Korean communications and media subsidiary Kakao Piccoma has confirmed to multiple Korean news agencies that its attempt to expand its owned and operated webtoon/manga platform Piccoma outside of Japan has faltered. Based in France, Piccoma’s European operation is set to close sometime in September 2024, citing the massive slowdown in user growth over the past two years.

France is widely considered Europe’s largest market for Japanese manga in terms of volumes sold and total sales, so launching Piccoma, one of Japan’s most popular and profitable apps for manga and webtoons into the European comics market in 2021 and releasing the official French version of their webtoon app in 2022 seemed to be a logical next step for global expansion.

Besides offering webtoons from S. Korea, the French version of Piccoma (like the Japanese app) offered a mix of exclusive manga titles from smaller Japanese publishers, like Shonen Gahosha or Houbunsha, which have been historically ignored by French publishers for print licensing in favor of popular teen-focused genres, and titles with anime tie-ins.

French key art of Sematic Error webtoon
L’Esquisse d’une Romance (Romantic Graffiti) by Bamsik (C&C Revolution)

Kakao Piccoma, the Japanese subsidiary of S. Korean technology and entertainment giant Kakao Corporation, has been leading the way for digital comics publishing in Japan for years. Since its arrival in the Japanese market in 2016, Piccoma has been offering readers a mix of vertical-scrolling webtoons and manga series from established publishers and international webtoon creators via websites and their mobile apps. Piccoma was one of the early adopters of the “wait until free” model in Japan, which offers readers free chapters, but to read the next, they need to either wait a few hours or days to read the next, or pay a fee to continue reading. 

Piccoma has enjoyed an enviable level of success in Japan, where it counts on access to titles from local manga publishers, in various genres and formats, including manga in ebook/single and double-page spread formats, and vertical-scrolling comics by creators from Japan, Korea, and beyond.

According a January 2024 article from The Korea Economic Daily:

Piccoma’s transaction value exceeded 100 billion yen ($675.2 million) in 2023, for the first time since its launch in April 2016. The app is the only digital comic service platform worldwide with such a milestone, according to the company.

Piccoma also topped the consumer spending ranking in the world’s third-largest Japanese mobile app market. In the global market, Piccoma ranked No. 17 for all apps and No. 7 for apps excluding games, on which users usually spend more, following TikTok, YouTube, Disney+, Tinder, Google One and HBO Max, according to a mobile app market analysis firm data.ai.

Piccoma’s market-leading success in Japan, boosted by the growth of webtoons being adapted into anime series, makes its withdrawal from the French market even more surprising.

Why did Piccoma fail in the French comics scene? It wasn’t for lack of popular comics content — The most read titles on the French version of the platform were included many series that are hugely popular in Japanese via Piccoma and in English via Tapas and other webtoon apps. Piccoma’s French site offered action-fantasy hit Solo Leveling by DUBU(REDICE STUDIO), Chugong, and h-goon (graphic novels and novels are published in English by Yen Press, along with an anime adaptation now airing on Crunchyroll), romantic-fantasy stories like Doctor Elise by Yu In (which is available in English on Kakao Entertainment’s Tapas Media, Tappytoon and Lezhin, and also the source for an upcoming anime series) and boys love romances like Romantic Graffiti by Bamsik (which is available in English on WEBTOON) as well as offering the digital edition of Shueisha’s hit One Piece manga.

According to Kakao Piccoma, the company first decided to launch international services in France due to the strong preference for Japanese manga among French fans in March of 2021. In a prepared statement sent to multiple Korean media outlets, Kakao remarked on the latest development:

“In light of the slowdown in (France’s cartoon) market growth since the company’s decision to launch operations in France, Kakao Piccoma is currently undergoing the process of withdrawing its operations from France to refocus its priority. Kakao Piccoma intends to persist in its efforts to initiate the company’s next phase of expansion, by retaining its experience in conducting business in France.”

The exit of Piccoma from the French market contrasts with strong in-app sales in Japan for digital manga/webtoons for the first half of 2023, which totaled volume of 100 billion yen ($641 million USD) last year. This is based partly on Piccoma’s use of algorithm-based recommendation engines to spotlight featured manga and webtoons series to users, which makes finding readers’ next favorite series easy and addictive. 

Publishing industry watchers in Japan took the news of Kakao Piccoma’s exit from the French market seriously, with one manga editor/publishing exec wondering if this is a sign of a webtoon “bubble” that’s starting to deflate.

Kazuaki Ishibashi, CEO of Comic Room (@mikunikko on X/Twitter) had this to say: (roughly translated from this tweet into English):

Piccoma’s withdrawal from Europe has people in the industry buzzing. Why is this happening when WEBTOON is said to be expanding worldwide and becoming a huge market? The WEBTOON market, which had been fueled by various people and gave investors dreams, is starting to show signs of decline. 

From the perspective of the field, it feels like the market size is already reaching its limit, at least in Japan. Recently, many Korean studios have gone out of business, and Japanese companies that had started a new business with WEBTOON are starting to withdraw one after another. It even feels like the collapse of the WEBTOON bubble has already begun in the production field. 

What is not known now is how the withdrawal from the French market will affect plans for further international expansion of Piccoma and webtoon-based apps in general. While France has for years been the largest market for manga outside of Japan (outpacing the US/Canada market for manga in English), the US/Canada market has been publishing more and seeing greater success and reader adoption of Korean comics and webtoons and even webnovels, both via apps and in print than their French counterparts.

It was thought that Piccoma’s success in France would pave the way for further potential growth in other established publishing markets within Europe, where the local scene is dominated by titles from Japanese publishing giants Kodansha, Shogakukan, and Shueisha with its Manga Plus digital platform, as well as the surge in popularity of Naver’s WEBTOON as a platform for independent webcomic/webtoon creators, amongst other options for webtoons in French such as Lehzin, Toomics and so on.

How To Kill The Villain French key art
How To Kill The Villain French key art

The English-language report from the Korean outlet JoonAng Daily also states that the French market’s preference for physical manga purchases was a leading factor in Kakao Piccoma’s withdrawal. This makes sense, as French business regulations exist that protect book publishers and booksellers of all sizes from being undercut by digital offerings in an effort to preserve the local publishing industry, and local manga publishers also benefit from the protections.

With France’s and the wider European preference for printed manga, digital webtoon and manga platforms will need to develop new strategies for convincing manga readers and collectors that their platforms are not only worth investing in, but are also an ideal companion to manga in print, not just another competitor.

Sources: The Korea Economic Daily, Korea JoonAng DailyThe Korea Herald

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