“The generation of 880,000 won? I am a poor cartoonist who envies them,” said a webtoonist, who asked not to be named. A webtoonist is a cartoonist who publishes cartoons on a website. Webtoonist run a webtoon or a serial cartoon which is published on famous internet portal websites in Korea. It was an unexpected answer, because the reporter had always thought that the lives of webtoonists would be special.
According to the interviewee, a budding webtoonist receives 100,000 won for their work if they publish one serial a week for a month. Due to this, their lives are much poorer than “the 880,000 won generation,” which refers to the young people who suffer from unstable employment conditions. After being a regular webtoon publisher on a portal, he earns only about a million won per month. He bitterly added more about this situation, “I quit my job in my 30s to fulfill my dream of drawing a great cartoon. But the reality is very harsh. I do not know when I can repay my debt and live like others.”
Some webtoons have become very popular and have made many webtoonists stars. Also, the number of dramas and movies which are remade from famous webtoons are increasing. This seems to show some awesome aspects of webtoons, but the actual lives of those creating them are simply desperate.
Real lives of webtoonists are hidden by the glamour
According to research performed by the National Statistical Office, the average monthly wage of irregular workers in Korea is 1,348,000 won as of August. However, the wages of budding webtoonists are about a million won, which is much less than that of irregular workers. Due to this difficult reality, webtoonists feel the need to find side jobs. But the environment of their job requires them to spend all their weeks creating a cartoon to meet deadlines and does not allow them time to earn more money. He said, “I cannot demand to improve our labor conditions because I am not a star webtoonist and my work is not famous. Many other colleagues, including me, want to work hard and be famous, but we are just hungry. A good work is possible when we are under a fundamentally well founded environment.”
The numbers of webtoons, which are published on portal sites, include over two hundred different stories, including about 130 on Naver, 70 on Daum, and 20 on Nate. The exact number of webtoonists cannot be estimated because there is no association for them. Experts expect their total population to be about 300. Many people who love webtoons regard the lives of these creators to be very fantastic. However, this is applied to only a few people who remake their work into dramas or movies, sell the publication rights, sell their work as a book, or launch other various character products. These successful artists number only about 10 out of the 300. There is a successful webtoonist who earns over 10 million won per month by publishing twice a week. On the other hand, most of the artists are struggling to prepare their serials and enduring poor surroundings. These budding people especially do not know how to fulfill their dreams with only 400,000 won in a month on their hands and frustration in their hearts.
What are the obstacles preventing an improvement in the poor situations of webtoonists?
〈〈 Unfair contractual relationships between portal and webtoonist
Recently, the webtoon market has expanded and attracted attention as a new cartoon consumption market. However, its system of distribution and consumption definitely depends on portal websites. It results in unstable creation circumstances for the writers. In this process, an unfair contractual relationship has been forced between the portal and writers. The former is strong and the latter is weak because a portal is a very important place where webtoonists represent their work.
From the position of the portal, it tries to utilize webtoons as soon as possible because the number of people who use other services after reading webtoons is great. In the case of NAVER, a representative portal website in Korea, it logged 30 million users this September. Amont them, million users clicked the portal sites to read webtoons they have. This means one person out of every five who visited this portal site used the webtoon service. These are also the potential customers who will use other NAVER services after reading the webtoons. It shows that the webtoon is an important tool to attract people. Because of this, portals are struggling to run good and interesting webtoons on their sites. But, in fact, writers lack the most important supports to make good pieces.
They provide about a million won per month to the regular writers and publish their works periodically on the site. But additional wages can be paid if the work shows high hits and ranking. Pay is also judged by the popularity of the webtoon and writer. There are often some cases where the writers consciously use stimulating and lewd material to attract the attention of readers. But this is thought to actually lower the quality of their work. Portal websites stick to this unfair system to verify the ability of the temporary writer going through the training before they regularly run their work. But a webtoonist mentioned “I have seen many colleagues lose their dreams as soon as they put their feet on this field because we start with an impossibly low living wage. In the long term point of view, a realistic salary makes for good work and helps the portal because it results in more readers. Only 100,000 won to buy a webtoon actually lowers the value of the portal itself.”
〈〈 The recognition of people who naturally read webtoons for free
Park In-ha, a professor of cartoon creation at Chungkang College of Cultural Industries, said, “If a paid service is adopted, the lives of webtoonists will be much more stable than now because there is another way to earn some money beyond the limited salary from portals.” The only way to get out from under the economic problems is to solve the issues with the portal’s original contractual systems. To do this, Daum and Naver, possessing many popular webtoons, started to charge some money from their cartoon readers.
However, reactions of readers to this were very chilly. The readers said, “It was a great benefit that we could read and enjoy the webtoons that we liked as much as we wanted. But if we should pay them, it will be very uncomfortable.” As people who have been receiving webtoons for free for a long time and are used to this system, they will feel a burden and be reluctant due to this sudden move to begin charging for webtoons.
Joo Jae-hyeong, professor of the Department of optical information design at Inha University, said, “It is a serious problem when a culture’s desire to buy cartoons, which includes webtoons and published cartoons, is dwindling. It is a problem with the recognition of people when firms do not have any repulsion or doubt to charge for music or movies. “They are also willing to charge for dramas when consumers download them on the internet, even though we can watch them for free through the television. But if people unconditionally reject the paid service only because they have been accustomed to reading webtoons for free, it is a lack of recognition in accepting webtoons, which they were so enthusiastic about as a work of art and is an action which does not assure a copyright for the medium they read. Of course, this will make a vicious circle of poverty for the writers, and, moreover, it will be difficult to develop a unique webtoon culture that can be a potential cultural area for Korea.
▲ Webtoons have problems to depend on only portal sites. | ©NAVER / DAUM
〈〈 Insufficient systems to protect the rights of webtoonists
Professor Park pointed out that the most important weak point of webtoon, as an art enterprise, includes the working environment and the absence of a system for protecting this art medium. This system is divided from the webtoon itself, to people who make these works and from the support of related ministries.
First of all, the webtoon industry itself needs to have a webtoonist association. The fact that there is no fundamental device to represent their own voices is a big problem. Park said, “Webtoons cannot be defined as just cartoons because they have so many unique features that are different from our definition of a cartoon. Examples of these differences are the manner of developing the story, way of directing, ripple effect and influence on the readers and so on. Also, the distribution structure and operation systems are different from original cartoons which are published in comic books. The writers need their own distinctive association, the Korean Cartoonist Association.” Like his word, it is beyond all reason. The absence of a cartoonist association is unacceptable considering the great popularity and ripple effects that webtoons have today.
But beside this self-governing system, the industry needs support from the government. It is a pitiful condition that considers the business of drawing webtoon as less than other fields. Lee Seong-yong, an action officer in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), said, “We do not know the exact market breadth of webtoons because they are only published on portal sites for free.” Of course, there is a question why the association of webtoon did not look into their situation. But it is a important problem that the related organizations of the government do not have an interest to know more about it. Webtoon is a developing cultural business enough and it has infinite potential but there has been few interests from the government so far.
What is needed to reform the condition of webtoonists?
〈〈 Relieving the Unfair Contractual Relation by Distribution Counter from Portal Sites
Lee Se-mi, assistant of planning at Anibooks, a publishing company for comic books, said, ”It is an avoidable problem for the writer and their work that portal sites are the only counters to represent webtoons. It is urgent to immediately change this process. Of course, portals provide information on the webtoons to the public very well, and this counter will continually tie the strong portals to the much weaker writers.” Therefore, the experts are trying to diversify webtoon platforms to improve their design structures. Professor Joo added, “We need alternative mediums of cartoons. For example, we can make a cartoon magazine which targets high-tech media like smartphones or tablet PCs. Doing this, we can try to get away from portals.”
Actual attempts are currently happening. One of them is for Tapastic, a webtoon site which breaks from original portal websites by targeting and publishing Korean webtoons to the North American market. It was launched this October, and is composed of 40 American and 15 Korean writers. Here, korean webtoonists take charge of the dramatization, drawing and translation, thereby showing their ability to America.
Also, an independent agency of webtoons was founded in 2009. Nulook Media was established by webtoonists to protect their working systems and business copyrights. These systems are still undergoing trials, but are a valuable activity to broaden the reach of webtoons which was previously trapped only in portals.
▲ Tapastic is a website which aims to northern America trying to independ from portals. ©www.tapastic.com
〈〈 Implementation of a paid service for webtoons
The voice to convert the webtoon service from free to charge has only existed for a few years. However, due to the worry that a sudden change to a payment system will make readers reluctant to buy, the service could not be implemented. Not long ago, a representative Korean Website, Daum, started a paid system for the first time. The system, though, will not applied to all webtoons, but only a few works which are no longer being published or are in the process of being published. And the price is comparable to that of cartoon books. Then the merit to read cartoon for free on websites is not meaningful anymore. A Produce Director from department of webtoon at Daum, Park Jeong-seo, said, “It was the first time to make readers pay for webtoons. We are sorry to our readers, but we confirmed that the profits from this system have helped the writers.”
Naver is also putting together a partially paid system as well. It maintains the overall free webtoon system, but for additionally provided services, it requires users to pay a charge. For example, if a webtoon which ran once a week has been opened up to episode 10, and people who want to quickly read the remaining story from episode 11, should pay some money.
Although these two sites have different ways to implement charging service, they are gradually rolling out these systems and watching the reactions of the readers. These efforts are important steps to improving the lives of writers.
〈〈 Endeavor to develop webtoons as an important culture content by the cartoonists themselves and through government support
Fortunately, an action to create a voice for the wetoonists is currently happening. According to Professor Park, “We had a forum to organize an association of webtoonists and discuss our working environment this past June. The association has not been completed yet, but we are progressing as to how to guide it to completion now.” An issue though is the support promised by the government has not been fulfilled yet. Officer Lee, of MCST, discussed the inconvenience of working environment this June. The association has not been completed yet, but we are progressing as to how to guide it to completion now.” An issue, though, which is the support promised by the government has not been fulfilled yet. Lee, discussed the inconvenience of this situation. ”In April of this year, there was a news report that MCST would invest about one billion won to develop our culture business and help its overseas expansion. Also, the budget of MCST would increase about 6.4percent as compared to this year. Sadly, these investments were mostly applied to K-pop, drama, or movies which are already obtaining results. The government also needs to invest some of the money in other genres, like our own potential webtoon culture that is quite different from the others.”
As he said, webtoons show a possibility as a potential cultural content. In the case of “With God,” which was favorably received as a reinterpretation of Korean myths and today’s society, the contracts to remake the cartoon in Japan and export it to China were made. It shows a new aspect of “K-toons,” proving to the government the value of investing in webtoons.
A well structured basement opens the possibility of a webtoon as a potential cultural content
A stable and well known webtoonist who ranks all his serials in a portal has described his current daily life, “Well, I now live better compared to the hard days when I had to spend every minute to find place to publish my work. Many people think my life is very luxurious now that I have become famous. But the reality is not exactly like they think.” He smiled, and added, “Nevertheless, what I really feel pitiful is that people who love to draw and create their stories into webtoons will be motivated by seeing cases like mine today, and struggle away in the darkness that I also passed. I sincerely hope to improve the environment where potential webtoonists in the future can spread their abilities freely.”
When the first webtoon was introduced, it was just a short, funny cartoon. Now, this simple story has developed to describe our lives in society, send messages and humor, help us share our daily lives and make people cry or smile. It has become a valuable cultural content today. However, to maintain this impression, the working environment for webtoonists needs to be checked to help maintain the consistent enthusiasm of webtoons. This would be a step in the right direction in maintaining this unique and valuable content of Korean culture.