Seoul, South Korea – The third highest earning app in the world is one you’ve probably never heard of.
Piccoma, a digital manga subscription service, generated more revenue in 2021 than any other non-gaming app except TikTok and YouTube, according to business intelligence firm Sensor Tower, whose estimates exclude mobile commerce expenses such as Amazon purchases and food deliveries.
In October, less than six years after its launch in 2016, the app surpassed $1 billion in cumulative transactions – a feat achieved by just 15 non-gaming apps globally.
The success of Piccoma is all the more extraordinary as the service is only available in Japan.
Yet the world’s most popular manga app originated not in the art form’s homeland, but in South Korea, the cultural powerhouse behind global phenomena like “Squid Game.” and “Parasite”.
Kakao Piccoma, the developer, is a subsidiary of South Korean tech juggernaut Kakao, the company behind the country’s most popular messaging app.
While Japan’s manga market is by far the largest in the world, it is South Korean companies that are leading the industry’s digital transformation.
South Korean tech companies, including Kakao and Naver, controlled more than 70% of Japan’s digital manga market in 2021, according to a Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) white paper released that year.
While print manga remain popular, digital sales took the biggest share of the market last year and are expected to grow more than 80% by 2025, according to KOCCA.
The seeds of the South Korean industry’s digital revolution lie in the collapse of its own comic book industry in the late 1990s.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 dealt a severe blow to the sector, as sales fell amid mass unemployment. Some publishers churned out Japanese comics to stay afloat, while others were forced to close.
“After we suddenly fell apart, we were busy looking for an exit,” Lee Jae-sik, an industry veteran and founder of Korean webtoon production company C&C Revolution, told Al Jazeera. .
For many industry figures, including Lee, the dot-com boom of the late 1990s seemed like a golden opportunity. However, it has not been easy for the faltering industry to recover as the country has yet to fully recover from the economic crisis.
The big breakthrough came when booming search engines, primarily Daum, started looking for new ways to retain users on their sites.
Beginning in the early 2000s, South Korean internet portals began offering free digitized comics and original comics made for the web.
The medium’s adoption by search engines has allowed webtoons to expand their readership beyond typical comic book readers and evolve in the coming mobile age.
While most internet users watched comics on their smartphones, webtoons took on a distinctive style of vertical scrolling for reading.
“The very act of scrolling to read gives it a kind of sense of movement, like the movement of a gaze or the passage of time,” Seo Bum-gang, head of the Korea Webtoon Industry Association, told Al Jazeera.
“For those who work in film, it is surprisingly similar to the storyboards used in their industry. When audiences read a webtoon, they can easily associate it with a movie.
Since the late 2000s, the South Korean film and television industry has been busy adapting webtoons. Since the runaway success of the desktop drama series Misaeng in 2014, webtoons have been a major source of inspiration for the Korean entertainment scene.
Netflix was particularly keen on adapting the medium.
Following the international success of Kingdom, Sweet Home and Hellbound, the entertainment company plans to release five webtoon-based series this year.
The global success of webtoon-inspired television series has, in turn, fueled the popularity of South Korean comics in overseas markets. After the TV series Itaewon Class became a smash hit in Japan, the webtoon it was based on took off and helped Piccoma leapfrog rival app Line Manga, developed by Naver.
South Korea’s webtoon market grew more than 64 percent in 2020 from a year earlier, surpassing the trillion-won ($840 million) milestone, according to KOCCA.
But like South Korea’s other cultural industries, webtoons are increasingly looking overseas for success.
Lee, the head of C&C Revolution, said about 65% of his company’s revenue now comes from overseas markets. While the industry average is below 30%, according to KOCCA, revenue from overseas is growing and is expected to continue to do so.
The global comic book market in 2020 was estimated at $11 billion, about a quarter of the value of the film or music industry in the pre-pandemic era, according to KOCCA.
Some industry insiders say webtoons have the potential to grow far beyond anything achieved by the traditional comic book market.
“A common mistake is to think of print comics and webtoons as the same,” Seo said. “It’s true that webtoons are derived from print comics, but what we’re seeing in the industry now shows that the webtoon industry has a completely different character and purpose than the print comics industry. .”
Lee said he thinks the buzz around webtoons is just getting started.
“Before, we were busy trying to get other countries’ attention, but now they are looking to us,” he said.
“Under these market conditions, the cycle is not going to end anytime soon.”