How useful is online publishing? More specifically, will online platforms help you to become a (published) writer, help you to improve your writing, or simply help you find readers?
I have my doubts...
Answer me this: why are you writing, and what do you want to accomplish?
If you want to become a published author, and actually make a living by writing, the 'free to read' platforms might be the wrong choice. Because they are free to read, so how would you make money on them publishing your story then?
But, perhaps you've not reached that stage yet (I certainly have not 😅) so all you want to do right now is improve your writing skills, and get feedback on your writing.
The second reason you might want to use these platforms is to build up a name, to attract hundreds, if not thousands of readers, who will recognize your name because they liked your story, and then hopefully one day will buy one of your books.
The next part may sound a little negative, but I think it is only fair to be as honest as possible.
Several issues come up when looking for feedback.
One. Most active participants in forums (such as the former Wattpad community) are writers too. They do not want to comment on your story, they want comments on theirs. So, unless you do a review / critique swap, you're not going to get much in the way useful input, if any.
Two. Most active readers never leave comments, and if they leave comments it will be along the lines of 'wow', 'never expected that', 'cold one, isn't she'. And those are the good comments. Some people will do their utmost best to totally deconstruct your story, spam negative comments, and just troll for the sake of trolling. Instead of improving your writing this will only lead to negativity, despair, and many potentially great writers simply give up. The Internet isn't a nice place...
Three. Your story may simply not 'gel' on your chosen platform. For example, Wattpad (besides having gone extremely commercial) has a. millions of stories, so yours may never show up, and b. primarily focuses on teen fiction, think werewolves, alpha beta omega stuff, girls kidnapped by the handsome mafia's boss's son, and the like. If you're writing a historic novel you won't find any traction there.
Four. Free audience doesn't pay. In general, the quality of most of the stories on platforms such as Wattpad is lower than a regular (published) book, which is quite understandable, as most are written by hobbyists who do not spend money on a professional editor (and why would they). And the readers that flock to these sites accept that level of writing, thus do not see the need to start paying for something on Amazon. In other words, most of the readers on these online platforms will not buy books, but even worse, if your story picks up and attracts millions (you wish!) of readers they might not even notice the bad parts in your writing. Duh!
Note that some platforms are primarily focused on feedback, such as Scribophile. Those might be a better option if you're trying to improve as a writer.
Becoming popular (attracting readers)
That one's easier to explain, and harder to accomplish.
One. You have to write a story in line with the taste of the audience.
Two. Create an attractive cover and blurb, as that is the first thing a potential reader will see.
Three. Game the algorithm. Each online platform has their own algorithm, their own method of bringing certain stories to the attention of the readers. They will assign a 'score' to your work, using a (complex?) calculation of reads, review scores, number of reads last week, total reads over the life span of your story, counting keywords, votes, time spend on each page, and whatnot.
If you don't 'game' the algorithm you're pretty much never going to be discovered.
In other words, attracting lots of readers is a kind of populistic political game, nothing more, nothing less. Smile at the camera. Tell your voters what they want to hear. Get involved in fora, if there are any. Use any and all social media you can find.
In general: sell your soul.
(Repeating myself.) The quality of most of the stories on platforms such as Wattpad is lower than a regular (published) book, which is quite understandable, as most are written by hobbyists who do not spend money on a professional editor (and why would they). And the readers that flock to these sites accept that level of writing, thus do not see the need to start paying for something on Amazon.
In other words, most of the readers on these online platforms will not buy your books. Perhaps you can sell them the sequel, leave out the last ten chapters and reserve those for the commercial, complete version on Amazon, perhaps you can write a side story to attract interest. There are options, but none of those offer immediate financial rewards.
Luck vs Marketing
Let's assume your work is good, then that still doesn't mean much. You also need marketing and / or luck.
You could rely on luck. But how big is the chance people stumble over your book?
Some statistics (retrieved from the Internet, so obviously wrong 😏). Let's start with Amazon.
The most pessimistic view every minute another book is published on Amazon. I've read another number claiming every five minutes. Still, the chance someone should stumble over your book is 1:288 if they visit Amazon, and are presented with all new books that day (and that's all up to Amazon's algorithm).
Take twelve years of books, then it's 10x365x288, thus a change of 1:1000000, or one in a million. Now there's no telling what algorithm Amazon uses to show your book, but let's say you have an even chance, like all the other books (which isn't true, but whatever) and that there are ten million visitors every day, who see about 50 books, so there would be 500 million covers shown every day. Your book would then be shown to 500 potential customers. Again, assuming the algorithm would present all books in the same frequency.
This is where marketing kicks in again... if you can game the algorithm, you have a better chance.
On we go, to Wattpad.
It's hard to get any numbers on Wattpad. According to their own site and news messages they've seen 400 million story uploads since the start of the company. That means very little, as a. a story is multiple chapters, and b. lots of stories are canceled, removed again, or outright rubbish.
In 2014, they reported 150 thousand chapter uploads a day. If that would have been consistent since day one, there would be 15x365x150000 = 800 million chapters thus far. One can assume that a story is more than two chapters, and that the numbers have only increased since 2014. Let's assume they quadrupled since 2014, so 600 thousand uploads per day, spread over 400 million stories. So, how many chapters does the average story have? It's impossible to get a reasonable estimate, but we can blindly guess (this is the Internet after all 😉) but let's assume 2 billion uploads, spread over 400 million stories, is an average of 5 chapters per story. That's pretty bad.
Wattpad claims 90 million users, but how many are active? Let's say 10% visits wattpad every day, so that's 9 million per day x 365 = 3.2 billion visits over a year.
Assume all stories and chapters are shown with equal chance (and they don't) then what does that mean? Your story would have a chance of being shown 8000 times a year. That's good. And if all books would have the same length, your chapters would have a similar chance.
Unfortunately, the ranking algorithm and search mechanism will reduce your views. Still, the chance of finding a reader is indeed higher than on amazon. The chance on finding the right reader, or even a paying reader, is probably way, way lower.
So, luck itself isn't enough. You'll have to do some marketing.
What use is a good book if nobody can find it? Will you spend money on advertising? What are the best places to hang out (online) to draw attention and readers?
You'll have to create your own marketing plan, and it will be different for each author and work.
1. How to promote your book?
2. How to convert interested readers into buyers?
3. How to follow up?
4. How much (financial) risk are you willing to take?
Don't ask me to write a marketing plan, I haven't got a clue 😓 Still, I'll be willing to write you one if you pay me 😁 It may not be a good plan or a successful plan, but hey... if you pay me... 😎
At least I can suggest some things to pay attention to:
4. Proper tagging (category, genre, age)
5. Book quality (not just the story, but think also format, spelling, etcetera)
6. Chapter and book size
7. Gaming of search and ranking algorithms
8. Your pen name
How much money is going to be made anyway?
Let's say you have written something, and hire an editor for $2000, and an artist for the cover for $200, you'll end up spending 'x' hours plus $2200 to get your book publishable. Now release it on Amazon, and assume you get the highest revenue percentage of 70%. Then you would have to sell at least 789 copies at for example $3.99 to break even.
$2200 / .7 / $3.99 = 789
It's hard to get real numbers, but some authors report selling maybe 60 to 100 copies in their first month, that way they won't ever break even.
Even when you sell 600 copies in the first month, and 1200 over time, you'd only make $2588 net income. Not too bad, but how much would that be per hour? Let's say you spend $2200 on cover and editing and worked for half a year on your story (1008 hours).
1200 * $3.99 = $4788
$4788 - $2200 = $2588
$2588 / 1008 = $ 2.56 / hour.
And that's excluding any marketing or such. With a million of novels out there, how will yours stand out?
Flipping burgers at McDonalds probably pays twice as much...
Fun, fun, fun!
Now, that's they key point, after all the negativity above. If you enjoy writing, and if you like to give those few readers who enjoy your story a good time, then keep on doing it!
Of course, you'd love some readers and some feedback, so I'd still suggest to work on your techniques and tools.