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[Digital Contents] Building a Sustainable Global Ecosystem for Web Novels

 Features >  [Digital Contents] Building a Sustainable Global Ecosystem for Web Novels
Building a Sustainable Global Ecosystem for Web Novels

Sheen Kim
Publishing critic
Vice President of Korean Cultural Contents Critic Association


The term “web novel” was added to everyday vocabulary in January 2013, when the web portal Naver began offering serialized fiction online. The words “internet” and “web” mean the same thing, and Naver came up with the term “web novel” instead of the familiar expression “internet novel,” taking advantage of its successful Naver Webtoon. Until the mid-2010s, the publishing and literary sectors did not consider the web novel a significant cultural phenomenon, brushing it off instead as a variation of fictional genre or subculture.

The Korea Creative Content Agency said the size of the Korean web novel market skyrocketed from a meager KRW 10 billion in 2013 to KRW 400 billion in 2018, with the latter figure exceeding the combined sales of 25 major publishers. As a result, the web novel market expanded to 2.5 times the size of that of print fiction, and in 2020, the former surpassed the KRW 600 billion mark, an incredible feat given that combined book sales totaled KRW 713.2 billion.

On August 5, Naver announced record-high sales in the second quarter this year thanks in large part to content revenue of KRW 300.2 billion, up a whopping 113 percent from the same quarter of 2021. Last year, Naver acquired the North America-based social reading platform Wattpad, and in March, the web novel platform Munpia. In April, Naver CEO Choi Soo-yeon said at her first news conference that she was most focused on content like webtoons and web novels.

As Choi predicted, the globalization of web novels has seen impressive achievements. The Naver exclusive series Hwasangwihwan (Return of the Blossoming Blade) recently passed the KRW 30 billion mark in aggregate sales as a single web novel, 11 months after exceeding KRW 10 billion in September last year. The story debuted as an exclusive Naver series in April 2019, and as of July this year, over 1,280 episodes were uploaded, with the aggregate number of downloads of the series topping 370 million. In March last year, a webtoon of the same title was serialized based on the web novel, whose average monthly sales have skyrocketed about 300-fold since the webtoon’s release. The webtoon version of Hwasangwihwan is now offered worldwide in six languages. Thus, global fans of the webtoon will likely show interest in the original web novel.

Jeonjijeok Dokja Sijeom (Omniscient Reader) is another web novel made into a webtoon. The story is about office worker Kim Dokja, who reads the unpopular web novel Three Ways to Survive in a Ruined World for over a decade. What he reads in the book occurs in real life and he deals with the problems alone. The work is seeing great popularity with its unrivaled view of the world, well-structured storytelling, and unlimited imagination. The webtoon version was serialized in May 2020 for a 10-year run, as told in the story, to be completed in December 2030. In the meantime, the original web novel will be made into five full-length films. The novel has been released worldwide in seven languages.

The web novel has thus seen a successful market thanks to timely understanding of the marketability of domestic content, and conditions are now ripe for venturing into the lucrative global content market. Yet almost no interfaces exist between the web novel market and the publishing industry. The web novel is letter-based content but the publishing sector has failed to predict, formulate, or absorb the former. Books are extraordinary as both goods for trade and public assets at the same time. The publishing industry, which produces these books, has built a knowledge ecosystem laying the foundation for human civilization.

Our publishing industry could not make huge investment based merely on possibility. Now that the web novel market has definitively proven its potential, however, the publishing community needs to boldly launch an independent platform for web novels. To foster the proper ecosystem, a virtuous cycle of prerequisites is needed for survival within it for the sake of diversity, as in the case of knowledge ecosystems. An industry plunged into infinite competition could initially mobilize huge capital and generate big profit, but also risks easy collapse if the content is consumed too simply. To create the proper and sustainable global ecosystem of the web novel market, the web novel industry needs publishing’s longstanding experience and know-how in the operation and maintenance of knowledge ecosystems.