Last year, the entire US comics industry — periodicals, graphic novels and digital across all publishers, genres and channels — brought in a record $1.28 billion according to Comicron/ICv2. That aggregate number comes close to the 2020 revenue of a single platform that has become the choice of the rising global generation of comics fans. Webtoon, the mobile digital comics app that has built up a legion of readers first in Asia, now counts the United States as its fastest-growing market, with a monthly readership that already dwarfs any other comics medium or format. Webtoon just announced partnerships with two iconic American brands, DC Comics and Archie, as it seeks to expand the market even further.
Despite this success, the South Korean company remains a bit of a mystery to the American comics industry. Here, for the first time in quite a while, Webtoon founder and global CEO Junkoo Kim speaks to an English-language publication about the company’s booming results and strategy moving forward.
The app-based comics platform, now a subsidiary of Korean tech giant Naver, pioneered a vertically-scrolling storytelling format optimized for mobile devices and readers looking for engaging, serialized stories in a wide range of genres. The service debuted in the US in 2014 and has built up a massive, super-engaged audience of mostly younger readers eager for their regular fix of Lore Olympus, Tower of God, Let’s Play, translated Korean material (“K-comics”), and thousands of other curated and user-created titles from around the world.
According to the company, Webtoon now draws over 72 million monthly active users (14 million in the US), posting revenues of over US$100M per month. GenZ and younger Millennials make up 75% of Webtoon users worldwide, and 70% of the users in the US are under age 24. 58% of Webtoon users are female. Those demographics differ significantly from the audience for printed periodical comics in the US. Currently the majority of revenue transactions come from Korea and Japan, with the US third, but the company sees the American market overtaking Asia in 3-5 years at current growth rates.
Webtoon Entertainment was founded by Junkoo Kim, who now serves as Global CEO of the business. We spoke via an interpreter. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rob Salkowitz, Forbes Contributor: How would you characterize your growth over the past couple of years?
Junkoo Kim, Webtoon founder/CEO: Despite the impact of COVID-19, we have seen enormous growth, because you can consume our content anywhere. We look at growth two ways: in the number of creators on the platform and the number of readers. During the pandemic, we saw the number of creators and the amount of content increase explosively. That’s led to an increase in readers and revenue.
RS: What’s behind the recent deals with DC and Archie?
JK: There are several benefits. We’ve built up a mostly younger audience for our current content. DC [and Archie] will be able to reach mobile-generation readers in this new format. Webtoon readers will be able to see DC characters through new content and new kinds of stories, and it will be really exciting to see how they react.
RS: So is this Webtoon creators telling stories with DC characters, or DC writers adapting stories for the Webtoon format?
JK: DC has allowed us to create content with their characters and world. The writers of Webtoon are creating content based on DC characters. [note: the first announced DC collaboration is a Batman-oriented title, Wayne Family Adventures. The Archie collaboration is Big Energy Ethel].
RS: Are you looking to partner with other established comics publishers in the US, Asia, Europe or elsewhere?
JK: Since we are a distribution platform, we are looking to collaborate with all global partners. We are investing in partners in US and Japan, but most importantly, we’re looking for the support of individual creators.
RS: User-generated content is a big part of your model. Why is that important to Webtoon’s success?
JK: In terms of content, the most important part is diversity. UGC creators are making new and original content that professionals could not have done. These users have created content, together with our publishing; these works have become big hits in their countries. Those are the most successful.
RS: Do you have a process for identifying the popular or potentially commercial work in the UGC channel and bringing those people along so that they have more chance of success?
JK: There are several ways we discover the potential for successful content in our platform. The first part is technical analysis. By analyzing the contents, based on the data and logic, we are identifying potential success. The second part is the number of users who react to the contents made by creators and then giving support. That’s saying your content is going to be really successful. The third part is the insight of producer and editors.
RS: Webtoon recently acquired the prose fiction platform Wattpad. How does that fit in with your strategy?
JK: We are both story-tech platforms. By that I mean we use IT to support the creation and distribution of content, connecting creators and users. The biggest synergy is that Wattpad already has a large number of users and a large amount of original content. Those can be visualized [by artists] and flow into Webtoon, creating a new format for a new audience. At the same time, a lot of Webtoon users could become fans of Wattpad content as well.
RS: I understand some creators are making an enormous income – more than $10 million in one case, which is a lot of money for making comics – through your revenue sharing. How does the business support that kind of payment?
JK: The most important part in our ecosystem is creators, so I think when creators get more profits, more good content will be created in a large volume, and that that will make our platform much more healthier and productive. We launched this page payment model 15 or 20 years ago to create incentives. We now have a lot of people sharing revenues from content and from ads. We also share money from licensing revenues based on their creations. There are a variety of business models they can choose, and we try to make them very favorable for creators.
RS: $10M is obviously an outlier, but what can a typical creator expect to make?
JK: We have not made the global number public yet, but in Korea, we have creators making US$225,000 to 250,000 per year.
RS: There is a lot of competition in the digital comics space, from other Asian mobile comics providers and from distributors using different models, such as Amazon
JK: First off, we do not see publishers as competitors. They are partners or prospective partners, and that relationship is a win-win because we are collaborating with them. There are also many companies in western markets or globally adopting our model, similar or same model, and I think that helps grow the overall market, since the market for Webtoons[-style comics] can be expanded further. These “follower” companies are making efforts on the frontiers, which is making the overall market healthier and acting as a stimulus for readers.
Our real competitors are over-the-top platforms, streaming services and gaming companies. Why? Because they take away time from our audience. Instead of reading Webtoons, they are doing something else.
RS: Webtoons have become an integral part of the whole entertainment ecosystem in Korea, with K-dramas and feature films based on the stories. How are you taking that model to markets like the US?
JK: We have been making a lot of investments in the US to make our platform and content more valuable in other media. We established a Webtoon studio in the US recently to make it easier to bring our content to other formats and platforms. We also secured a big investment of 100 billion Korean won (around US$85M) from our parent company Naver to increase the value of our IP and speed them into production. We believe it is extremely important to bring this content into other media. And I think our creators will be very excited to have this happen, seeing their Webtoons and web novels expanded into new formats, including videos, films, games and merchandise.
RS: Finally, a personal question, Mr. Kim… you’ve turned Webtoon into a giant global phenomenon and a commercial powerhouse. Are comics still fun for you?
JK [in English, without aid of interpreter]: Of course! I love this job! I started this company just so I could see more of the comics I love. I would do this job just because I want to see more comics, more Webtoons. I’m doing my best not for the money, not for the fame, but just for this. Frankly, I would do it only for myself!
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