Not since the heyday of Dickens, Dumas and Henry James has serialized fiction been this big.
In 1841, excited readers swarmed the New York docks to ask travelers from England whether Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop” was dead.
In 2014, they are turning to their phones to keep up with the latest adventures of sweet Tessa and outrageous Harry, who meet on their first day of college and have a heartbreaking and inspiring relationship.
Every few days, Anna Todd usesWattpad, a storytelling app, to post a new episode of this couple’s torrid tale.Chapter 278 of “After” came out last week, moments after Ms. Todd, a 25-year-old former college student in Austin, Tex., finished writing it.
The first comment appeared 13 seconds after the chapter was uploaded. By the next day, there were 10,000 comments: always brief, overwhelmingly positive, sometimes coherent. “After” has more than a million readers, Wattpad says.
The Internet long ago revamped publishing and bookselling. Now technology is transforming the writing of fiction, previously the most solitary and exacting of arts, into something nearly the opposite. It is social, informal and intimate, with the results not only consumed but often composed on the fly.
Wattpad is a leader in this new storytelling environment, with more than two million writers producing 100,000 pieces of material a day for 20 million readers on an intricate international social network.
When Jeff Bezos wonders if Amazon’s dominance of e-books might be outflanked, or Mark Zuckerberg ponders whether Facebook will be deserted by young people in search of something cooler, Wattpad is likely to come to mind.
“Now that everyone’s been given permission to be creative, new ways of telling stories, of being entertained, are being invented,” said Charles Melcher, a publishing consultant who hosts the annual Future of StoryTelling conference. “A lot of people are lamenting the end of the novel, but I think it’s simply evolving.”
Wattpad is not the sort of site where writers talk about suffering for their art or spend hours searching for the mot juste. Much of the most popular work is geared to young women and draws its energy from fan fiction. (Harry in “After” is inspired by Harry Styles, the teen heartthrob from the band One Direction.) Other popular categories are vampire fiction and mysteries.
The writers — who are not paid for their work, as on any social network — put up stories, recast them, abandon them and delete them on whims, in the process making more traditional e-books look as eternal as a Knopf hardcover.
This is writing reimagined for a mobile world, where attention is fragmentary.