While the debut of Webtoon on the U.S. stock market dominated comics world headlines last month, South Korea’s other giant purveyor of mobile comics and serialized fiction, Kakao Entertainment, and its Tapas platform have been quietly moving ahead with their own plans for the fast-growing market segment—and expressed hope that an IPO might be in their future as well.

“Kakao is the leading storytelling technology in Korea and actually introduced the webtoon format,” said Jaden Kang, chief operating officer of Tapas and VP of the global story business for Kakao, alluding to the first known webcomic, published by Kakao’s corporate ancestor, Daum, in 2003. “We have the heritage and history to bring this kind of industry to the world.”

In 2021, Kakao acquired Tapas, a U.S.–based app founded in 2012 by entrepreneur Chang Kim, for $510 million. After an initial aggressive expansion of operations to develop premium original English-language content, Tapas abruptly changed direction in the summer of 2022, shedding key staff and refocusing on user-generated content and material popular in its Asian markets. Today, the platform is best known for such big hits as Solo Leveling and The Beginning After the End, both of which originated in South Korea.

“From my perspective, there is only five to 10 percent market penetration for digital content” in the U.S. market today, Kang said. “In Japan, it’s closer to 70%. So there’s a long way to go. And we are approaching that by bundling content and capabilities we have from Korea and Japan to expand the U.S. market. We need more marketing spending to educate and train consumers to appreciate the format and content we offer.”

One area where the company sees great growth potential is in serialized online fiction, or “webnovels.” Longtime head of publishing for Tapas Alex Carr was recently promoted to executive director of publishing development, adding new responsibilities for inbound licensing of new webnovel content to his existing role in managing the publishing partnerships that bring Tapas webcomics to print.

“That means I am reaching out to individual writers and rights holder to help bring great content to the serialized format that can surprise our current audience and help us engage new readers,” said Carr. “The goal is to make them even more successful and shine a greater spotlight on their works for readers.”

Both Kang and Carr see webnovels as the base of a media value chain that can also include webcomics, trade books, and live action and animated media for broadcast or streaming—such as the popular Solo Leveling anime series—as well as games and merchandise. This is the same model that Webtoon successfully promoted to investors, who warmly greeted the company’s IPO.

One advantage that Tapas offers creators is the ability to use the scale and data-based capabilities of the platform to reach a wider audience. “We want our webnovel success stories to be as big as our comics success stories,” said Carr. “Now is the time for authors to get in on a platform that specializes in monetization of this content, publishing to a dedicated community of readers that already love genres like romantasy and romance-adventure that they know from the comics.”

Carr cites Tapas’s breakout hit The Beginning After the End, which began as a webnovel by the author TurtleMe and subsequently adapted into a massively popular webtoon series. “I love the concept of matchmaking between authors and artists,” said Carr. “The [prose] writer can be as involved or as hands off as they want, but our goal is for them to be delighted by the final product, because then they will be the biggest megaphone for the project.”

In terms of trade book partnerships, Carr said that Tapas recently added Dark Horse Books to a list of partners that also includes Andrews-McMeel, Scholastic, and Yen Press. “As of March, we had five volumes of print content across three publishers, and throughout the rest of the year, we’ll probably have five more books in the US depending on how fast we can get them produced,” he added.

Currently Tapas’s print strategy is about evenly split between the trade book channel and the comic book direct market. There is also rising interest from libraries, as librarians have recognized the popularity of webtoon and web novel content with younger readers.

Because Tapas typically appeals to a younger demographic, Kang said that there were no immediate plans to incorporate content from Radish, the web novel platform that Tapas acquired in 2021, whose primary audience comprises adult women. That said, Carr noted that there are some potential synergies down the line between the two—especially once the Tapas cohort starts to age up.

Tapas is optimistic about the success of its strategy, despite a post-Covid slowdown that has affected the entire entertainment industry. “A lot of growth happened in the first and second quarter [of 2024],” Kang said. “We still expect double digit growth from last year.”

Kang, who spoke to PW the day before the Webtoon IPO, said that he and his colleagues are watching closely and rooting for their competitor’s success: “I strongly believe the Webtoon listing is going to be a huge opportunity to broaden the market and focus the attention of partners and creators.” As to whether an IPO something that Tapas would consider, “I hope so, definitely,” Kang added. “We have received investment from global investors for Kakao Entertaintment—so yes, someday we are definitely looking forward to that kind of event.”