By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Hwalin Oh: ‘To Reimagine Backlists’As Publishing Perspectives readers will remember, in early September, we had exclusive word of a new serialized fiction app being prepared by the tech team behind Naver’s Webtoon, the South Korean comics and graphic storytelling platform based in a suburb of Seoul.
Our sources at the time, who were unable to speak on the record about the then-secret project, spoke of it as a way to leverage the popular framework of serialization for trade publishers to use in presenting valuable backlist titles, often otherwise overlooked by consumers, in serial form.
This morning (October 13), we have word of this new app’s rollout. It’s called Yonder and its initial appearance features content from publishers including Blackstone, Sterling and Stone, and Aethon Books.
The president of this new product is Hwalin Oh, who is also CSO, chief strategy officer, at Toronto’s Wattpad. That platform, you’ll recall, was acquired by Naver in a US$600 million merger completed in May 2021 with Naver’s Webtoon. And the announcement—no longer in the hushed pre-launch stages—is being introduced as coming from “the Webtoon family of brands” and “from the teams behind” the “storytelling tech platforms Webtoon and Wattpad.” Wattpad has begun using the term “web novels” for the serialized writing and reading that’s popular on its own 94-million-user platform.
In commentary provided to Publishing Perspectives, Oh says, “Yonder works with publishing partners to reimagine their backlists in a unique serialized mobile format that will inject new life and renewed interest into previously released works. The app also collaborates with each of its authors to optimize their stories for the platform.
“With the growing popularity of web novels and mobile reading,” she says, “Yonder presents a new opportunity for authors and publishers to capitalize on these categories and new reading trends to reach new audiences.”
As we did in our earlier story before the name of the product and the players behind it were public knowledge, we’d again like to get ahead of one potential misconception: this new app is being described to us as one that’s not for user-generated content (UGC), as Wattpad is and as parts of Webtoon are.
Instead, this property has been presented to Publishing Perspectives as a professionally curated and designed market resource for professionally published books. And in line with that concept, we see today’s official language about the product calling it “a premium, curated experience,” which may represent to publishers a new bridge to backlist sales with access to a potentially enormous audience of consumers who appreciate serialization.
As we know, backlist sales have soared during the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, something that will be echoed by major publishing-house CEOs in some of our Publishing Perspectives Forum Executive Talks next week at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 19 to 23).
Separately, Wattpad senior vice-president Ashleigh Gardner will be at Frankfurt this year for the company in her capacity as the managing director for global publishing.
First Looks at the Product
Despite stated commitments to the publishing industry, it won’t be missed by industry observers that the consumer pitch—particularly in book covers being shown in graphics on the site for the new app—trends sharply toward the majority young-female-romance-and-horror-inclined demographic that Wattpad itself does.
Classifications being emphasized in the graphics on the Yonder site include “Romantic Suspense,” “Billionaire,” “New Adult,” Romance,” “Fantasy and Science-Fiction,” “Mystery, Thriller, Horror,” and “Paranormal.” There’s also a reference to a “LitRPG”—a bookish role-playing game. If this new venture appears to publishers to be anchored, as Wattpad is sometimes perceived as being, in bad-boy romance, then its value may not be apparent to producers of more serious genres and sectors of the book business.
What’s not in evidence at this point–and the offering is in its earliest days, remember–is an interest in literary or commercial fiction, political or other nonfiction, self-help or instructional content, younger children’s books—in other words, some of the powerhouse sectors of the professional book business today. How well this app’s leadership understands the international trade book publishing industry will become clearer as the approach matures, of course.
What could be interesting might be a partnership for Yonder with Open Road Integrated Media, which holds one of the best-recognized backlist vaults in the world and engages in D2C marketing strategies. There might be interest in parts of the broader reading consumer base in being offered serialized offerings of recognized and revered backlist—some of which has been the lucrative target of readers during the pandemic years. (One interviewee on another story just today told us of reading all the Tolkien Lord of the Rings books during the last two years, something he hadn’t had a chance to do in the past.)
In voicing today’s pitch to the industry, Oh goes on to say, “Yonder takes mobile serialized reading to an entirely new level, with high-quality, curated content, and a model that rewards readers for doing what they love, reading.”
And in making what’s likely to be the pitch to consumers, she says, “On Yonder, the more you read, the more you get, with rewards and perks to read even more. With some of the most exciting voices in fiction, and a product that encourages and rewards reading, Yonder is the future of fiction, bringing bookshelf quality stories to a serialized mobile app.”
‘From Scary to Steamy’
Media messaging today talks of “binge-worthy stories … with a focus on curation, stories from influential authors and publishers, and an enhanced experience that rewards readers with more to read. … From scary to steamy, mysterious to scintillating, Yonder hosts a diverse array of exciting fiction, with new chapters added daily.”
There are surely some pluses here for publishers to consider. The app, for example, is at this point being called “ad- and distraction-free.” There’s also a plan to “allow readers to explore several chapters free before deciding to unlock additional chapters” using digital “coins,” an e-commerce tool that Wattpad has experience with from previous projects.
“Readers will also receive regular promotional deals,” media messaging says, “giving them more chances to engage, explore, and indulge with stories on Yonder at no cost.”
There’s no question, surely, that the folks who can design and provide the back end for platforms like those of Wattpad and Webtoon are perfectly capable of creating an efficient, attractive app for serialized reading. What it may come down to for many publishers is what audience Yonder targets; which content is relevant to that audience; how a company’s content therefore looks on the app alongside other inventory; and whether the Yonder subscriber will be interested in work that’s broader in breadth and scope than that dominating Wattpad and Webtoon.
We’re told that the app is available for Android devices now, “and coming soon to iOS.”
At Frankfurt, join us for the inaugural edition of Publishing Perspectives Forum, a two-day program of leading and influential professionals in the international publishing industry discussing today’s challenges, dynamics, and trends.
Attendance is free of charge for all Frankfurter Buchmesse exhibitors and trade visitors. The program language is English. You’ll find full details and developing news here.
More from Publishing Perspectives on Webtoon is here, more on mergers and acquisitions is here, more from us on serialization is here, and more on publishers’ backlist is here.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.