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[Digital Simplicity] Why web novels draw eyeballs and investors

April 17, 2021 - 16:01 By Yang Sung-jin
Munpia, one of the biggest web novel platforms in South Korea, is reportedly in talks with major portals Naver and Kakao to sell a controlling stake.

There is no doubt that storytelling matters in the era of digital content and the category of web novels deserves attention, considering its potential as a source for other multimedia content.

Munpia, which started as an online community in 2002, now boasts over 100 million page views on the strength of some 400,000 visitors per month. With 47,000 writers registered for the site, Munpia offers a wealth of online fiction, targeting specific genres such as fantasy, romance and martial arts. Local media estimate that the valuation of Munpia would surpass 300 billion won ($268 million).

Naver and Kakao want to strengthen their content pools by purchasing a major stake in Munpia, where a torrent of new stories is generated by aspiring online writers and scrutinized by readers who tend to open their pockets only for genuinely interesting ones.

As with webtoons, web novel writers have to earn the trust of readers with creative and addictive stories. This is no easy task, as Munpia and other web novel platforms adopt a grueling system where uninteresting stories get filtered out.

On Munpia, all the stories follow a serialization format. One installment has a relatively short length optimized for web reading, and is generally priced at 100 won. But there is a tricky condition. Web novel writers are required to put out 15-25 installments free-of-charge, and readers respond to the stories through page views and comments.

If a writer fails to persuade readers during the initial period, Munpia does not allow the writer to turn the story into a paid series. In other words, writers have to prove that their stories, serialized in a daily installment, are interesting enough to make money, and those which pass the test are likely to have a potential for turning into other media such as webtoons.

Meanwhile, general e-book titles are yet to carve out a meaningful share in the overall publishing market. Although some bestselling titles are also gaining readers on e-book platforms, a simple conversion from paper to electronic format does not offer a convincing merit for mainstream readers.

This is why domestic e-book service providers have embraced subscription models in which readers are charged a monthly fee for access to a big pool of e-book titles, including bestsellers, instead of focusing on the sales of individual titles.

In fact, there is no way for ordinary readers to judge whether a long-form novel is interesting for their tastes, unless they actually buy the title, regardless of whether it is in paper or electronic format.

Ridi, a major e-book provider, turned an operating profit for the first time last year, not because of the resounding success of its e-book business but because of its strategy to diversify products into webtoons and other multimedia content.

Years ago, print newspapers used to provide a key platform for serialized novels and cartoons. Now, they do not have any control over the distribution of such content as they did not invest in the platform and related solutions.

Portals’ attention toward Munpia is expected to prompt other content-oriented companies to look for web novel platform providers. But such expansion strategy is limited to large sites as it takes a lot of money to turn a web novel or webtoon into a TV series or movie. More importantly, those who mastermind such digital strategies should understand that a simple one-source multiuse model is bound to fail.

By Yang Sung-jin (

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.