Piccoma rides high offering manga, webtoons in Japan
Piccoma started business on May 15, 2016, and on its first day it pulled in 200 yen ($1.81) from 300 users.
Nearly five years later, on May 5, 2021, the Japanese webtoon app saw revenues of 4.37 billion yen — a daily record. Two days later, it had 4.2 million daily users, another record.
Piccoma, the Japanese web comic service run by Kakao Japan, the Japanese subsidiary of Korean portal operator Kakao, made the biggest revenue out of all smartphone apps in Japan last year, aside from games: 37.6 billion yen. Average compound annual growth rate has been 149 percent since 2016.
Before Piccoma, the main players in the Japanese online comic market were Mecha Comics and Line Manga, which specialized in online versions of black and white manga printed in books.
“Because Japan was the home of mangas, our challenges were large, but so were the opportunities,” said Kim Jae-yong, the 45-year old president of Kakao Japan, who is behind the success of Piccoma.
“Back then, Japan had digitalized a lot of things, but the comics market was relatively slow to catch up on that trend. We were latecomers, but I was certain that there was room for growth.”
Piccoma differentiated itself from the competition with a webtoon business model from Korea. Instead of cartoons in black and white sold as complete stories, Korean webtoons are usually in color, unless an author intentionally chooses black and white, and a new episode is uploaded each week. Authors offer two to three episodes in advance, which the readers can watch for a fee of 200 to 300 won (18 to 26 cents) per episode, or wait a week for the episode to be offered for free.
“A lot of people doubted whether the [Korean] method would work with Japanese readers, who were accustomed to paying a lump sum to read comics,” said Kim in an interview at the Kakao Japan office in Tokyo’s Roppongi section. "They even questioned why we would break a book into episodes when a book is handier."
Kim told the skeptics that comics read on smartphone apps are “strictly for entertainment purposes,” and short episodes were more appropriate. People could read them between everyday chores more easily than whole books. And by providing one free episode a week, readers would wait for the next one and naturally develop a sense of loyalty to the work.
The method proved so successful that major publishers in Japan such as Kodansha and Shueisha signed with Piccoma to offer their content in the episode-by-episode format. Soon, other Japanese comic apps adopted the system.
Piccoma also introduced webtoons to Japanese readers. Piccoma offers around 600 Korean webtoons that are viewed by scrolling down, as opposed to most of the 60,000 Japanese works that are still made in the right-to-left book format. Korean webtoons may be a mere 1 percent of all webtoons on the app, but they pull in 45 percent of revenue made from Piccoma's webtoons, said Kim.
“The Japanese comic market is still dominated by published books,” said Kim. “But more readers are coming to realize that webtoons are easier to read and the narrative is more thrilling.”
One work that was a pioneer in the early stages was Chon Kye-young’s Daum Webtoon series “Love Alarm,” which managed to grab the attention of the Japanese audience. “Solo Leveling,” originally written as a web novel series by Chugong and remade into a webtoon series by Jang Seong-rak, is now the biggest hit on Piccoma. The series started in March 2019 on Piccoma and surpassed 55 million yen in daily sales on April 30.
“The core reader base is quite steady and new comic fans are joining the game through webtoons,” said Kim. "Webtoons don’t compete with published comics as much as other mobile content such as games. Webtoons have an infinite amount of potential ahead."
Kim graduated from Kyung Hee University, double majoring in English Literature and management. He started as a marketer at Naver game subsidiary NHN's Japanese branch in 2006, and served as the head of the Creative Center, learning a lot about content marketing. As opposed to the Korean market, where the publishing industry has been taken over by digital platforms, digital comics are restoring life to the withering publishing industry in Japan, according to Kim.
“I believe that the content business is about moving someone else’s heart,” he said. “We’re experimenting with a lot of methods to move people, such as by showing different main images to be shown in the app for users with different tastes.” The main image introduces readers to various works and works like a poster to lure them in. Piccoma analyzes each reader's patterns and caters to their taste by showing images that they are most likely to be intrigued by.
Kakao Japan recently received 600 billion won in investment from global investors including Anchor Equity Partners.
“We’ll focus on finding talented webtoon authors through our own studio,” said Kim. “It’s our goal to make a system where creators, platforms and readers can coexist with satisfaction.”
BY LEE YOUNG-HEE [email@example.com]