Digital comics delivered via mobile devices are starting to take significant creative and commercial steps forward. Last year Webtoon, owned by Korean tech giant Line, posted dramatic user and revenue growth, driven by large investments in attracting new customers. That was not a fluke: Tapas, a smaller U.S.-based mobile comics startup, has also announced impressive recent growth, along with plans to partner with traditional print publishers like Scholastic.
Founded in 2012, Tapas has grown a dedicated community of readers and creators through a popular mobile app, Tapas.io, which features “snackable” vertical-scroll episodic webcomics and stories. In the last year, the privately-held company announced it had reached 100 million episode-unlocks (paid content transactions) and saw total 2020 payments to Tapas creators rise to $14 million. Though the company does not make its financial data public, Tapas announced a 5x revenue increase in the 12 months between October, 2019 and October 2020. One particularly active period saw users spend $100,000 on content in a single day (the average is typically $50,000-$70,000). Numbers like those made Tapas the #3 top grossing comics app on Android and the #9 top grossing book app on IoS by revenue in 2020.
Tapas offers hundreds of titles mostly in genres related to fantasy and romance. Eighty percent of the content on Tapas is comics, 20% is prose novels. Users can read the first few episodes of a Tapas comic for free, then purchase special in-app currency known as “Ink” to unlock additional content. The site offers a balance of featured original material, developed in collaboration with selected creators working with Tapas editorial, marketing and production resources; user-generated content posted by aspiring creators looking to build an audience and eventually monetize their work; and licensed content from Asia and elsewhere.
Tapas founder and CEO Chang Kim told PW the serialized storytelling and revenue model puts a premium on work that grabs readers immediately. “In print, stories can have a slow buildup, but our series need to hook readers from the first chapter, because people are quick to decide if a story is for them or not.”
That approach has paid dividends. Kim said Tapas’s conversion rate of people who try a free sample then go on to buy additional content is 7%-10%, distributed relatively evenly across the customer base, rather than depending on a tiny minority of big spenders to account for most of the revenue. “That’s encouraging, because lots of companies have tried to make the micropayment model work, and we are actually doing it,” he says.
Tapas editors help creators optimize their stories for the audience, and then the site uses data targeting to increase discoverability so fans can find material that suits their tastes. The company splits revenue 50/50 with creators in their premium Original Content channel.
Tapas’s data-driven understanding of its audience helps keep creative standards and revenue high. Kim said the majority of Tapas readers are women age 18-24. “That wasn’t our intention, as we have a lot of content that appeals to males as well,” he said, but the audience composition has shown that material with fantasy and romance elements performs best.
One of the platform’s breakout hits is The Beginning After the End, a lighthearted action-fantasy series by two creators who go by the names TurtleMe and Fuyuki23, which is based on a series of novels by TurtleMe. The comic has 173,000 subscribers heading into its fourth season of stories and attracted over 6.8 million views to date. Kim said this and other hits are an example of Tapas’s focus on developing promising creators and their material into mainstream properties with mass appeal. Many of the platform’s most popular comics series started as prose novels, then were developed into comics by matching the writer with artists in Tapas’s professional or User Generated Content talent pool. And Tapas just announced the debut of Tapastry, a new community for user-generated content creators and fans that will be an online destination where Tapas artists can engage with fans.
Kim said the company is continuing to invest in growing its mobile audience but is also branching out into other media and formats, including books. Last December, Tapas announced a deal to publish another of its original hits, Magical Boy by The Kao (artist/illustrator Vincent Kao) as a graphic novel through Scholastic. Set to publish in fall 2021, the Magical Boy graphic novel will collect the 30-episode webcomic series in print for the first time.
Scholastic v-p and publisher Global Licensing, Brands and Media Debra Dorfman said: “We are profoundly excited to work with Tapas and comic creator The Kao to publish Magical Boy. We hope it's the first of many graphic novels [for the character].”
Kim said this is just one of several partnerships Tapas is pursuing in print and other media. Tapas already partners with such publishers as Boom! Studios, Vault Comics and others doing periodical print comics, and has deals with Hachette and other publishers for trade books. He said Tapas also has an agreement with Podium Audio, which develops, produces and distributes audio content, for audiobook distribution; has licensed its material for mobile games, and is actively negotiating deals for animated and live action shows with streaming media platforms.
“Collaborating on this IP with creators and partners is exciting for us,” said Kim. “For us, it’s about the stories, not the media. We’re not a traditional publisher – we’re a platform.”
Kim says he’s optimistic about the outlook for 2021. Although he recognizes the pandemic accelerated growth because so many people were stuck at home hungry for new content, he believes the gains of last year are locked in making Tapas primed for more growth. The company recently invested in a new Studio Tapas facility in Los Angeles, is adding staff to its 80-person team, and is raising a new round of funding.
“Last year was an awesome year for us. In 2021, we want to build bigger partnerships and connect our readers with more great stories. Right now, this business model is working well for everyone. Things are changing fast and we want to stay ahead.”