Founded in Korea in 2004 by JunKoo Kim, Webtoon is a digital publishing and self-publishing platform offering webcomics; it launched operations in the U.S. in 2014. The company offers webcomics to read for free to an audience that skews young (ages 14–24) and female (about 64%). After years of growing its user base in the U.S., Webtoon is preparing to launch a series of nine online graphic adaptations of young adult prose novels published by a variety of houses. Among the publishers it is working with are Amazon Publishing, HarperCollins, Macmillan/Tor Books, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.
Victoria Lee’s fantasy novel The Fever King, an Amazon title, launched on Webtoon in June. Other forthcoming webcomic adaptations include Dan Wells’s supernatural murder mystery I Am Not a Serial Killer (spring 2020); Hanna Alkaf's Malaysian teen adventure The Weight of Our Sky (fall 2019) and Jonathan Maberry’s coming-of-age/zombie novel Rot & Ruin (fall 2019, S&S).
Webtoon’s site and app attract about 55 million global visitors monthly, and about 15 million global readers daily, according to spokesperson Kim Estlund. Since its launch in the U.S., the site has focused on building the brand and growing the number of creators that use the platform, Estlund said. Some Webtoon series (among them Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe and True Beauty by Korean artist Yaongyi) attract more than a million readers a week globally.
The Webtoon site interface is designed to display the equivalent of a comics panel (rather than traditional pages) in a vertical scroll on both the website and the app. Readers can also download the content to read offline. Webtoon offers a diverse selection of genres and illustration styles, although manga-style drawing is the most prevalent.
The platform’s business model is designed to allow fans free access to its weekly updates of new comics, but readers who want to read ahead in long-running comics series can buy access to advance issues via the Webtoon app’s Fast Pass program. Additionally, Webtoon launched an ad-sharing program in 2018 that allows creators to generate income without making their content exclusive to Webtoon.
All content uploaded to Webtoon is owned by its creators, not by Webtoon, Estlund said. The site hosts about 2,600 titles that are exclusive to Webtoon and publishes hundreds of titles and content updates daily; according to a spokesperson, it has published more than a million webcomics to date.
Webtoon has also partnered with veteran comics professionals, among them Dean Haspiel, who has worked for Marvel, DC, and indie houses. Haspiel launched Red Hook, a satirical superhero series that is now in its third online iteration, on Webtoon in 2016. While Webtoon does not offer print editions, Haspiel has a deal with Image Comics, which released a trade paperback collection of Red Hook: New Brooklyn in 2018; the second volume, Red Hook: War Cry, will be published in October 2019.
Haspiel (The Quitter, The Alcoholic, Billy Dogma, and other graphic novels) described working with Webtoon as “creatively great.” He noted that he’s paid an “acceptable” rate via the site and maintains ownership of his content. “Everyone’s deal is different, but Webtoon has allowed me to be autonomous and work on comics that I own.”
In conversations with Webtoon senior v-p of IP development Taylor Grant and Webtoon’s head of content, David Lee, both described how Webtoon has turned its focus toward revenue building, marketing support for its artists, and creating media partnerships.
Grant, who is an author, director, screenwriter, and formerly worked as an executive at Stan Lee Media, described his job as “developing Webtoon IP for cross-platform productions into other mediums. We’re building alliances with film, videogames, and TV companies.”
The Webtoon platform, Grant explained, is organized around two units: Webtoon Canvas, which allows anyone to post their comics content for free and build a readership, and Webtoon Originals, which features content identified by Webtoon editors as high quality. Content uploaded to Canvas, Grant said, is “monitored for decency standards, violence, and sex, but we don’t discriminate about topics.” Currently, the site has more than 400,000 novice creators uploading content to Canvas, as well as about 1,300 professionals, veteran creators who have either been sought out and offered deals by Webtoon or newcomers whose work has attracted a significant audience.
Professionals or creators selected to be published via Webtoon Originals, Grant said, are offered in-house development support and marketing. Webtoon creators, he said, are capable of making a very sustainable income on the ad sharing program alone.
Lee said that “artists have adapted to Webtoon’s vertical scroll format” in the five years the company has been in the U.S. He oversees the adaptation series coming in fall. To secure the rights, Webtoon approached publishers, or sometimes the writers directly, to pitch adaptations. And Lee dipped into the pool of Webtoon creators to find artists to do the adaptations.
Negotiations to adapt the novels, he said, “were tricky. These aren’t really like comic books or manga. Webtoon digital adaptations of prose are kind of an unusual subright.” But, he said, the deals represent “new revenue for the authors, agents, and publishers.”
Though Webtoon does not offer print releases “right now,” Lee said that Webtoon supports authors who want to take their print rights elsewhere. Webtoon creators, he said, have also used Kickstarter to fund print editions of their Webtoon comics. “Some artists offer print as kind of a collectible that helps build their audience. Creators like to have a print volume they can hold in their hands.”
Corrections: In an earlier version of this story the Webtoon release dates for two adapted novels were incorrect, a novel mistakenly included has been removed, income projections were incorrect and Jonathan Maberry's name was misspelled.