Why Online Mobile Publishing Is the Future

Every young writer’s dream probably goes a little something like this: Start writing a book, publish it online, and gain a massive fan base from all around the world. Then find ways to monetize and gradually make writing a main source of income and transition to doing it full-time. And who knows, maybe later down the road, Hollywood comes knocking and a passion project gets turned into something for the big screen?

That’s exactly the story of Bi Chu, a Korean writer who found stardom publishing his work online. He’s published eight popular stories to date, including They Say I Was Born a King’s Daughter, an international hit. On the Chinese entertainment platform Tencent, the title reached more than 100 million views in 40 days. In the U.S., on online comics and novels platform Tapas, the title has grossed over $600,000 from micropayments alone.

These days, apps are where most digital media consumption is happening—especially among younger millennial and Gen-Z audiences—and bite-size stories optimized for mobile reading provide a highly engaging form of entertainment media. Even in the era of video streaming, reading still has its place. It’s an easy-to-navigate medium where readers can control the pace of consumption (whereas a 40-minute video can’t easily be sped up).

The publishing industry laments that young people don’t read anymore, but they actually read more now than ever—think Twitter feeds and Reddit comment sections. It’s the traditional print books that are losing ground, and publishing needs to fundamentally change to suit today’s mobile audience.

Examples of success on online publishing platforms have attracted many aspiring young creators to pursue their own dreams of becoming the next breakout star. Successful web-novel writers come from various walks of life: students, doctors, legal professionals, and even executives at big companies. What they have in common is their creative drive and their shared vision of online publishing as a way to reach and connect with millions of readers.

Through commenting and messaging, readers can provide instant feedback to creators, who can then tweak their stories as they develop, allowing them to grow as writers and find greater success. Readers can also directly support their favorite creators with virtual payments and donations.

But reaching readers doesn’t always pay the bills; monetization is a critical feature for creators. Asian platforms typically use a pay-to-unlock model using virtual currencies, with the first few chapters available for free to draw readers in. This makes reading similar to playing “freemium” games—readers can enjoy some free content, but to experience more of the story, they’ll need to pay a little bit. Users aren’t locked into monthly subscription fees like they are for streaming services—a model that is starting to wear on U.S. audiences because of its abundance. Instead, the pay-as-you-go model presents a smaller hurdle for readers and provides a “compounding effect” for creators: the more stories they write, the more paid chapters they’ll have published and the higher their revenue potential will become.

Open storytelling platforms have established themselves as a treasure trove of IPs that can be made into TV series or feature films. In South Korea in 2018, five out of the 10 top-grossing domestic movies were based on stories originally published on online platforms such as Kakao Page and Naver. As more films and TV shows are created, online publishing platforms draw more fresh talent, each creating more stories and attracting more readers.

The future of storytelling will be data informed, which positions online platforms in a unique position to help storytellers and readers come across, produce, and consume popular trends in real time. Since these online platforms sit on massive amounts of data, they can analyze which types of stories are doing well among different readerships in order to spot trends early. Contrast this to traditional publishing’s “throw things at the wall and see what sticks” approach, which often depends more on gut than data.

Today’s readers are hungry for new, original, and diverse stories. Great stories come from exceptionally talented and hardworking creators. Online publishing platforms democratize art in ways we’ve never seen before, allowing for talents like Bi Chu to succeed. Having taken a young man from a part-time banker to a full-time, internationally acclaimed writer, digital is the publishing revolution that empowers dreams to come true.

Chang Kim is the founder and CEO of Tapas Media, a platform and community on which more than 50,000 creators publish original stories in the form of serialized webcomics and novels.

A version of this article appeared in the 11/25/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Stories to Go


Let’s get Americans reading again!

Americans are increasingly turning away from books.  According to the Atlantic, the percentage of Americans who didn’t read a book during the past year tripled from 8% in 1978 to 23% in 2014. Literary works (fiction and nonfiction) fared the worst, with 40% of Americans admitting they did not read a single literary work in the past year.

There is a solution: mobile.

People spend more time than ever on mobile devices. In 2012, Americans spent 60% more time in front of their television sets than on mobile devices. But by 2014, mobile surpassed television to become America’s favorite platform.  People spend more time on mobile devices, especially smartphones, than any other entertainment outlet, and this trend is only growing.  The first step to getting Americans reading again is to embrace this change and put content on the mobile devices where people already spend their time.

The publishing industry will have many opportunities for growth as it undergoes the same evolution that challenged the music, movie, and TV industries. As it shifts first from hard copies to digital downloads and then to mobile services, the book publishing industry will witness the emergence of new players that bring about true mobile innovations, much in the same way services such as Spotify and Candy Crush Saga have with their superior mobile offerings. They have fundamentally changed their respective industries by designing solutions that optimize the advantages and limitations of the device and context from their very inception; others who have simply forced an existing solution onto different devices (i.e. porting a PC or console game onto a phone rather than creating a mobile-specific game) have not fared nearly as well. The best services open up the possibilities of the platform, affecting users’ lifestyles by changing their behaviors, routines, spending habits, etc.

Books on mobile: possibilities and some real-world examples

So what exactly constitutes a mobile revolution in the publishing industry? Putting book content on mobile screens where Americans increasingly spend their time gets us a part of the way there, but the mobile platform presents so many more possibilities.  Here are just a few:

  • Bite-sized stories: People typically use their phones in many distinct, short sessions throughout the day. Mobile stories need to be designed accordingly, with this pattern of bite-sized consumption in mind. For instance, the “mobile novels” app, Hooked, offers captivating short stories that can be read a few minutes at a time.
  • Multimedia: Mobile is great for visual content, evidenced by the popularity of Instagram.  Other apps like Steller exemplify the ways in which multimedia storytelling enhances the user experience.
  • Serial publishing: Unlike the traditional publishing model, authors don’t have to complete a book before publishing on mobile. They can launch first and keep adding new chapters, similar to new levels of Candy Crush or episodes of your favorite podcast. The serial publishing model also leads to higher user engagement.  
  • Freemium business model: As Chris Dixon eloquently points out, the content industry has much to learn from the gaming industry, notably the business model. Mobile games have mastered app monetization with the “free-to-play” (F2P) or freemium model, consistently topping mobile revenue chartsKakao Page, the leading mobile content marketplace in Korea, successfully applied the freemium business model to books. Top authors make over $90K a month from freemium sales on Kakao Page.
  • Interactivity: Mobile is fundamentally a social communication platform, and mobile books can capitalize on this. On Wattpadan uncurated self-publishing app, readers follow writers and can comment on any part of the book. Episodean interactive books app, allows readers to choose their own adventure as they read.

These are just a few of the exciting possibilities the mobile platform brings to the publishing industry.  As individual authors and the publishing industry at large embrace these changes, more people will read books again — though how they read may radically change.


What The Publishing Industry Can Learn From The Four Horsemen

Tapas attended the Digital Book World conference earlier last week. We met with the most brilliant minds pioneering the digital/mobile publishing space especially those present at the Launchpad session.

Despite DBW being an a fantastic event, it wasn’t exactly what I had expected as a first time attendee. Given the name of the conference, I was imagining a cross between a tech conference and a book conference. Let’s say the publishing industry’s version of Techcrunch Disrupt, if you will.

It was interesting to spot subtle undertones of a cautionary stance — or even “fear” — towards digital technology at the conference. Phrases like “the four horsemen of apocalypse” (Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple) and “[the publishing industry] getting Facebook’ed” (meaning their business being decimated by Facebook) were heard throughout.

I’ve spent most of my career in the online/mobile tech industry and am now trying to help innovate the publishing industry with Tapas. As a relative outsider to the publishing world, I couldn’t help but think: instead of fearing the four horsemen, why not try to learn from them? Obviously these companies are immensely successful and that means there are many lessons to be learned. Among them, these low hanging fruits can be the good starting points.

Look outward and be aggressive

One thing the four horsemen companies have in common is even after becoming hugely successful, they never stop innovating. Publishing companies should stop looking inwards and stop obsessing over how to keep whatever is left of the print book’s market share. Instead, they should think about how to self-innovate and self-disrupt.

As they say, the best defense is a good offense. Publishers need to get out of a defensive mindset and start keying on the offense. Set up moonshot goals and try to deliver on them. How can the publishing industry grow 5x in the next 10 years? (We know smartphone users might grow 5x in that time span). How can reading be an integral experience for passengers of self-driving cars?

Find and embrace the next “toy”

Any type of technology that brings major, fundamental disruption to an industry usually starts out as something resembling a toy. Facebook was a toy, Twitter was a toy, Farmville was a toy, and the list goes on. Publishing is a very established industry; its history in years is measured in the hundreds! As such, it’s very easy to dismiss something new as a toy — something that people will never use.

The horsemen companies often make early moves that some people might scratch their heads over. People didn’t really get it when Facebook paid $2 billion for Occulus or when Amazon started offering Amazon Web Service, but these turned out to be brilliant, prescient moves.

So what are the publishing industry’s toys that we see today?

Embrace Silicon Valley

All four companies have a major presence in Silicon Valley. Three of them started in the Valley, with Amazon subsequently establishing a large research presence there. Sure, Silicon Valley is known for drinking its own kool-aid and being “out there”, to the point where even HBO has a hard time keeping up. But Silicon Valley is also the epicenter of technological innovation, which some people have called “the modern day Florence” (an homage to the city’s role during the Renaissance).

Software and mobile technology are “eating the world.” And when we refer to “the world”, it certainly includes the publishing industry. So, I’d like to encourage the publishing industry to have more of a presence in Silicon Valley. Organize meetups in the bay area. Start a conference and ask for ideas about how the publishing world can use Silicon Valley’s innovative technologies to totally revamp itself. Who knows — the horsemen companies might “pay it forward” and sponsor a conference!

Reinvent the business

The horsemen companies built huge empires in very different business sectors. Google is the new Microsoft, and Facebook is the new Google, and so on. It’s worth noting that Google didn’t build a better Windows (instead, they built an internet search engine and contextual advertisements). Likewise, Facebook didn’t build a better search engine, but instead built a massive social network. See a pattern here? If the publishing industry is paranoid about something potentially coming in and totally undermining them, such a thing will likely come totally out of the left field (in other words, a toy — see above). It won’t be a better version of publishing. It will be something completely new.

Think about how to completely reinvent the business while preserving the essence of the industry. No other industry has better connections to the world’s best writers and storytellers than the publishing industry. Leverage this competitive advantage and reinvent.