Even before she had fans, writer Anna Todd was a fan. “I was in the Josh Hartnett fan club when I was 13,” she recalls over lunch on a hot July day in Austin. “He sent me an autographed picture.” She’s the type of person who gets very excited about a pop novelty for a while, then replaces that passion with something else. “Almost everything that I’ve really liked,” the 26-year-old says, “I was, like, obsessed with.” At 20, it was Twilight and Robert Pattinson. At 22, it was Fifty Shades of Grey. At 23, it was the British boy band One Direction.
Until recently -- until Todd became famous -- her professional life mirrored the quicksilver enthusiasms of her fandoms. All she knew growing up was that she wanted to get out of her Dayton, Ohio, hometown. She married her high-school boyfriend at 18 and they moved to Texas, where the army had stationed him at Fort Hood. She took some college courses until she tired of them; she enrolled at a Los Angeles fashion institute, but changed her mind after a campus visit. She waitressed at a Waffle House and worked the makeup counter at Ulta Beauty. In spring 2013, Todd was passed over for an Austin call center job. So she spent her days online: applying for government positions, exchanging One Direction photos with her cousin and reading fan fiction.
A year later, Todd had a four-book deal worth half a million dollars. By October 2014, Paramount optioned her story, After -- a million words of erotic fan fiction she had written about 1D heartbreaker Harry Styles -- and in June, a screenwriter was attached (Mom’s Susan McMartin). That same month, Todd toured Europe, where her titles topped best-seller lists and loyal readers waited outside trains for her to disembark. The story of Anna Todd is a story of how a lifelong fan can suddenly find herself with her own adoring devotees, on social media and in real life -- and how when fan communities clash, the supporters who first lift you up can turn on you just as quickly.
One Direction is the most popular band in the world. It’s the only group whose first four albums have debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200; the most recent, Four, has sold 988,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. But those numbers don’t truly capture the fervency of fandom for Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson and former bandmate Zayn Malik. The band’s Twitter feed has more than 24 million followers; Styles personally has 25 million. Thousands of followers tweet at Styles daily or even hourly, begging him to follow them. If a fan does get followed, she immediately becomes a celebrity inside the fandom -- and often a target of threats and harassment. One Direction fandom online, that is to say, is a complex ecosystem.
Todd lives in the middle of it. She’s wearing a new dress from Target that still has the security tag attached and Toms, the same shoes After’s heroine wears religiously. She has blond hair and speaks quickly and unguardedly. Other than pop acts 1D and Taylor Swift, her musical taste skews toward “indie music and soft, quiet songs” -- like the heroine of After, Todd loves The Fray and Bon Iver. Nevertheless, although she is older than most One Direction fans, she admits, “I still feel the most at home in that fandom, even though some of the fans are really mean and stuff.”
The origin of After lies in the many subcultures that often flare up within the huge 1D fan world. In spring 2013, Todd became infatuated with “punk edits” of the band: Photoshopped images of 1D covered in tattoos and multiple piercings, wholesome boys made “bad” through the magic of fantasy. She spent a lot of time sharing those punk edits and reading “imagines,” micro-fanfic stories told entirely in Instagram posts.
Soon she discovered the iPhone app Wattpad, an online publishing and reading service where many “imagine” contributors wrote longer, episodic tales. “I read fan fiction where Zayn was a vampire king, and where Niall was a cat that turned into a boy who Harry fell in love with,” remembers Todd. “One day no one was updating, so I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll write my own story.’ ”
After dramatizes, as Todd matter-of-factly says, “the age-old cliche of bad boy, good girl.” Where most Wattpad stories were updated a few times per week, Todd posted new chapters two or three times a day, a thousand words or more, under the nom de plume imaginator1D, often typed on her phone. Her virginal character Tessa arrives at Washington State University and meets brilliant, British, punk-as-hell Harry Styles; his cruelty cannot hide his growing passion for Tessa or his alluring emotional damage. They argue, they kiss, he fights with his stepbrother Liam, he fools around with her by a stream, they argue, he professes his love, he fights with his classmate Zayn.
Tessa and Harry finally have sex in chapter 82. By the time she posted that scene in May of 2013, imaginator1D had over a million readers; the single paragraph in which Harry climaxes -- “Promises of forever are made as he tenses and gently falls onto me” -- garnered almost 2,000 comments.
Later that summer, well into the second book, Anna finally told her husband, Jordan Todd, 27, what was going on. Soft-spoken and muscular, the vet of three Iraq tours sits with his wife and Billboard on a sunny terrace outside a South Congress Avenue bar. “I knew she loved to read, and I knew it was really important to her,” he remembers. “I would work these 24-hour shifts, and once on my half-hour break, she made me drive around to a bunch of different stores to buy the next Fifty Shades book.”
Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight fan fiction-turned-best-selling book series and blockbuster movie franchise, is a useful model for understanding why Wattpad approached Todd in fall 2013, offering to represent her in selling her story’s rights. According to Wattpad head of business Candice Faktor, what appealed to the company wasn’t just the sheer number of “reads” After’s chapters received -- by now, that number exceeds 1 billion -- but Todd’s level of community engagement: “She was building an audience.”
By spring 2014, Wattpad had sold book rights to Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery in a four-book deal worth, Todd not really circumspectly told Billboard, “mid-six figures -- like pretty much exactly in the middle six figures.” In the fall, a movie deal with Paramount was announced, with Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot (Step Up) producing, an announcement perfectly timed to the first novel’s publication a few days later. After, the book, is 582 pages; in the real-world-publishing version of Todd’s incredible content metabolism, Gallery released the other three similarly enormous books (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, After We Collided) during the next few months. The editor, Adam Wilson, cleaned up the grammar, fixed the typos, excised a few superfluous characters and asked for more sex scenes. “We wanted a little more steam,” he explains. “It was already sexy, but it’s also so big! So there was proportionally less sex than in some other books I’ve worked on.” Oh, and Gallery changed the names “for legal reasons”-- Todd could safely call her protagonist Harry Styles on Wattpad because she wasn’t earning money then -- Harry is now “Hardin,” Zayn “Zed,” Liam “Landon.”
Since publication, After books have barely touched the New York Times paperback trade fiction best-seller list, but they have topped lists in Germany, Spain and France. (Simon & Schuster wouldn’t provide sales figures; asked if the publisher had recouped its advance on foreign rights, Wilson responded politely, “It sold in 30 countries, so the book is doing very well.”)
The books don’t target teens specifically -- given the explicit sex, Wilson says Gallery is aiming for the “new adult” audience of college-age readers -- but it’s clear from Todd’s Twitter mentions that teens have embraced the story. (Faktor noted that 40 percent of Wattpad users are between 13 and 18, adding, “Anna is right at the core of that.”) More than 250,000 “Afternators,” as her fans are called, follow her on Twitter, and they have seized upon Todd’s characters with a magpie’s glee: They compile After greatest hits on Wattpad; they tweet After images tagged #hessa; they make After videos. It seems, in fact, that Todd’s enthusiasm has shifted in the past year: What she’s truly a fan of now is not 1D but her own fandom. Most of her time online is spent cultivating those readers, responding to individual Twitter messages, crafting Instagram posts and Snapchatting her food. (Wattpad itself has become a little unmanageable for anything other than posting new chapters; she has 16 million unread notifications.) She thinks of her followers, she says, less as readers and more as fellow fans. “They like this thing I like,” she says. “It’s just that it’s a story I wrote.”
Todd has also attracted the kind of passionate vocal minority of haters that’s endemic to Internet success. Whether she is a true One Direction fan is a matter of fierce debate -- within 1D fandom, the issue of whether one is an authentic Directioner or a bandwagoning “Directionator” drives a huge amount of discourse. “I’m not, like, psychotic obsessed with One Direction,” clarifies Todd. “I just like them, and I don’t need them to know I like them.” (Though they probably do: Todd says the band once alluded to After in a videochat, but 1D’s publicist declined to comment for this story.)
The overlap of fandoms -- die-hard Directioners, traditionally concerned with the authenticity of their own love, battling with Afternators, each group claiming the primacy and legitimacy of its camp -- is dizzying. A down-with-After petition has collected 26,000 signatures, and the hashtag #SuspendAnnaTodd percolates whenever After news makes the press (like when Todd announced in June a Grey-like sequel, Before, written from Harry/Hardin’s point of view). After bashers hate Todd’s self-promotional streak and accuse her of simply exploiting the band for her own financial gain. They yearn to protect Styles from being painted, even fictionally, as a hotheaded, borderline-abusive jerk. They view the prospect of a movie as a looming disaster all Directioners should fear. (“I think it’s very funny that they’re acting like this is really Harry Styles,” Gibgot, the film’s co-producer, told Billboard. “We’re not making the Harry Styles story.”)
Asked about her critics, Todd shakes her head. At first, she explains, One Direction fans loved her story. “Then it started getting popular, and some of them started turning on me and declaring they never loved it, even though they did.” She sighs. Almost all the hate, she says, comes from girls between 13 and 15. She empathizes with the way die-hards can build castles of significance out of the things they love the most.
It has been a little more than a year since Todd posted the final chapter of the After saga. Jordan left the army a few weeks ago. “I don’t want to do anything with guns ever again,” he says. These days, Todd’s publishing Before one chapter at a time on Wattpad. She’s powwowing about the After screenplay with McMartin and asserts she has veto power over it -- “or at least they did a good job of making me think I do!”
“I never thought I could be an author,” marvels Todd. “I’ve already made more money than I ever dreamed of making in my entire life.” She never would have imagined writing a word, if not for One Direction and its fan community. “People spend 10 years trying to get a book published, they have degrees, they’re a hell of a lot smarter than me, and they may have way better grammar than me,” she offers. “But I used the Internet, and that’s what set me apart.”
An abridged version of this story originally appeared in the July 25th issue of Billboard.