, featuring similar episodic titles and plotlines. Kindle Vella even mimics a key mechanic of the other platforms: readers earn coins by spending more time engaged in the apps, which they can then spend to unlock more chapters.
The ability of these platforms to make money sets them apart from Wattpad, an early pioneer in English web novels. Founded in Canada, Wattpad has more users than Dreame, GoodNovel or Webnovel, but lags behind in revenue. Wattpad was acquired by South Korean internet giant Naver in 2021.
The revenue-focused model gained traction in China, where web novels are a $3.7 billion-dollar business. Chinese editors employed by the platforms serving global markets told Rest of World that they sometimes crib outlines from the most popular stories, then pay overseas writers to bulk-produce similar variations. A former manager at a top web novel company, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that Chinese apps were better at reproducing feel-good tropes that resonate with readers and generate more income. The profit margins for the platforms can be huge: from some books, he said, the companies could make more than ten times what they paid the authors.
To help stick to a formula, many of the apps offer workshops, competitions, and writing guides. GoodNovel’s lesson on writing werewolf bestsellers, for example, recommends writers create a single dominant male Alpha who rules over enslaved commoners with his queen at his side. The guide suggests that a werewolf plot is a great foundation on which to layer other popular themes – like “Werewolf and CEO,” “Werewolf and Mafia,” and “Werewolf and a dragon or other paranormal creature.”
But the focus on formulas that have worked in the past leaves little room for writers to tap into their own culture. Several writers reported needing to set stories in Western universes in order to get their contracts approved. Samarra Blair, an erotic-romance writer in Batangas, the Philippines, began writing for web novel apps in 2020, when the publishing house she worked for stopped accepting new manuscripts due to the pandemic. In the past, her stories took place in the Philippines, but now she sets them in the West to appeal to international readers, Blair said. “I love writing [about] our culture. And I feel sad I can’t do that anymore,” she told Rest of World. “I am hoping soon, the platforms will accept writing [about] our own culture as well.”
Chibuzor Victor Obih, a mechanical engineering student in Nigeria, previously wrote only as a hobby and was a member of several writing groups on Facebook. He had never actually published anything before he received a Facebook message from a GoodNovel editor in May 2020, asking if he wanted to get paid to write a novel. His first story, Shading Black, a 106-chapter thriller set in a 19th century African village, netted him $800. He has since written several werewolf and billionaire novels, and says he wants to write more about Nigerian history and culture, but those storylines are not always accepted by the apps. The money is good for a young author – Obih earned $4,900 for his most recent billionaire-themed story on Fizzo, The Pleasure Trap – but he lamented not being able to write stories set in his own culture and history. “[The industry] has no diversity,” Obih told Rest of World. “Almost all Nigerian authors are writing books set in the Western world… it’s just depressing.”
Even though many of the platforms are based in China, they often also de-emphasize Chinese culture. Alicee, a freelance translator in China who worked on ByteDance’s web novel projects, said she was instructed to “de-Orientalize” Chinese romance novels by giving Western names to Chinese characters and removing references to traditional Chinese medicine and folk religions. “Jade pendant,” for instance, ends up as a “gold necklace.” Alicee, who only gave her English name because she was not authorized to speak to the media, said she was disappointed that her job turned out to have little to do with promoting Chinese culture, despite what she’d heard from Chinese media. “It is purely commercial,” she said.
Multiple readers also voiced concerns to Rest of World that authors get paid a fraction of what they spend to read – for example, that writers published on Dreame receive just 8% of the purchased coins spent on their books. GoodNovel, Webnovel’s parent company China Literature and Dreame’s parent company Stary did not respond to requests for comment. Fizzo’s parent company ByteDance declined to comment.
Still, multiple writers told Rest of World that the platforms helped them kickstart their career as writers. Dorcas Joseph, a computer science major in Imu, Nigeria, became a Dreame reader after coming across its ad on Facebook. Months later, she was getting paid to write adult fiction herself. “I’ve decided to change my career path,” Joseph said. Her original plan was to become a data analyst. “I want to write professionally now.”
The platforms blur the lines between readers and writers, actively advertising to both. Writers and readers also mix freely in the community: new writers offer to swap chapter reviews in app forums, and readers offer feedback on each new turn in a character arc in the comments below freshly-released chapters. “The really neat thing about Dreame and similar platforms is being able to read a book as it’s being written,” said Cassandra, a reader in Louisiana.
In a Facebook fan group with 1.5 million members, Boyes-Macintosh, the reader from New Zealand, discussed her favorite titles with people in Manila, Fiji, and São Paulo. “You can picture your favorite cover model or actor in the lead roles,” said Jennifer, an avid reader from Idaho who prefers Dreame for its wide selection of paranormal romance plotlines.
While many of the writers, editors, and translators behind these popular English language novels are non-native speakers – and some of the work is even machine translated – occasional grammatical errors haven’t affected readers’ appetites for the compelling storylines. Cassandra said that she loves stories about strong female leads overcoming traumatic experiences. “If it’s free and the story is good, the grammar and spelling errors are easier to overlook.”