It's been almost two years since ComiXology first attempted to sell digital comics on handheld devices, and the industry has changed a lot.
But according to David Steinberger, CEO of the digital company, the industry is constantly changing and ComiXology is having to quickly evolve along with it.
"When you think about it, it's pretty amazing how much has happened in the last couple years," Steinberger told Newsarama.
The company has already established itself as an industry leader by working with Marvel, DC and more than 30 other publishers, and has expanded beyond Apple devices to recently launch a beta version on Android.
And in just the last month, ComiXology has announced several new initiatives. In April came the launch of its long-awaited Comics4Kids app. The company also added a new "gift" feature to its various digital stores, added Oni comics to its apps, and is participating in a charity effort with Stan Lee to help victims of Japan's earthquake.
"The gift option was something that came about because of reader demand this past Christmas in 2010, and it really shows how much the industry has grown in the last year, because it wasn't something we even considered the year before," Steinberger said. "In Christmas 2009, we had only been around for a few months, plus we weren't on the web, we weren't on Android, and the iPad wasn't even out. That's how much has happened in the last year."
The gift option allows customers to purchase comics for other digital readers on ComiXology. "Comics fans have a sharing kind of culture, and at a 99 cents or $1.99 price point, it's pretty easy for somebody who's a comics guy to say, 'Here, check out Y: The Last Man or Fables or whatever comic you want people to try out. There are a lot of comics out there that are starting points for new readers, so we really like this option," Steinberger said.
Steinberger hopes to update the gift option even more before Christmas 2011 hits. "This past Christmas, we were really sad we didn't have the ability to do it. So right now, we put it out at what I would call a limited functionality, because it only allows you to gift a single comic at a time, and eventually we want to allow users to gift a whole cart, and to make it easier," he said.
The Comics4Kids app is something ComiXology has been trying to launch since it announced the initiative last year, but the release in April was successful enough that the company intends to expand its offerings.
"We got inquiries from a lot of other publishers who we didn't even necessarily know about who do kids content, which is great, and I expect to expand the content on it greatly over the next six months," he said.
The kids market on handheld devices is "untapped" for the comics industry, Steinberger said. "The direct market went in one direction, and for many retailers, the kids stuff doesn't do as well now," he said. "It hasn't been the stronghold in the comics industry that we used to think of with comics for kids. But now that kids can get content on their digital devices, we think it's a great market, and just an important place for us to be. It's important for us, just in terms of having the option for parents to have an app that doesn't have the violent and mature content that our regular app does."
But he said the challenge for the kids app is marketing. "We've had a couple of really great reviews from 'mommy' blogs, but the challenge on anything like that is getting parents to know about it, because those are the people who will be handing devices off to their kids," he said. "But we're happy with the progress so far. There's a lot of really good content in it."
99 Cent Comics
People who are subscribed to ComiXology have noticed another big change recently -- lots of sales that mark down digital comics to 99 cents each. Emails are sent each week to announce weekly releases, but extra communications announce price cuts and promotions, such as the "Marvel Mondays" and DC's recent "52 Pick-Up" sales that offered 99-cent comics.
While most DC and Marvel sales are oriented toward back-issues, Steinberger said smaller publishers often promote their current titles by offering free or cut-price introductory issues.
"We had really great success with Elephantmen a month ago. It was a three-day sale, and it was on a title that was quite acclaimed but doesn't have a giant audience," Steinberger said. "So it was really fun to see how, over the course of a couple days, people started buzzing about it on Twitter and Facebook and started saying, 'I tried out Elephantmen because it was 99 cents, and I can't believe I didn't know about this comic book.' We heard from Richard Starkings immediately afterward that he had people picking up hardcover books from his table at a convention just because they discovered it during our sale.
"For Marvel and DC, some of those are new readers as well, but it also provides a way for people to complete their collection," he added. "But I think especially for the indies, and real high-quality work, it's a way for us to say, 'Give it a leap. Give it a try. We believe in this material. And we think a lot of you are going to like it, and if you do, you can get all of these issues for 15 bucks,' or whatever the run is. It's just a great people to get people into the store, sampling something new."
"We already offer pull list tools to retailers through the internet, and the people who have gotten a lot of their customers to use it absolutely love it. But there are those who have held off on it because they don't want to send people away from their sites. If their customer does a pull list, they want it to be done on their site. So this program is our answer to that," Steinberger said.
"They get to pick their featured comics, and you log in with a ComiXology login, but you completely stay on their branded site," he added. "They can make new pages and blog entries and have their Google calendar there, so we're pretty excited about that, because they get to build their own brand and group there."
Eventually, the goal is to allow retailers to also offer digital comics on their websites, if they choose to participate, and give them an incentive for purchases. "The digital stuff is very close," Steinberger said. "The first ones will be launched over the next couple weeks. Those look really good. Everything's in order and we're hitting our schedule really well on that. So at that point, you'll see a link to digital comics from retailer websites."
While the majority of ComiXology's initial digital comic business was on the iOS via Apple devices, Steinberger said the beta version of the company's Android app is exceeding expectations.
"We really thought the fragmentation of the Android market was going to make it a very slow uptake. It has not been like that at all," he said. "Once we did Google in-app purchases, it's just really exploded. The growth has been incredible.
In fact, Google's current public data shows that the ComiXology app has been downloaded in a number range of between 500,000 and 1 million times.
"I know how many downloads it really has been, and I can tell you that it's doing really well," Steinberger said when questioned about public data. "The uptick has been, in terms of just how many downloads, has been way faster than iOS. Of course the market is more mature, with how many devices are out there. But we didn't expect how well we've done.
"Google's featured us a couple of times, so we're very lucky in that way. I don't want to undersell how little we thought we were going to do there. But everybody had been saying Google users don't pay for content and they don't do x, y, and z, and that's just been really good," he said.
Japan Charity and Oni
ComiXology also recently announced it would release Stan Lee's charity project, "Japan Needs Heroes," free of charge to anyone who donates $5 for the comic. "The Japan Needs Hero project is going to be a print book, and we are providing a digital copy to everybody that purchases the print book. I hope at some point we get to put it on sale as well, just to pass through the money entirely to the charity, but they asked us to be, as a value-add to people who buy the book, the provider of a code so people can get the comic on their iPhone or iPad or Android or on the web," Steinberger explained.
The addition of Oni Comics to ComiXology's offerings is the beginning of several new publishers that are joining the fold, Steinberger said. "We're moving beyond Scott Pilgrim into other stuff from Oni, which is a great addition for our customers," he said. "But you'll be hearing about more publishers soon. We have a couple of really big things in the next two months that are going to be really fun to put out."