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Characteristics of South Korean Web Novel Platforms and Ventures Overseas

From a Community Into a Medium:South Korea's Web Novel Platforms Evolve

 

2017.9.11

 

There is a Korean phrase that goes: pearls are only good when they have been strung together. It means even if you have good resources, they will be of little good if you don't use them properly. South Korean genre literature used to be like this. There were many talented authors who could write genre literature and fans who wished to read it, even if their numbers fell short of other countries where genre literature developed far sooner than South Korea like Japan, the United States and places in Europe. However, there was not a platform for them to converge together. There were many reasons why South Korean genre literature took so long in taking off but one of the biggest was the lack of a means of communication between authors and readers. Another was the absence of a platform on which authors could make serial posts.

 

 

Genre literature sprouts on the Internet, buds into communities

 

The Internet was like a ray of light for genre literature which found barren land to set its roots down before the mid-1990s. In a situation where there were not many novels for the public, the Internet proved a perfect place where writers could write what they wanted and readers could read content more honed to their interests. Back in 1993, an ordinary office worker named Wu-hyuk Lee started serial posting a novel packed with elements from both the West and East on Hitel, a South Korean PC communications service. This was what later became The Records of Exorcism which went on to sell an accumulated 10 million copies as of 2011. The success of The Records of Exorcism had an immense impact on other ordinary South Koreans and potential writers. In 1997, South Korea saw the birth of Yeong-do Lee's Dragon Raja and writer Min-hee Jeon wrote The Stone of Days on Nownuri in 1999. These opened the door for genre literature in South Korea and if it had not been for PC communications services, they would never have come to light.

 

Time went on and in the early 2000s, gone were PC communications services as they were replaced by lightning-fast Internet services. This certainly did not mean the end of genre literature. Following the early pioneers of genre literature, writers like Gwiyeoni and Baekmyo found fame on personal websites or Internet communities like Daum online cafes through serial posts. Also in the early 2000s, online communities exclusively catering to serial online novels began to crop up.Communities like Joara and Munpia which are representative of web novel platforms today began business in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Of course, neither launched their services with online platforms or immense profits in mind. They had been attempts at recreating the community boards from the PC communications services era where writers could communicate with readers on the boards.

 

 

Beyond Communities to Platforms

 

However, these websites could not remain simple communities forever. Change slowly came to the websites, which were functioning as spaces in which readers and authors for genre literature were connected. In 2008, Joara launched a paid-for novel service which served as their first business model for revenue and in turn, sparked change in the world of serial novels.

 

Then in 2013, Internet portal operator Naver launched their web novel service in earnest called 'Naver Web Novel', becoming the first platform for web novels. Taking a leaf out of Naver's book, Munpia launched their own paid-for service that same year. Kakao, known for its messaging service Kakaotalk, emerged as another big player in the web novel market by kicking off their 'Kakao Page' service. Attempts at taking more chunks out of the pie have continued this year, as Golden Bough under Minumsa Publishing launched ‘BritG’ and Kyobo Bookstore began their ‘Tocsoda’ service.

 

As all of these services began at different moments in time, they all have their different characteristics. Joara and Munpia have stuck to their roots, retaining their roles as community boards for anyone who wants to start posting stories. However, Joara now attracts readers with its paid-for service 'Noblesse' which is geared towards adult readers with its mature content. Munpia was always known more for its stories of heroism and chivalry and continues to lure in new readers with such novels at its forefront.

 

Meanwhile, web novel platforms that launched in the late 2000s focus more on the stories and novels that they make available rather than inviting free-for-all participation. Kakao Page is particularly known for that aspect. Kakao Page experienced a rough start in 2013 due to the pre-existing web novel platforms but it turned its business around by securing an exclusive contract with writer Heesung Nam for his Legendary Moonlight Scultor series. With this, Kakao Page has continued to draw in new users with other exclusive deals with famous authors.

 

Naver's web novel service went the romance novel route from the beginning and business has been steady since then. At first it provided a large variety of genres like the novel form of Noblesse, a webtoon that had been available on its own webtoon platform, but it focused on romance novels after the explosive popularity of Yi-soo Yoon's Moonlight Drawn By Clouds. One of the latecomers to the game, BritG by Golden Bough, actively uses the company's contracted writers for its platform. It also regularly holds writing contests for prospective writers and gives them the opportunity to publish their work, effectively using its ability as an actual publisher. Kyobo Bookstore's Tocsoda is also using its mother company's assets as the country's largest bookstore chain to attract many authors and readers.

 

 

Web Novel Platforms Turn Their Focus Overseas

 

From their beginnings on PC communications services to communities to platforms, South Korea's web novels have now created a substantially large market. According to a 2016 status survey on the story industry by KPIPA, web novels account for 54 percent of the nation's storytelling industry. KT's economic and management research center has estimated South Korea's web novel market size at some 80 billion won - nothing to turn someone's nose up towards.

 

After having secured the hearts of readers at home, South Korea's web novel platforms are now turning their focus overseas. Of course, similar services already exist. 'Phone novels' existed in Japan from the mid-2000s where Internet service was long available on feature phones. [Koizora], which has also been made into a movie, is one good example. The age of feature phones has come and gone, but readers can still easily access and read novels on smartphones, just like South Korea's web novel environment changed with time. Representative cases would be 'Let's Become Novelists(小説家になろう)' which launched in 2004 and 'Every Star' which was kicked off by mobile game company DeNA in 2010.

 

In the United States, e-book sharing websites like Wattpad have taken off, giving life to web novels there. In China, Tencent, a company known for its messaging service QQ like Kakao in South Korea, has created its own web novel platform after acquiring Cloudary Corporation(盛大文學).

 

Naver has used its powerful messaging service LINE's brand image to provide web novels in Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan translated from Korean. Kakao Page has also been presenting Chinese readers with translated stories through Tencent, now a large local player in China's webtoon and web novel markets. Munpia has been continuously making strides into entering the Chinese market by marketing its novels and participating in events like the 2015 Beijing book fair.

 

Of course, entering offshore markets is not easy. In the case of Japan or the United States, the history of genre literature there spans decades and providing content that is satisfactory for readers there is not an easy task. Companies are also finding it difficult to crack the Chinese market due to frigid diplomatic relations between South Korea and China from 2016. However, hopes are high South Korean businesses will find success sooner or later, like Yeong-do Lee's [Dragon Raja] did in Japan. After all, South Korea's genre literature started from very humble beginnings and succeeded when it was least expected to.

 

 


Written by Sang-min Seong (Culture critic, columnist)

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Sang-min Seong (Culture critic, columnist)

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