Naver Buys Wattpad

By | Wednesday, January 20, 2021 Leave a Comment
If you're like most comics folks, you've read the headline above and said, "What's a Naver? What's a Wattpad?" I don't usually cover news items here, but the comics industry press is notoriously bad at talking about web-platforms, so I figured I'd better step up.

First off, Naver is the Korean company that founded Webtoon. You may have seen some pretty big names putting comics on there. Inlcuding Warren Ellis, Colleen Doran, Fabian Nicieza, Dean Haspiel, and Fred Van Lente, among others. Last I checked, they had over 2600 titles and, in 2019, the popular Originals comic earned its creators over $10,000 a month. In terms of readership, they have 35 million readers every month making them arguably more successful than any other American comic book publisher.

I had never heard of Wattpad before yesterday. They were started in Canada in 2006 and, in short, are basically the same idea as Webtoon but for prose. They have over 90 millions users (including 5 million contributing writers) that spend, on average, a little over four hours reading stories on Wattpad every month. I don't know how many stories are on the platform now, but in 2018, there were a little over 400 million.

That Webtoon and Wattpad serve basically the same purpose but for comics and prose respectively, the synergy here makes fairly obvious sense. It makes for an easy way to cross-promote (and grow!) both platforms, as well as potentially creating the opportunities to also cross-polinate. Webtoon creators could be coerced into writing additional prose stories, and Wattpad writers might be invited to team up with an artist for a comic adaptation or extension of their stories.

However -- and this is the part that I think is important -- Naver's intentions are deeper than that. Last year, Crunchyroll announced that they're producing three animated series based on Weebtoon comics. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Webtoon has an entire section that lists Webtoon comics that have been adapted into other media (mostly TV). Likewise, Wattpad has over 70 adaptation projects of their own currently in the works; the company even has an official TV, film, and publishing division. The press release announcing the purchase notes this explicitly: "Wattpad joining WEBTOON under the Naver umbrella is a big step towards us becoming a leading global multimedia entertainment company."

Now, we've seen this type of thing before. A company that produces comics and wants to be the next media powerhouse, in much the same way Marvel did. But the road is littered with companies that were very clear that was their intents, but went nowhere. (I was going to cite Platinum Studios as an example, but apparently they're still around!) But there's something of a difference here. Notably, Naver hasn't been rushing this forward using venture captial to finance things, hoping it'll all work out down the road sometime. They've been building their business over a long time. Naver was founded in 1999 but didn't launch Webtoon until 2004 and, then, only in Korea. An English version for Americans didn't appear until 2014. And, importantly, at each stage they didn't try expanding on it until it proved, if not profitable, at least self-sustaining. The English version of Webtoon was supported by the Korean version at first; this meant that there was a proven, ongoing revenue stream (the Korean version) to help get the English version running. There wasn't a one-time cash infusion from an investor that would leave the project high and dry if they didn't turn a profit before they burned through all the investment cash. Naver has been financially smart about this whole thing.

Naver is not quite to the mega-beheamoth size of Disney or Warner Brothers yet, certainly, but they've got some other things working in their favor. They weren't doing nothing between their original founding and when they launched Webtoon, after all! Their name isn't well-known here in the states, but in and around Korea, their name is as ubiquitous as Google is to us. They have their own search engine (Naver), their own mobile payment platform (Naver Pay), their own streaming services (V Live and Naver NOW), their own virtual assistant (Clova)... While they're not in the same realm as Google or Amazon yet, they're no slouches. And while we do sometimes hear stories of these huge companies on the other side of the world that have virtually no presence in North America (e.g. Alibaba), Naver seems to have their sights very clearly set over here.

So keep an eye on Naver. They're already serving up some powerful webcomics, and they're getting themselves into position to be a major Western player in media in general.
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