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[Weekender] Web fiction sees renaissance

Online literature works captivate readers for a quick entertainment fix

By Ahn Sung-mi

Published : Oct. 23, 2015 - 17:07

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It started out in the mid-’90s.

Web fiction -- written works of literature available primarily or solely on the Web -- began small and intimate on online community sites when people -- amateur writers -- began uploading fan fiction of their favorite stars, romance or fantasy stories for hobbies. Some novelists, who never got a chance at publication, also used this medium under different pen names.

In early 2000, Web fiction, then dubbed “Internet novel,” reached its peak, inspiring film adaptations such as “My Sassy Girl” in 2001 and “My Tutor Friend” in 2003 that became box-office hits. Guiyeoni was the star of this genre, with her rom-coms “He Was Cool” and “Wolf’s Temptation” made into films.

A decade later, a new era of Web fiction has dawned.

Trade PCs for smartphones and install a profit model. Today’s Web fiction is a lucrative new frontier of publishing, or entertainment, attracting big players such as local Internet giant Naver and the largest book seller Kyobo. 



“Web fiction can be easily consumed during the commute, in one’s spare time when waiting for food at a restaurant or before bed,” said Um Sun-woong, an official at Munpia, one of the major Web fiction providers.

Um attributes mobile-based “snack culture” -- cultural content that is easily accessible and consumed in a short time like snacks -- behind the rising demand.

Web fiction, characterized by short chapters and fast story development, peppered with detailed, imagery-filled sentences, quickly rode the tide along with burgeoning Web toons here, catering to the readers seeking an easy-to-read, quick source of entertainment, he explained.

Last year, Web fiction sales reached 20 billion won ($17.7 million). It is estimated to double this year, with a similar pace of growth expected to continue in coming years, according to Digieco, a research arm of KT Corp.

Behind the rapid growth is the advent of mobile-friendly platforms that attract both readers and writers.

Munpia started off first as an online community in 2002 and was incorporated in 2012.

Today, there are over 350,000 users -- 70 percent of them in their 30-40s -- on the site that produces around 600 new series daily. Anyone can publish their stories on Munpia. Writers can choose to charge readers for their stories, in which case the proceeds are shared between the writers and Munpia. Typically, when a story is published on Munpia, the first several episodes are free and later episodes are 100 won each.

Large companies have also joined the Web fiction business.

In January 2013, Korea’s largest portal Naver launched its own Web fiction platform.

Two years down the road, a total of 109 registered writers and 110,000 amateur writers produced 230,000 episodes of stories -- ranging from romance to mystery, science fiction and fantasy -- garnering a total of 3.6 billion views. Eighty percent of readers used their smartphones to read the stories.

Some of these Web fiction authors rack up significant income. Last year, seven authors earned more than 100 million won in annual income by publishing their works on Naver, the company said.

Korean IT giant Kakao also began web fiction service on its mobile content platform Kakao Page in April last year. There are more than 5,000 fictions uploaded on the service, with fantasy and romance being the most popular genre. Fantasy fiction “The Legendary Moonlight Sculptor” by Nam Hee-sung attracted over 3.6 million subscribers.

Popular web fictions are made into TV dramas and films as well. 2014 rom-com drama “Mr. Back,” starring Jang Na-ra and Shin Ha-kyun, was based on web fiction “Old Man” by Lee Jo-young, uploaded serially on Kakao Page. Web fiction “Vampire Flower,” dubbed the Korean “Twilight” saga, was created into a six-episode Web drama last year.

Something noteworthy about Web novels as well as e-books is their focus on popular fiction.

Pop fiction -- encompassing romance, crime, science fiction, mystery, fantasy and other plot-driven genres written primarily for entertainment -- was deemed as not serious or literary enough for the literary world and highbrow readers.

However, it is enjoying a newfound spotlight, not on the bookstore shelves, but on smartphone screens and electronic devices.

Popular fiction accounted for 54.8 percent of total e-book sales in the first half of this year at Kyobo Bookstore, the country’s largest bookseller. Among them, romance is the most popular, followed by fantasy.

The number of popular fiction works published in print is rapidly declining, while on the Web, it is ever on the rise.

According to Kyobo’s data, the publication of fantasy and martial-arts novels dropped from 3,474 titles in 2012 to an estimated 2,300 this year.  In contrast, e-book publication for the genre sharply increased in the same period, from 2,103 titles in 2012 to an estimated 24,000 this year.

“People want stories that are casual and light when they are reading e-books,” said Jin Young-kyun from Kyobo Bookstore. “They want stories that can be consumed easily, which makes popular fiction most appropriate for the platform.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)