Naver’s ‘Webtoon’ CEO says barrier for new entrants is high

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korean tech giant Naver’s webcomics business, called “Webtoon”, will rely on its deep bank of content and creators to fend off new competition from larger Silicon Valley rivals, its CEO said, as it plans a listing next year.


Webtoons are digitalised short-form comics optimised for reading on mobiles and read vertically by scrolling through short, full-colour episodes.

The global webtoon industry made $4.7 billion in 2021 and is projected to make $60.1 billion by 2030, according to Spherical Insights & Consulting.

More recently, Amazon Japan launched a webcomics service called “Amazon Fliptoons” while Apple Books has also started a webtoons platform in Japan, with plans to expand to other countries.

But Kim Junkoo, CEO and founder of Webtoon Entertainment – a unit of Naver which originated the format in 2004 – says rivals will struggle to build a viable business.

“To build a (webtoon) store, you need knowledge about serial services, user targeting, a fitting business model, educating users,” Kim said. “This takes time. But even if you put in time, you can’t recreate the creator economy we’ve built.”

Webtoon Entertainment and its subsidiary have run amateur artists’ debut programmes for years, generating 1.6 million titles from 900,000 creators as of January.

Webtoons are low-cost to produce – one person can make them with a tablet and stylus.

Korean creators who published weekly webtoon episodes across a range of platforms earned on average 118.7 million won ($89,157.62) in 2022, according to data from state-run Korea Creative Content Agency, up from 81 million won in 2021.

Some also earn millions of dollars from paid views, merchandise and advertisements, including product placements.

According to Webtoon Entertainment, South Korean creators who published weekly episodes on its platform in 2020 earned an average of 460 million won ($345,833.46) that year, including from sponsored work.

“If big tech is serious about this IP-creating business, they’d have to buy us out,” Kim said.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment; Apple declined comment.

Webtoon Entertainment has global monthly active users of 85.6 million as of Q2 2022 in more than 100 countries – including 12.5 million in the United states – up from 40 million in 2017. About 80% of them are younger than 30.

“In the past, if an intellectual property sold $10 million, you’d be like, ‘let’s make a movie’,” said Kim. “Now, if we have an IP that sold $10 million, we have data showing who saw it, which generation saw it, in what pattern, in which countries, so on.”

Already, dozens of webtoons are made into dramas and movies each year, such as “Bloodhounds”, which hit No. 1 on Netflix’s non-English series charts in June.

Naver said in recent earnings calls that it expected to list the Webtoon business in the United States next year, but did not elaborate on size, timing or venue.

Webtoon Entertainment reported a 13 billion won operating loss in the April-June quarter, smaller than the 21.4 billion won loss in the first quarter.

($1 = 1,330.1200 won)

(Reporting by Joyce Lee. Editing by Sam Holmes)