Forget swiping right. Online comics are racking up readers, and the test of success is how far readers will scroll on down.

As demand for graphic novels remains strong, especially in middle grade and YA categories, publishers are turning to popular digital platforms to scout for turn-key titles.

Much of the webcomics buzz is driven by the success of South Korean–based global comics platform Webtoon, which bills itself as the world’s largest webcomics community. Founded in 2004 and launched in 2005, Webtoon has dominated the scene to such a degree that it’s become common to refer to all comics presented in the platform’s smartphone-friendly vertical-scrolling format as webtoons.

In 2022, Webtoon launched Webtoon Unscrolled, a U.S.-based imprint designed to bring many of the site’s most popular English-language series into print for the North American market. The trio of launch titles (True Beauty, Tower of God, and Cursed Princess Club) together sold-in more than 200,000 copies in the imprint’s first six months, according to the publisher.

Unscrolled plans to publish 20 ongoing series by the end of 2024, including Lumine by Emma Krogell, a fantasy about the adventures of a runaway werewolf and a witch boy, and the Eisner-Award nominated Third Shift Society by Meredith Moriarty, in which a psychically gifted but broke young woman finds work as a paranormal detective.

“As someone who did superhero comics for 35 years of my career, it’s wonderful to be on the creator-owned side,” says Bobbie Chase, executive editor of Webtoon Unscrolled, referring to the fact that the Webtoon platform allows the writers and cartoonists behind series to retain their intellectual property. The phenomenon of webtoons has, she adds, driven new voices to publish with “first-time creators producing smash hits out of the gate.”

Webtoon’s readership skews young and female. Almost half of the site’s creators are women, and many of the top series are by female or nonbinary creators. Chase notes that while romance comics rose to the top in the early years of the original Korean platform, the English-language version of Webtoon boasts a broader mix of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror. (For more on the enduring popularity of romance comics, see “Readers Swoon for Webtoons,”).

Because Webtoon comics are creator owned, authors and artists are free to sign with other publishers, as well. Rachel Smythe’s mythological fantasy romance Lore Olympus, one of the biggest English-language properties on Webtoon, was first published by Del Rey at Penguin Random House. PRH recently made the bestselling series the flagship title of its new Inklore imprint.

Though Inklore isn’t exclusively focused on webcomics, it plans to publish several web-to-print titles, including series from South Korea and Japan, such as My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999 by Mashiro (Apr. 2024) and Cherry Blossoms After Winter by Bamwoo (Nov. 2024).

Doing it for the fans

Inklore editorial director Rebecca “Tay” Taylor describes the imprint’s audience as in the 18–35 age range and largely female, and often seeking LGBTQ content. “They’re reading romantasy, they’re reading BL [boys’ love], they’re reading horror,” she says. “Basically, anyone who’s reading or writing fan fiction on AO3 [the fanfiction megasite Archive of Our Own]—that’s our audience.”

Taylor observes that these readers “haven’t been catered to by traditional publishing... so they’ve created the content they wanted to see in webcomics, fan fiction, and fan art. And they are legion.”

Online comics are “one of the fastest-growing categories out there,” according to Michael Petranek, editorial director at Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. Graphix’s web-to-print titles include the Prism Award–winning Magical Boy by The Kao (out now), about a trans boy who fights evil Sailor Moon–style, and Rainbow! by Angel and Sunny Gloom (Mar. 2024), in which a neurodivergent teenager tries to find love. Both first ran on Tapas, one of Webtoon’s biggest rivals.

Emilia Rhodes, HarperCollins Children’s Books editorial director, says the decision to publish UnOrdinary by uru-chan, a superhero series from Webtoon, arose from “organic enthusiasm” she picked up from colleagues. (Volume two will be released in July 2024 from HarperAlley.) “A bunch of younger editors at the office were obsessing,” she adds, “and they totally turned me on to it.”

Spots of joy

Not all web-to-print titles come from the big webtoon platforms—there are countless other ways for fans to scroll. Macmillan senior editor Holly West discovered the indie webcomic DnDoggos, in which creator Scout Underhill imagines dogs playing tabletop RPG campaigns, during the pandemic lockdowns. “It was a spot of joy,” she recalls. Feiwel and Friends is publishing spin-off DnDoggos: Get the Party Started (Feb. 2024) as an original middle grade graphic novel.

Drawn & Quarterly is releasing its third print collection of the comics of Aminder Dhaliwal, which the cartoonist first serialized on Instagram. A Witch’s Guide to Burning (Mar. 2024) is a departure from her prior cartoony style. “Attempting to serialize illustrated prose on Instagram is not really something I’ve seen before,” says senior editor Tracy Hurren. “But Dhaliwal has a magical touch.”

Many publishers note that adapting webcomics to print is nothing new. Some of the most successful graphic novels of the past 20 years, including Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, began as online comics in the 2000s.

“We already have a history of printing comics that originally existed either online or in self-published zines,” says Whitney Leopard, senior editor at Random House Graphic. But in recent years, she’s noticed “a huge increase.” One favorite forthcoming title is Woe: A Housecat’s Story of Despair (July 2024), a collection of cat comics that cartoonist Lucy Knisley first ran online on social media and The Nib.

Scott Kurtz has been self-publishing comics online since 1998. Table Titans Club, a middle grade graphic novel spin-off of his webcomic Table Titans, will publish with Holiday House in March 2024. “Social media and the generational shift have changed things,” he says. “When we were coming up in the 2000s and getting pushback from syndicated cartoonists, we would joke, ‘When we’re their age, what’s going to be the thing we don’t understand?’ ”

“An unfair advantage”

For publishers evaluating the risk and reward potential of new titles, online comics have some built-in advantages. Editors can review a complete story arc rather than relying on a pitch packet—and count how many fans have already tapped in.

“You can see how many people are reading it in the webtoon format,” says Kevin Ketner, editor at Ablaze. “And you go, I get it. This looks super cool. I want to get this out there for more people to see.” Ablaze’s web-to-print titles include the action-oriented webtoons Terror Man by Dongwoo Han and JinHo Ko (volume two will be released in December), and Get Schooled by Yongtaek Chae and Garam Han (out now).

As publishers summarize the appeal of webcomics, the word bingeable frequently comes up. And they’re counting on fans to follow their favorite story lines to print. “After that long burn of reading something on a daily basis,” says Sierra Hahn, editor-in-chief at Oni Press, “readers want to come back to something they can hold, or something they can hand to someone else.”

Oni’s publisher, Hunter Gorinson, agrees. “I think a large portion of their audience will follow us over,” he says. “And then an entire new segment of the audience will discover it for the first time.” Oni’s forthcoming web-to-print titles include the Webtoon hit Covenant by LySandra Vuong (Apr. 2024), a queer dark fantasy romance.

“Webcomics actually have an unfair advantage over straight-to-print titles,” says Iron Circus publisher Spike Trotman, “because they have established audiences who are usually excited to support their creators.” Iron Circus uses crowdfunding to publish a mix of web-to-print and direct-to-print titles. The publisher recently broke its previous crowdfunding records after acquiring Tracy Butler’s long-running webcomic Lackadaisy (collected volume out Feb. 2024), which follows a cast of anthropomorphic cats in the Roaring ’20s. Iron Circus will also be producing an animated webseries. (For our q&a with Butler, see “Just Make Your Thing,” p. 12.)

Skybound Entertainment follows a similar crowdfunding model for titles like Ava’s Demon by Michelle Fus (volume two will be released in May 2024), about a girl haunted by a demon in a futuristic society, and Good Comics for Bad People: An Extra Fabulous Collection by Zach M. Stafford (out now).

Editorial director Alex Antone says that Skybound began scouting webcomics when “we were looking for ways to continue to publish books in a responsible way in the midst of the pandemic.” By moving as much of the publishing process as possible online, from acquisition to funding, Skybound was able to continue publishing during Covid lockdowns.

“If there’s already an articulated audience you can activate,” Antone says, “why not give them an exciting premium experience they can sink their teeth into?”

Will it translate?

Many publishers agree that the biggest puzzle is reformatting for print. Webtoons’ scroll is vertical; other webcomics may appear as horizontal scrolls, newspaper-style comic strips on a single landing page, or click-through panels. Converting art from web-friendly files and RBG digital coloring can also be an issue, as can dealing with interactive or multimedia elements like animation.

“The pacing of a webcomic is very different from the pacing of a graphic novel,” West says. “A webcomic doesn’t have to keep page count in mind. You can take an entire page to set up one joke—or multiple pages to set up a really good joke.”

Initially, Taylor notes, publishers were approaching the adaptation of scroll comics to print layouts as simply a production task. “But it’s not,” she says. “It’s an art form.”

Publishers are also learning that online content doesn’t always translate to print. Chase says her acquisitions considerations include, “Will it translate well into the graphic novel format? Even if it’s a manga-/manhwa-style never-ending story, do we have some big points we can land on? Is it a slow burn, or can we get to a cliffhanger or minor resolution per volume?”

Cartoonists experience the same learning curve. “Everything I’ve done in webcomics has always been on the fly,” Kurtz says. “It’s one day at a time: just put something up, see what the reaction is, and adapt. To plan an almost 300-page book is much different from on-the-go, instant-feedback publishing.”

More and more, publishers have decided that these challenges are worth tackling.

“Five years ago,” Antone says, “this was not as fertile a ground for scouting. Now it seems like all publishers are doing it.”

Shaenon K. Garrity is a PW comics reviewer and a writer, editor, and cartoonist. Her latest book is The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor.

Read more from our Webtoons and Webcomics feature:

Just Make Your Thing: PW Talks with Tracy Butler
Tracy Butler’s webcomic 'Lackadaisy' follows the exploits of anthropomorphic cats running a Jazz Age speakeasy, and has endeared itself to a dedicated online following since it debuted in 2007.

Six New Swoonworthy Romance Webtoons
Love is in the air, on the web, and on bookshelves, with romance webtoons providing material for some of the biggest graphic novels in recent years.

This article has been updated with further information.