Three insiders offer a peek inside the flourishing web novel industry
Web novels have been around for longer than many people are aware of, but their value in the content market has only recently been recognized.
Last month, tech giants Kakao and Naver acquired global web novel platforms — Radish and Tapas Media for Kakao and Wattpad for Naver — to better cater to international readers. The acquisition means not only more efficiency in the export of their own content but also, and perhaps more importantly, access to a rich pool of intellectual property (IP). Tens of thousands of new works are being made each year and the list of webtoons, dramas, films and even video games that have been based on web novels during the past couple of years is so extensive that it’s hard to keep track of.
The name web novel is somewhat self-explanatory, but at the same time, somewhat deceiving. On the surface level, web novels are novels that are produced and consumed on the web. But at heart, the way that they're produced and consumed is entirely different from the conventional literary world.
Just as webtoons, web novelists upload one episode a week that can be bought cheaply, for around 100 to 200 won (8 to 17 cents). The episode-by-episode format means literally anyone can have a go at becoming a web novelist, although it doesn’t mean everyone will succeed.
So how exactly are web novels different from novels and how do the writers work? The Korea JoongAng Daily interviewed two web novelists — Jeong Munee and Jinmun — and a web novel editor who goes by the nickname Book Witch, to learn more about this emerging market.
It’s all for the readers
The first question most people ask about web novels is, “How are they different from conventional novels?” And who better to ask than a writer who’s had success in both fields?
Jeong Munee, whose real name is Jeong Yeon-sil, has a unique career as both a novelist and a web novelist. She started writing novels many years ago, but turned to web novels for money. In 2016, she won an open competition held by Kakao Page with her fantasy romance “The Secret of the Crown Princess” (translated) and in 2020, she won a literary contest held by the Segye Ilbo newspaper with her short novel “Tunnel, Wala’s Song” (translated). In April, she published her book “I Make a Living by Writing Web Novels” (translated) to share tips on the process.
“It’s extremely rare for a novelist to be able to make a living solely off of writing,” said Jeong. “Writers have written works on the internet in the past, but didn’t make money until it was all finished and published as hardcopy books. Even then, the books would be rented out at cheap prices at book cafes or rental shops, which would leave the writers with little to no money. The term ‘web novel’ was first coined by Naver, which also started servicing weekly episodes that could be bought cheaply. Since then, people have gotten accustomed to paying small sums of money to purchase web content and that’s led to more authors joining the market for money.”
As novelist and web novelist, Jeong says that she has “two completely different personas” whose goals are also completely different. As a novelist, she flaunts all the literary imagination she has to express her creative desires as a writer. But as a web novelist, it’s “all about what the readers want.”
“In the world of pure literature, a writer who follows trends is considered a bad one,” she said. “Anything that’s common or a cliché is deemed as bringing the quality of a work down and a writer has to work hard to make sure that what they write hasn’t been written by anyone else before. But in the world of web novels, it has to be cliché. It’s all about what’s trending and what the readers these days like. It took me a long time to grasp that but I started by taking into consideration the feedback from the comments that readers left on each episode.”
The popular clichés now on web novel platforms are reincarnation, rebirth, soul swapping and of course, romance. These themes have been around for over 10 years in the popular culture market, and there’s a reason why they’re still around, says Jeong.
“It’s because people like them,” she said. “Of course the details change and other trends come and go. So the only way for a writer to make sure they have an understanding of them [trends] is to read popular works and find out what readers like about them. One change within the romance trend for example, is that the female protagonists these days take matters into their own hands. They don’t need a knight in shining armor. If they do, it’s likely that the work is unpopular.”
Some could think that a stubborn writer could ignore the trends and just push forward. But the episode-by-episode purchase system means that if you fail to please readers, they immediately stop paying. Also, in contrast to conventional stories where the four steps in composition — introduction, development, turn and conclusion — take place throughout the whole book, each episode of a web novel must contain all four to make sure that readers are kept on their toes and keep coming back for more.
“In fact, you have to get straight to the development without the introduction of the story,” she said. “It needs to be exciting and enticing — and it needs to happen every episode. Each episode is about 5,000 letters [in Korean] but you can’t just fill it up with the story you want to tell. You have to cut it just right so that people aren’t annoyed by the lack of information but also aren't disappointed at the excessiveness of information. This is perhaps the most difficult but most crucial part of web novel writing.”
The irony of platforms
As opposed to internet novels, which used to be called inso in the past and uploaded on various corners of the internet such as blogs or online communities, web novels are uploaded on specific platforms where a purchase system is in place, namely Naver, Kakao, Munpia and Joara. A platform provides a single channel for readers and authors to come together. It seems like a win-win for both parties, but for the web novelists, it’s not that simple.
Web novelist Jang Woo-soon, who goes by the penname Jinmun, debuted in 2015 with “Legal Mind,” a courtroom drama series that revolves around a man who’s one day given legal super-knowledge and uses that power to fight for justice. He started “Stay Civilized” in 2016 and finished in 2017. During the three years from 2015 to 2017, he made 200 million won with his two works. He finished his latest work “Real Money” last year, which was downloaded more than 1 million times as of January last year.
“It was thanks to the power of platforms that I made all that money,” said Jinmun. “In the paper publishing industry, authors still often struggle to get paid the amount they deserve based on how much their work is enjoyed by readers. But on the internet, Munpia started the web novel platform system where the number of times a work has been read is transparently revealed. Both readers and writers know how successful it is and how much profit will be made.”
The irony, however, lies in the fact that while platforms allow writers to get paid in proportion to their success, the “proportion” can feel unfair to the web novelist, as the income has to be split with the platform servicer. Different platforms charge writers different rates, ranging from a low of 30 percent to a high of 45 percent depending on the platform and how popular the author is. And authors almost always sign with the platform via an agency, which means they’re often left with less than half the profit that their work generates.
“Authors didn’t complain about this when the web novel market first started flourishing, because however unfair it seemed, it made them money,” he said. “But right now, it’s inevitable for authors to feel as if they’re being exploited by the platforms. Because there are so many works being written, we have to make promotional events to stand out to readers — but the price falls into our laps instead of into the platforms'. And because there aren’t many platforms to choose from, there’s really no other choice than to ‘suck it up.’ It’s practically a monopoly.”
Jinmun’s insight into the system perhaps comes from the same source of knowledge that led him to debut with a courtroom drama — studying for five years for the bar examination, although he didn’t pass it. He worked at a consulting company but quit to become a web novelist, working part-time at a convenience store. The reason he dreamt of becoming a web novelist was quite simple.
“Every writer becomes a writer when the urge to write builds up within them,” he said. “The trick is to choose what I want to write among the choices laid out by the readers. Once that work is done, that fire dies down. That’s when writers need to take a break to make sure that they don’t just repeat themselves. People will have different ways of soothing themselves, but it’s crucial that they don’t burn out in the long run.”
He added that for the whole web novel industry to last, authors must be able to take more of what they make. Many people still think web novels as cheap or shallow, with a handful of exceptions. According to Jinmun, those “exceptions” are actually the result of lesser works, which together form a competitive system that births works of all levels and qualities.
“It’s not just with the web novel market, but any market,” he said. “You get a handful of great works and a lot of works that are deemed bad. Web novels are the perfect one-source-multi-use [OSMU] content that guarantees cheap yet enjoyable entertainment. So in order for ‘good’ works to be produced, the whole market needs to be sustained. And for a market to be sustainable, it needs to be fair.”
Finish what you started
“There are a million ways in which a web novelist can succeed, but failure usually stems from the same reason,” she said. “It’s important for newcomers to follow in the footsteps of those who have succeeded in the past [...] I started as a magazine editor and I’ve always liked to teach people about good writing skills. I started out with blogs but that didn’t work out so I turned to YouTube to reach out to people.”
In her lectures, Book Witch says that she gives pointers on things she learned from her first-hand experience correcting authors' works. One thing she learned is that because it seems easy to start a series, people often do — but they just as often give up too.
“It comes from stubbornness,” she said. “There are certain types of storylines and characters that readers want to see. Someone who’s starting for the first time can easily fall into the trap of thinking, ‘I’m going to start something that nobody has ever tried before.’ Well, there’s a reason why they haven’t been done that before: Because that’s not what readers want. If they start something new but it doesn’t work out, they give up. They try for a little bit then just stop. That’s the biggest thing that I try to tell people on YouTube.”
Another mistake that newcomers make is that they think web novel writing is easy and they can take it on as a hobby. Web novels are dubbed as snack culture because people can enjoy each episode in a short amount of time, but it doesn’t mean that it’s “snack writing” for the authors, she says. News reports on how some writers make millions give the incorrect impression that just starting a series will immediately lead to fortune. That’s just not how it works.
“Some people might make over a billion won a year, but some people make less than the price of a cup of coffee,” she said. “It's easier to succeed as a web novelist than as a K-pop idol or an actor, but just as with any other industry, there are only a handful of people who can make millions. When put together at the end, web novels are much longer than conventional novels. Whereas novels usually come in one or two books, web novels usually add up to be more than five, even 10 books in total. It just seems easy and short because it’s revealed episode by episode.”
For people who wish to start writing, Book Witch emphasized the importance of diligence. Writing shouldn’t be listed on the to-do list with every other hobby that a person has. It can’t come after coming home from work, watching a movie, exercising, taking a nap and going out for a chat with friends. It’s all-hands-on-deck work that needs serious commitment and dedication, she says.
“Another thing is that they need to take care of themselves. A regular worker can do their job — even if they're not doing it well — during a mental breakdown. But for a web novelist, it immediately shows in their stories if they’re not at their best. If a romance writer breaks up with their partner in real life for instance, they can’t write an adoring scene and readers know that. If their mind or body is not sound, then it can affect their work to a grave degree.”
Regarding the prejudice against web novels and web novelists, Book Witch said “Its value has already been recognized as popular culture content.
"It’s only people who are used to conventional novels who are resisting the change. Yes, there are some works that can seem sub-par. But there are low-quality movies, and you don’t call the film industry bad just because there’s one bad work. The web novel market is growing whether people admit it or not. I only hope that people who say it’s bad really try reading a lot of works before jumping to conclusions.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]