Comic books are changing.
Both what’s inside them – and the format itself. With the advent of modern digital technology, the landscape of comics – and all information mediums such as movies and film – has been irrevocably changed. First it happened behind the scenes in the production department, and then moved forward into distribution and retail – and now it’s turning its way towards the end user: you, the reader.
Today in the year 2010, the platform has been cemented with major print comic publishers joining the fold. And with devices such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad, people can view comics at home, at work, or while traveling. In many cases the publishers take it upon themselves to put their comics out onto the internet – like print publishers printing their own books. But a small start-up has emerged as a print-to-digital comics translation and delivery system: ComiXology. Through its iOS apps and website, ComiXology has emerged into the most widely used digital comic book platform in the world, striking up partnerships with America’s top two comic publishers – DC and Marvel – as well as other major comic publishing houses. Having recently reached their one-year anniversary of providing digital comics, and with more competitors emerging, we spoke with the company about the future.
“Well, I would have to say that it’s rather exciting,” said ComiXology CTO John D. Roberts by phone from their offices in New York City. “When David Steinberger and I started the company, we were avid comic fans and it’s been a great thrill to land in this position and help guide comics for the next generation.”
Comics’ next generation.
Just what that is is the big question on everyone’s mind; the introduction of digital formats to the comic book industry is set to be as big – or bigger – than the advent of the comic book format in the early 1900s. Although no one knows the answer to where comics will be in 20 years, the consolidation of America’s largest comic publishers into digital comics apps such as ComiXology show that people have their ideas. But the rise of digital comics doesn’t necessary mean the end of print comics, according to ComiXology’s CTO.
“While I can’t go into specific numbers, I can say that we do a fair amount of downloads, and that as a result of people using our app retailers have reported an increase in users,” said Roberts. “We did a survey not too long ago, and about 17% of users responded to it saying that they hadn’t bought a comic before using our app. What we’ve seen is that a lot more new users are discovering comics with the app, and then going into brick-and-mortar retailers to buy comics. Every one of our primary apps has a button for “Buy in Print” which connects them to our Retailer Locator.”
Using meshed technology, ComiXology’s digital comics apps have a directory of comic retailers that can provide lists of nearby brick-and-mortar comic retailers based on the user’s location. ComiXology acts as both a digital retailer of comics as well as a networking tool for its readers to buy print counterparts of its digital offerings.
But that’s not the only thing it’s doing to connect into the wider marketplace of comics – ComiXology has also created several online tools for brick-and-mortar retailers to use with their customers. Their Pull List tool allows participating retailers to track ComiXology users who identify that store as theirs, and to manage and maintain what their customers want.
“In the past where retailers had to use pen and paper, ComiXology’s Pull List feature provides an easier, digital solution,” Roberts explains. “While I can’t give out specific numbers, there is significant information public every day on the site. Anyone can look at our “most pulled” section of the website to get those numbers. Our most popular pulls each week average about 2- to 3,000 pulls. It’s trended up significantly since we first launched the pull list feature, and we have a pretty active core user base. And I think when we look at our pull numbers and compare that with sales figures, it’s corresponding. “
According to Roberts, approximately 10% of American Direct Market retailers use ComiXology tools “in one way or another”. In addition to the Pull List feature, ComiXology also has a service to imbed a cover gallery of each week’s releases on a comic retailer’s own website. While ComiXology admits that the site is currently very “U.S.-centric”, they’re working on making the platform more flexible and provide more for digital users. Upcoming innovations include displaying prices in foreign currency, as well as having their Retailer Locator tool list the distance to a store both in miles and kilometers.”
“There might be an unintentional wall between us and International retailers,” said Roberts,” but we’re looking at many ways for it to be more internationally friendly.” Roberts does note that a store in Australia, MK 1, was one of the first retailer involved with the start-up company. They were also contacted recently by a store in Israel to have it listed on the Retailer Locator.
ComiXology has set itself up as a digital counterpart to brick-and-mortar comic book stores, but also as a business partner with these services. With a look to the horizon, the next logical step for this could be estimated to be an expanded retailer toolkit, possibly even a modern Point Of Sale (POS) system.
“We have been exploring several possibilities, even talking to some existing POS providers to allow for integration between our systems and there,” said the CTO & co-founder. “While I can’t really speak to anything publicly, just know that we are always exploring new opportunities. If there’s a way to provide a new and better service, that’s where we will end up.”
While providing services to retailers is a key part of ComiXology’s plans, most readers know them more for being a retailer themselves – of digital comics online. When ComiXology’s digital comics launched in 2009 they had deals with nine small-press publishers, but that has since ballooned with them striking deals with Marvel, DC and Image in recent months to maintain and coordinate branded apps for those publishers. These arrangements have been covered in-depth in previous Newsarama pieces, but one thing that hasn’t has been the behind the scenes of transforming a print comic into a digital comic.
“On average it takes about two hours to format [a standard size comic book],” Roberts explained. “I’m told older books are easier generally due to their panel structure, but because they have more panels it takes a little longer in that regard. But those classic nine-panel grids from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are easy to process; it’s funny, but those panels fit almost perfectly on the iPhone like the device’s creators made it for viewing 9-panel comics.
“Some of the more complicated layouts can get crazy,” Roberts continued. “Things like having readers read things clock-wise as opposed to left-to-right or something can make things complicated for us. But we’re getting faster all of the time, streamlining the process as much as possible. A year ago when we first launched the app, we were doing thirty or forty books a week – now we’re doing around 100 a week. We’re just releasing that much more through the various branded apps.”
Currently there is no upfront fee for publishers to have their comics on the ComiXology platform, with the publishing sharing a portion of the comics’ earnings over time. Some publishers have complained about there being a backlog of titles coming to the app due to its popularity, and ComiXology is working on some ways to change that.
“To address that and improve out ability to meet our publishers’ needs, we’re adding more people so we can get more work done,” said Roberts. In the past twelve months, the company’s staff has ballooned from the three executives to a staff of over a dozen – with advertisements out on twitter just this week hiring for more.
“We’re also working on some tools that will allow publishers to not rely on us as much – to allow them to do some of the work transitioning it to our format,” “As we announce these new tools, the deals are going to change – but we’re still fleshing those out. As publishers become more involved, the web shares & fees are going to change along with that. But we don’t have anything concrete at this point, but I hope to be making an announcement relatively soon.”
That’s just one of many announcements coming up for this enterprising company as it enters its fourth year in business.
“We just released the Image app, and we have some other things in the pipeline,” Roberts says. “ComiXology is focusing on getting more publishers and more properties to our app and continue to provide the best reading experience available. We’re always looking for ways to improve our apps so users have a better experience. We’re also going to be adding new functionality to our apps that people have been asking for.”
Currently, ComiXology’s digital comics are available online with any internet browser and on internet-capable Apple devices – the iPad, the iPhone and the iPod Touch. When asked about other smart phone devices ComiXology might be coming to, Roberts couldn’t talk specifics but can tell you where they’re looking.
“We do have plans to expand to other devices. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve taken a serious look at the Android OS, but we don’t have an announcement right now,” reveals Roberts. “As more mobile platforms become viable, we’ll go into those arenas.”
With the acquisition of the contracts to manage and maintain the top 3 American comic publishers’ digital comics apps, ComiXology has sewn up a lot of the big players in the digital comics arena. But their work isn’t done according to Roberts, and they’ve got ambitious plans for the years forward.
“Ultimately? I know this is going to sound extremely self-serving, but our main goal is to expand the industry as much as possible,” Roberts said. “Our goal in five years is to become a ubiquitous presence and reach more people – more new people. Personally, I’d like ComiXology to have everything in comics – if you want it, you should be able to get it through us. And then also continue to build resources to help retailers.”What do you think is the future of Digital Comics?