Apple turns to South Korea’s ‘webtoons’—short, vertically read, and made

Apple turns to South Korea’s ‘webtoons’—short, vertically read, and made

Apple turns to South Korea’s ‘webtoons’—short, vertically read, and made

Apple Inc. is betting on Korean web comics to give a jolt of life to its Books app.

The Cupertino, California-based firm signed a three-year exclusive contract with South Korean startup Kenaz in December to supply online comics known as webtoons. The new content was rolled out in Japan last month and will expand to cover all 51 countries where Books is available, according to the firm. The value of the deal was not disclosed. 

Webtoons are Korea’s favorite way of consuming digital comics and provide the inspiration for many of the country’s global hits from dark zombie comedy All of Us Are Dead to monster epic Sweet Home. The format, which has users scrolling through full-color, super-short episodes on their phones or PCs, has been around for decades. Unlike conventional manga or comic books, authors draw webtoons accounting for how much screen space is created by a single scroll-down on a device. In Japan, the genre is known as “tate-yomi-manga,” or vertically-read-manga. 

“North America doesn’t really have a significant lead player in webtoons yet,” Woody Lee, the founder and chief executive of Kenaz, said. “Apple Books has a chance at becoming a competitive player in this field pretty quickly.”

Global interest in Korean entertainment has exploded in recent years with the rise of series like Squid Game and the Academy Award-winning film Parasite. The Motion Picture Association of America organized a summit of Hollywood executives in Washington last month to take advantage of Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to the US and discuss collaboration. 

Read more: Hollywood Execs Flock to Washington to Meet Korean President

In September, Books executives Kashif Zafar and Sasha Norkin flew to Seoul to discuss the Kenaz deal for three days before making a final call, according to Lee. 

It’s been a while since Apple last introduced a new service to its Books app, which has not benefited from the massive investment that other services like Apple Music and Apple TV have gotten. Apple studied webtoons as a potential addition to its portfolio for more than two years before getting involved in detailed discussions with Kenaz, Lee said.

Apple’s decision to tap the webtoons market underscores a growing appetite for the category. It follows a move by Inc. in March to launch a webtoons section on Kindle for Japanese users. In Asia, Korea’s Naver Corp. and Kakao Corp. are among the biggest distributors, while China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd. and ByteDance Ltd. have also invested in webtoons services. 

Apple likely chose Kenaz over bigger players like Naver and Kakao — which publish webtoons on their own, well-developed platforms — to ensure access to original content without any conflicts over distribution, Lee said. The founder expects roughly 30% of Kenaz’s webtoons to be first published via Apple Books. Kenaz, home to about 140 authors, was valued at 86 billion won ($65 million) during its latest funding round. The company plans another funding round later this year and will go public next year.

Kenaz is now working with David Franzoni, who wrote Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, to recreate the story through a webtoon series. The startup is also working with popular French writer Bernard Werber to convert his Ants trilogy of novels into online comics. Its webtoon service for Apple Books in North America will be launched in the near future, Lee said.

“There is just so much demand for original intellectual property content these days,” Lee said. “The new hot topic in the content market is to identify a story IP with growth potential and create an entire value chain out of it.” 

–With assistance from Sohee Kim.

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