Staying productive during an ongoing global pandemic becomes harder as the months go by. However, reading online comics is a pastime that’s grown even more popular as the world functions at reduced capacity. Lezhin has been leading the charge in offering readers worldwide with popular titles like Byeonduck’s Painter of the Night and videos introducing such stories on their YouTube channel.
In the past year, the digital platform has made strides in bridging the gap between physical and digital by launching a store on Naver, providing fans with merchandise and printed material for their favorite series. In addition, they’ve launched special editions of Painter of the Night in Japan and Taiwan. But what can fans across the Pacific expect? Compared to publishing giants like Webtoons and Kakao, Lezhin is a small but mighty platform. Michael Song, Lezhin Comics’ Content Lead for the United States, sat down with Asia Pacific Arts to talk more about what’s going on behind the scenes, as well as upcoming plans for US fans.
APA: Can you introduce yourself and what you do at Lezhin?
Michael: Yes, hello. I’m the US Content Lead at Lezhin Entertainment. Any comics, manga, webtoon, or content that are uploaded on the US platform go through me. They’re planned, presented, and approved by me to make sure everything fits on our platform and is up to our standards.
APA: Congrats on wrapping up Lezhin’s 2020 Comic Challenge! Could you tell me a little bit more about the competition?
Michael: On the Korean side of Lezhin, the comic contest is an international contest and we’ll get submissions in English, Japanese, and Korean. We’ll translate it from its original language to the other ones and it’ll be on our platform. Right now, the US contest has many submissions that come from the US, but also South East Asia, Europe, and Russia. It’s a lot more global than we expected. The US contest from a couple of years ago wasn’t as large in comparison.
APA: How do you screen the content that goes up on the platform?
Michael: We can generally categorize our content into two different groups: English and other languages (Japanese, Korean, or Chinese). The content we get from creators or publishers in Japan, South Korea, and China go through our internal translating, typesetting, etc. team here. This generally makes up the bulk of our content, which include Killing Stalking or Blood Bank or The Greatest Wolf of My Life. All those titles are originally published in Korea and we bring them from the Korea side or other publishers in Korea.
Outside of that, we have titles in English which could mean it was originally created in English, like Soul Drifters or Everyday Zen. We do have titles that come from manga publishers from Japan like the Scarlet Beriko titles which come in from Japanese publishers in English.
You probably know from our site that the most popular titles we roll out are the Boys Love ones. They vary from titles like Killing Stalking on one end and Heesu in Class 2 which is a story about two high school kids falling in love. A lot of my job consists of keeping a balance for our BL audience, making sure there’s a healthy catalogue and that it’s okay for people to read. Also making sure we have other titles in there as well. We’ve been mixing in more romance, more fantasy titles as of late. The idea is to maintain the catalogue and keep our fans, who are here to read some of our older titles or certain genres, happy by providing them with content they’re interested in.
APA: Are there any plans to further expand the readership in the US? For example, Lezhin has pushed out content on YouTube where two people are in a bed sharing their thoughts on a certain BL series and that’s been fairly popular on social media. The videos do a great job of making the stories available to an audience that doesn’t know anything about BL.
Michael: One of the small, core concepts that we’ve been trying to run with this year is focusing more on the titles or creators. If you’re a production studio or publisher, you look at the brand name of the company and figure out how to expand. While that’s going to be something any company wants to do, but what we want to do is have the content be the main focus.
No one really comes to Lezhin to see our logo; they’re here to read stories. If a series goes on hiatus, maybe audiences will want to read the creator’s note. That’s what we’ve been trying to focus on this year and that’s been informing us on what to do. For example, we did an interview with Byeonduck, creator of Painter of the Night. Let’s have more YouTube creators come in and work with them to create interesting content with the stories that we have. It’s less of us trying to dictate what we want and letting the creators and stories tell themselves.
APA: Are there any more plans for fan interactions or ways for fans to dive into the backgrounds of their favorite authors? Some of them have social media profiles on Twitter and Instagram, but is there anything Lezhin is aiming to do to feed those fans while a series is on hiatus or encouraging them to read other content on the platform?
Michael: We have been always trying to get people to read more. One tactic is we’ve shifted from giving discounts on comics to opening up more episodes for free to get more people in the door and get interested in these titles. We’ve been extending the timeframe for opening up a larger number of chapters for more titles. It’s about us getting out of the way and introducing people to stories that have great art and plot.
On the other end, we do like making content where fans have a chance to interact with the creators. But the creator’s notes aren’t something we can ask for; it’s their choice to do it or if they want to take that extra week off. Anything on the US side, we try to redesign, translate, typeset everything for fans to read that.
While we’ve used YouTube for more than a few trailers and videos until now, we’re hoping to do more videos with creators like Byeonduck or Youngha and Bakdam. Giving readers and fans a look behind the panels to see how creators write and draw has always been something we’ve been interested in.
Especially right now, there’s not much we can do in terms of physical interactions at conventions or events. We did have a few planned for this year, not just in the US but also in Japan. Everything has been wiped out by COVID-19.
APA: That is disappointing to hear that plans were cancelled, but given the situation, I’m sure fans understand. Speaking of which, Lezhin had an event in Taiwan to celebrate a physical publication of Painter of the Night, and now Japan has their version as well. I saw an Animate preorder show up on my Twitter feed. What are Lezhin’s plans on having a US store to buy physical merchandise that’s available on the Naver store?
Michael: There’s the business red tape unfortunately. Generally, whether it’s physical merchandise or books, once we start to sell it we have to make sure that the author gets paid, everything is being stored, the contracts only allow us to sell this merchandise, and it can’t be reused for something else. We want to make sure the rights to the IP are contained for the creator themselves and that takes time. It’s easier to do that in Asia because of logistics.
To a certain degree, our authors are comfortable dealing with stuff in Asia because there’s familiarity with Korean and other Asian publishers compared to the US. For the US, there’s always been hopes but I can say now that plans should be pulling through, hopefully, by the end of the year. We should have something for the American audience in December/January.
So far, we have only done limited runs in the US through giveaways. The only way to get merchandise that is official is if you bought something from our Anime Expo booth years ago or you were one of the 200 people who won a contest on our site. The plan is to have this project up and running by the end of the year, but it’s hard to tell.
APA: Since you oversee what goes to the US, what is Lezhin’s proposition to readers in the US compared to platforms like Webtoon, Tapas, Tappytoon, etc.?
Michael: I’ve been here for about four years now, so it shifted a bit for Lezhin US. While I understand what Lezhin Japan does, I mainly focus on the US. Before I came in, the company had tried to go in with more action and mature content that was geared for a male audience and that didn’t quite work out since they started publishing more BL, GL, and romance titles. I think anyone who looks at our site knows that the BL genre is the strongest one on our site.
But there are plenty of publishers who offer the same thing. Us saying that we’re the king of BL might’ve meant something in the past, however, it’s hard to say that any company should pigeonhole themselves in a certain genre. We’ve expanded into romance and other genres while keeping up with the same amount of BL as our readers want. Other platforms allow you to post on their platform for free as an independent publisher, like Tapas or Webtoon, and maybe eventually be pushed to a paid, promoted echelon. Lezhin has always been interested in budding artists or people who are trying to tell stories.
We’re always interested in having a certain level of polish so when we ask readers to pay for it, they feel like it’s worth the money. We’ve always wanted Lezhin to have the feeling of coming to our site and knowing our stories will be good. To that degree, that’s how you separate out Lezhin from other platforms. We’re trying to focus on the stories that is worth your money, and that a reader is happy to pay and support their favorites.
I spend a lot of time on other platforms and I’ll read Isekai and Romance in my free time. Admittedly I’ve spent a lot of money on Tapas and Tappytoon over the past few months. Lezhin was the first premium webtoon platform in the world back then, but every other platform at the time would pay the creators whatever ad revenue they’d get paid, which wasn’t much. That would be used to drive up clicks, but Lezhin decided to act more as a publisher rather than a platform.
Spearheading the premium aspect of it and selling it with the authors getting a cut of it are what Lezhin did first. Since then, Lezhin has been the first to roll out a few different ideas and that’s what separates us because we’re always trying something new. It is difficult to see why a small independent platform like Lezhin could stand up to massive platforms like Kakao Page or Webtoons in Korea.
APA: What do you envision is the future of Lezhin?
Michael: It’s hard for me to say too much because a lot is in progress right now. Plans for physical merchandise are finally coming up on the horizon for the US side as a result of years of work. One thing that we see ourselves getting headway in is becoming the premiere platform for content coming from Korea, Japan, and China, but also for content coming from Southeast Asia, which is a region that has a lot of talent. If it’s translating content from Korea or Japan, we want to be the spot that publishers go to in order to have their content translated in. This is more of a long-term goal, and depending on COVID-19, we want to have a closer relationship with the audiences we have in the States.
I lived in California until I moved to Korea in my 20s, so I would like us to have a home base in the US. That would allow us to be able to do more events, merchandise, and meet and greets like what we did at Anime Expo years ago. A lot of the creators, especially the ones who came to Anime Expo with us, occasionally ask if we’re planning to do anything else in the US. We’re always trying to figure out a way to come back without repeating things that the creators are used to. We want audiences to be excited to meet them and recall how enjoyable it was to experience that. Everything we had planned this year was unfortunately dashed because of COVID-19 this year. However, we do want to make those plans happen depending on what happens next year.