Tom Akel, CEO and Publisher of Rocketship Entertainment

As CEO and publisher of Rocketship Entertainment, Tom Akel has a unique view of the webtoon-to-print pipeline. Webtoons are Rocketship’s specialty, and they’ve already released more than 25, often crowdfunded (see “Rocketship Entertainment Lines Up 17 Graphic Novels for 2022”). Prior to Rocketship, Akel was Head of Content for Webtoon Entertainment for three years, so he’s been working in webtoon since 2013. We asked him to take a long-term view of the industry as well as talk about how Rocketship works and what trends he foresees for the future.

ICv2: You’ve based your entire business on the idea that webtoon readers will pay to read comics in print. What makes you think it will succeed?
Tom Akel:
We are well beyond the question of “will it succeed?” “. We’ve run over 25 consecutive successful crowdfunding campaigns and have titles that have been in print multiple times and reached #1 on Amazon.

Looking back, when we started over three years ago, nobody cared about these creators. So Rocketship put together a release pipeline that included all the elements of what it would take to bring their titles to market through crowdfunding, large-scale distribution, and foreign language, while providing our expertise editorial in webtoon and print formats and design services, all of which was a glaring hole in the market. On top of that, we’re proud to offer and continue to offer creators the best terms in the industry.

Why did you integrate crowdfunding into your business model?

Since these are digital first fans who are used to being able to interact with their favorite content on a regular basis, the crowdfunding model excites fans and they can be part of the process. We offer exclusives and content there that realistically cannot exist in traditional distribution. Fans receive exclusive covers or cases, original artwork from the creators, limited-edition merchandise, and some may even appear in the book.

Essentially, we wanted to bring all the exciting ways creators and fans can interact digitally into the printing process.

How do you decide which webtoons to bring to print?
It’s a combination of creators contacting Rocketship directly through our submissions portal and we work with creators we have long-standing relationships with or spot a title online that we think will perform well. And the different platforms all work differently in terms of rights. For example, we work directly with Tapas on their titles, where with the creators of webtoon that we publish, just like the creators of webcomics that we publish who are mainly on Facebook and Instagram, the creators control their printing rights, we so let’s deal directly with them.

What is the correlation between the number of online readers and book sales?

As you can probably anticipate, sales correlate with the size of the creator’s audience. However, we are also reaching new fans for these titles who don’t like to read online but are looking for compelling stories.

And the more creators Rocketship brings into the tent, the more cross-pollination happens with our catalog. So as fans of each of these titles appreciate the care and quality that Rocketship brings to our products, they’ll buy additional titles they haven’t played before. We see a huge number of loyal customers.

How will webtoon readers discover your print books?
We’re distributed worldwide by Simon and Schuster, work with a fantastic foreign rights agency in JABberwocky Literary, and all of our titles are diamond too. Additionally, we have a 360 marketing engine that reaches fans through multiple channels, we are active on the convention circuit having exhibited at NYCC, ECCC and Baltimore last fall and our 2022 tour begins with our booth at San Diego Comic Con of this year where we’ll also be hosting panels, signings and special fan events, all of our Kickstarter campaigns have been Kickstarter “Project We Love” and most have been Project of the Day. It’s almost impossible for fans not to know when we release a book. So much so that we’re especially proud to have been recognized by fans as the winner of the 2021 Ringo Award for Favorite Editor.

What genres and styles seem to be the most popular?
Just like the rest of the print market, we see success across all genres and styles. At the end of the day, it’s about publishing great stories.

How is the audience for webtoons different than for print comics?

Historically, we all know the answer to this question. You have a much younger, more diverse audience in digital and an older audience in print that grew up with the titles that we know mostly from Marvel, DC, and the other five or six major comic book publishers. That’s changing, and that’s what excites us at Rocketship, where we see that younger audience wanting to own the physical copies of the titles they love as we reach new fans in those same areas who still prefer print. .

Are there a lot of crossovers, in terms of creators and audience?
There really wasn’t much to start with, but as Rocketship has grown this sector of the industry, we’ve seen those lines blur to the point that there’s now a large-scale, established market for these books. which did not exist before 2019.

What changes do you make to the comics when you bring them to print?
As you can imagine, this is the biggest challenge in adapting webtoon/vertical comics for print audiences. We take a close look at the pace of the title and determine where we want the impact panels to land, where we want the pages to turn, where we might want to work in a splash page or a double page spread, and of course the placement and lettering scale. And the creators are vetted every step of the way, because no one knows their titles and vision better than they do.

We have been doing this job for years now and I am confident in saying that we are the best in the business.

Why is webtoon audience the fastest growing part of the comics market?

Really, it’s the same reason today as it was 5 years ago. Comics go with you wherever you go, they’re free and primarily target an extremely underserved audience.

You’ve been in this business longer than most people. What changes have you noticed during your career in the company?
When I started at WEBTOON, nobody knew what a webtoon was, or who was LINE or Tapas. I think we had something like less than 10,000 unique per day. At the same time, the brands in the space were all figuring out what they wanted to be, which solidified primarily into romance, drama, and slice-of-life aimed at a teen/teen audience.

Along with the continued growth and options for creators of platforms available to launch their webtoons, I’ve also witnessed the evolution of terms for creators over the years, and frankly not always for the better where it seems like what was once a true creator-owned industry is taking a few turns.

Then we saw watershed moments like the massive acquisition of Tapas by Kakao, who really coined the idea and the term “webtoon.” This kind of outing was almost unthinkable a few years ago.

And now we’ve seen the results of bringing these titles into a print market where the numbers sit next to the top comic book publishers, so we know that’s a market and a model that’s here to stay.

How do you see the growth of this new digital format impacting the print comics industry in the future?

Going back to your first question, the next few years will be an interesting time as the viability of webcomics in print has proven itself and as more webtoon apps and businesses are formed, there will be more of content on your physical shelf. . At Rocketship, we’ve seen a title like let’s play reach #1 on Amazon and be the #1 project for a month on the entire Kickstarter platform. The impact is already being felt.

What we’ll see in the future is more players in the space than ever before, which will mean more options for creators and hopefully more education for creators about the conditions that they should really seek out as these opportunities develop.

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