|WEBTOON has successfully market itself to the online readers of comics /Photo by Sharaf Maksumov via 123rf|
South Korean online publisher WEBTOON has been dubbed as the "most successful publisher in the world." Its global readership and millions of views every day have helped the digital comics platform to surpass publishing giants like Marvel and DC in terms of followers. However, WEBTOON isn't exactly mainstream compared to other platforms like Tapas or Comixology that are both popular in the West.
This makes WEBTOON somehow beyond the western radar of digital comics, which the company is looking to change and boost its popularity with its plan to expand using ads and pushing for greater public visibility.
Different from the norm
The platform was launched in 2004 in South Korea and was originally called LINE WEBTOON. It allows readers to view comics on their phones. What makes WEBTOON different from other online publishers is the style in which the comics are presented.
According to Bleeding Cool, an entertainment news site under publishing company Avatar Press, readers scroll down on their phones to see the next page instead of swiping from right to left on their screens. Basically, comics published in WEBTOON are put in a continuous single page.
This new type of comics makes the platform the "flashpoint where Asian pop culture, social media awareness, and the K-Pop sensibility merge," said Bleeding Cool. Works published there are somewhat still influenced by the traditional way of storytelling found in mangas where action and the emotions of characters slowly unfold for a greater effect.
WEBTOON also presents a wide range of genres and styles—from science fiction to humor to a slice of life, and even LGBTQ. As of now, the platform has 2,600 exclusive titles with daily and weekly installments.
Many creators use the site to self-publish their work and make a living without compromising their rights to their comics. Bleeding Cool said creators are paid through ad sharing and the "Fast Pass" feature that allows subscribed readers to access episodes earlier than the regular release date.
Creators can easily earn over $10,000 every month if their original comics are among the most popular titles on the site, according to the entertainment news site, adding that nearly everyone can become a creator on WEBTOON.
"There’s actually a thin line dividing the creators and the fans," Bleeding Cool said. "Creators were fans themselves and many fans will become creators. They came out of Deviant Art and other communities and that vibe still runs strong. They’re online but live all over the world, from South Korea to the Philippines to the US."
Topping global charts
WEBTOON is on the path to worldwide domination. This year, the internet platform swept the global comic ranking and has set its eyes on revenues of $502 million.
The platform topped the comic app charts on Google Play Store in terms of profit in over 100 countries, the company said last month as per South Korean media group Pulse News. It added that global operations on Line Webtoon and Line Manga—both under WEBTOON—reached 60 million visitor count and running No. 1 in webtoon app markets in various countries.
Its American operations—Line Webtoon US—has reported an average of 71 percent annual rise in monthly active users while Japanese operations rose 32 percent. The company said their primary users are teens and people in their 20s.
Pulse News reported that sales on the platform are "growing fast" as revenue from paid content rise (81 percent in the second quarter). It added that the number of published works on its US platform is growing double each year.
Moreover, experts say the growing popularity of WEBTOON comics is overshadowing the global presence of Japan’s manga. This especially true for the current tech-savvy generation that prefers reading on apps rather than on traditional print formats.
"Sales for comic magazines in Japan have long been trending downward," Hideki Egami, a former editor at leading publisher Shogakukan, told The Japan Times. "We don’t know how much further the domestic market for print manga will shrink."
With the decreasing sales on printed mangas, industry experts are torn between keeping the tradition alive or jumping on the WEBTOON bandwagon as Japanese publishers can no longer ignore the need to go digital and expand overseas.
|People nowadays are always on their smartphones, making WEBTOON fit for its readers /Photo by Kirill Ryzhov via 123rf|
The innovation of the WEBTOON format undeniably helped it grow in popularity, especially in a world where people are glued to their phones—with vertical screens perfect for scrolling through the comics. But the new format that WEBTOON presents also comes with its setbacks.
Jay Kim, head of Kakao Japan Corp., said industry insiders observed that children in South Korea and China are so accustomed to the vertical experience that they can't navigate the maze panels of traditional Japanese mangas.
He added that the fate of WEBTOON is also highly dependent on the popularity of smartphones. Speaking with The Japan Times, Kim said the potential rise of horizontal screens—evident in the recent developments of larger, foldable smartphones—may turn the tables and help boost Japanese manga.
Some experts also believe that the WEBTOON format is unfit for plots that have complex themes and are better suited for lighthearted, easy-to-read stories.
"The marvelous thing about Japanese manga is that you almost feel as if you are watching a TV drama, despite it being a sequence of still images," Kim said. "Authors deftly manipulate panels on each page to zoom in and out on characters and convey their surprise … This is one heck of a technique and is exactly what makes Japanese manga feel so vivid and alive."