When Seung Yoon Lee was president of the Oxford Union, the centuries-old debating society at the famed English university, he says he saw himself as a “content curator.” Part of his job, after all, was to invite intellectuals, politicians, artists, and celebrities–everyone from Peter Thiel to John McCain to “Gangnam Style” rapper Psy–to come speak at Oxford.
“I imagined it as a 200-year-old Ted Talk,” he says.
The experience proved to be a training ground of sorts for Lee, who goes by “SY,” and who recently cofounded Radish, an iOS and Android mobile app for serialized fiction. The writers on Radish aren’t quite as famous as those whom Lee assembled at Oxford, but the idea behind the venture is similar: providing a platform for artists to express themselves. Even the tech component that drives Radish is something Lee was dabbling with at school–under his leadership, Oxford Union speeches made their debut on YouTube.
But the real innovation behind Radish, which recently raised $3 million from investors including the United Talent Agency, Bertelsmann Digital Media, and author Amy Tan, is that it allows its writers to make money from their writing. Unlike Wattpad, another fiction app that has taken off with young genre writers, Radish has a micro-payment system similar to online games like Candy Crush. The way it works is that anyone can get access to early chapters of Radish’s 700 authors, but if you want to keep reading, you have to pay, anywhere from 20 to 40 cents per chapter. (Those with patience, can wait until those chapters are made available for free a few weeks later.) Revenue generated by these payments is split 50-50 between Radish and its writers. As a result, Lee says the app’s top writer earns $13,000 a month.
“Thanks to Candy Crush and other games,” says Lee, who has the youthful face and windswept hair of a pop star. “People have gotten really used to mobile micro-payments. So we said, why don’t we apply that model to books?”
Releasing installments of novels over a period of time to salivating readers dates back to Charles Dickens, someone whom Lee often refers to when giving his pitch about Radish. But the more recent inspiration comes from countries like Japan, China, and Lee’s native Korea, where “freemium” online publishing–where writers are rewarded in exchange for advance chapters–has become highly prevalent. Self-publishing websites attract over 40% of all of China’s internet users every month. And it’s lucrative: In China, top online writers–known as zhigaoshen, or “supreme gods”–can earn millions of dollars a year. Most of this money comes from royalty fees, as Chinese TV, movie, and gaming studios increasingly turn to online novelists (who typically specialize in short-form sci-fi, romance, and historical epics) for “IP” to turn into visual entertainment. According to the China Daily, 114 online novels were bought by entertainment companies in 2014, 90 of which were adapted into TV shows. Meanwhile, the Chinese online game company Giant Interactive bought 40 online novel copyrights during that time.
Lee says this phenomenon hasn’t taken off in the U.S.–yet–because most e-reading and writing has historically been done on the Kindle or other e-book readers. But that’s changing. As smartphone screens have gotten bigger, today more people use their phones to read books, a shift that Radish is poised to exploit.
“The future of e-readers is the future of iPods. You’re not going to hold on to these devices,” he says. “You’re just going to convert to phones.
“Reading as a vertical isn’t going to go away,” he goes on. “It’s competing with VR, video games . . . But reading is an everlasting format. So how do you reinvent it on the phone?”
Wattpad has had the most success so far in adapting novels for the mobile age. A Toronto-based site and app that allows its mostly young, female fans to directly engage with authors and even comment on specific paragraphs, Wattpad has accrued over 45 million users. One of the novels published on the platform, After, by Anna Todd, has been read over 1 billion times. Simon & Schuster published the novel and its sequels–a romance inspired by One Direction’s Harry Styles–in book form, and Paramount optioned the film rights. Top writers on the platform can make money through these sorts of multimedia deals, as well as through advertising, but there is no direct payment system.
Robert Thier, a German writer (though he writes in English) who has over half a million followers on Wattpad, calls the platform “a Facebook around books.” He says that the fans he’s accumulated on the site have been “very useful” and “an amazing way to gather feedback from a wider audience who doesn’t normally have access to published books because they can’t get to them or afford them.” But even with his massive following, he hasn’t made any money.
“There’s a way,” Thier says. “You can sign up for various programs and get revenue from advertising being placed in your stories, and you can get indirect benefits from being a Wattpad star, they call it. They’ll put you out there to publishing companies and other people interested in your writing. Maybe you get an advertising contract, things like that. But I weighed the pros and cons and decided Radish was the better way to go.”
And so in February 2016, Thier began to also post his stories on Radish, where the latest in his series of historical romance novels, Silence Is Golden, has been read over 650,000 times. Thier wouldn’t disclose how much money he is earning, but Lee says it’s a five-figure monthly income.
“Radish at the moment is less of a social media platform and more of a subscription service. I’d compare it to a Netflix for books,” says Lee.
Lee is hoping this distinction helps Radish grow into a more premium site than other fiction apps. He says he would ultimately like to attract well-known authors like James Patterson, but for now is targeting e-book authors who have already been published, if not in actual book form. He acknowledges the challenge in raising user-generated content to a more professional level, but believes he can do it by going after more experienced writers and continuing to invest in editors, who review all the material that goes up on Radish. Authors on the site are handpicked by Radish, which Lee says received 4,000 applicants since launching last year.
“For us it’s more of a curated experience,” he says. “It’s more high-quality content that you want to pay for. That’s what we want to compete on.”
He says he would also like to eventually create an ecosystem similar to the one that exists in Asia, whereby Radish could become a content generator for movie studios, TV networks, and gaming companies. (Wattpad has also been moving into this territory with the creation of Wattpad Studios.)
“That’s something very down the line, but ultimately that’s what we want to get into,” Lee says. “That’s our vision. The reason why I find this platform the most exciting is that stories can become anything, from movies to VR content. Traditionally, you rely on agents to kind of rely on their instincts to find the best stories. But if you have writers who are writing with the crowd and directly monetizing with the crowd, you have the monetary feedback. So you can try to source good IP as a platform. You have all this data around which stories are doing well, and you help the writers turn those stories into other media properties. That’s very exciting.”