Korean webtoons go viral through Tapastic

October 31, 2013
Kim Chang-won, CEO of Tapasmedia, which is the first online platform for web comics in the North American market, points out scenes of a webtoon displayed on a tablet PC.  / Courtesy of Tapasmedia

Kim Chang-won, CEO of Tapasmedia, which is the first online platform for web comics in the North American market, points out scenes of a webtoon displayed on a tablet PC. (Courtesy of Tapasmedia)

By Chung Hyun-chae

The nations portal giant Naver held their first publishing-related exhibition at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany last month.

During the five days of the fair that begun Oct. 9, Naver arranged a webtoon exhibition where visitors could appreciate Korean webtoons, or web comics, which were displayed on mobile handsets and a huge screen.

More than 20,000 people visited the exhibition while a number of publishing insiders actively dealt with the publication rights of Korean webtoons, most of which garnered more than three million viewers.

Sohn Jae-ho, the writer of the webtoon Noblesse, based on a Korean version of a vampire story online, told Naver that he realized the popularity of Korean webtoons in foreign countries.

We witnessed the competitiveness of Korean webtoons through this exhibition, not only for the domestic market, but also abroad, said Kim Joon-goo, head of the Webtoon Business Division of Naver.

Two years ago, Kim Chang-won, currently CEO of Tapasmedia, predicted how internationally competitive Korean webtoons would be. Tapasmedia is the first online platform for comics in the North American market.

He once ran Blogger at Google and was co-CEO of TNC, a blogging software company that was one of the first Google acquisitions in Asia. Prior to that, he worked at Samsung Mobile.

Kim, formerly a successful businessman, went into a new line of business while questioning why Korean internet business models are not global.

“I always wondered why Cyworld and Dialpad, which were years ahead of comparable global services, didnt become global hits. This led me to think that, when I do my next business, Ill look at the Korean Internet market, spot something interesting, and take it out of the Korean market. As I researched the Korean Internet/content market, Webtoons success became immediately noticeable. I researched the market extensively for both Korea and the U.S. and discovered theres enough market potential for launching a webtoon service in the United States,” said Kim.

He went on to set up Tapastic which he calls YouTube for comics. Their target audience is mainly aimed at people between 18 to 34 interested in webcomics for the short term. In the long term, the target becomes those interested in consuming stories in a visual format.

“Imagine a world without YouTube, where all the video content creators need to set up and manage their own website does not exist.That would be terrible for both the content creators and consumers — the webcomic industry is currently in that state,” said Kim.

Of course everything did not go as smoothly as planned when he started Tapastic.

Although the webtoon model is something Korean consumers are used to, it is a totally new service model in the U.S.

Even finding investors who are aware of the success of webtoons in Korea, and understanding its enormous potential in the U.S. market, is a pretty big challenge, Kim said, adding that the webtoon business in the U.S. is rapidly growing now, however. For example, individual sites like The Oatmeal (theoatmeal.com) are very popular, especially among a younger audience.

What makes Tapastic stand apart from other rising competitors such as The Oatmeal is its open publishing platform where anybody can publish their comics on the web, according to Kim.

In addition, it builds up a community of web-comic artists in the U.S., and is also helping Korean webtoonists to globally launch and build a community with a global audience.

“We also have pretty good expertise in seeing which Korean series has the potential to become popular with the U.S. audience, and for some series with high potential, we translate and help with marketing,” said Kim.

He believed that Korean webtoons have great potential to become global brand names.

Main page of Naver Webtoon. The number of webtoons ranges from 20 to 28 per day.  / Captured from Naver webtoon section

Main page of Naver Webtoon. The number of webtoons ranges from 20 to 28 per day. / Captured from Naver webtoon section

There are many Korean webtoons that can work very well in the international market.

Comics are unique in that readers are much more culturally tolerant. Also, some of the Korean webtoons, such as Tower of God or Noblesse, are already one of the most popular comic titles on illegal translation sites (Scanlation or scanning, translating, and editing work from one language into another language).

Worries for Korean Webtoons

Kim understood the marketability of some webtoons over others in the global market, as well as the limitations of the Korean marketplace in distributing profitable content.

Obviously there are many Korean webtoon series that are too Korean and probably work only among the Korean audience. Theres so much Korean webtoon content that we think has great potential among the international audience but cant go outside of Korea due to a number of reasons such as the license agreements that are unnecessarily tight.

As a result, everyone is fighting for the smaller Korean market, while a vast amount of good Korean webtoon content is just sitting there in the cabinet, doing nothing and not being discovered by an international audience, said Kim.

Due to its gaining popularity, some Korean webtoons are distributed illegally with unofficial translations through certain websites, causing the possibility of incorrect translations, and diminishing the experience of the story.

However, Kim said that going head to head with those that support illegal distribution and translations is unproductive. Instead, the role of the original creator is crucial, according to Kim.

In order to improve the quality of the translations, They need to work with legitimate channels (like Tapastic), and point the Scanlators (fans who scan and translate comics) to the legitimate channels.

They can also post the newest episodes on the legitimate channel first, or form a reader/translator community within the legitimate service. Do enough of that, and readers and translators will naturally come to the legitimate channel, said Kim.

Corporate aspirations

Asked what he or Tapastic hopes to become, Kim said that it is to become a leader in bite-sized stories on the web and on mobile devices. Tapas, from which their name derives, refers to finger food in Spanish.

Like companies such as Zynga and Cheezburger, we also like to deliver five-minutes of happiness to users, not through meaningless gold-digging games or cat photos, but through stories that make you laugh, cry, (and) learn, said Kim