While comic book fans have been focusing on new announcements about characters like Superman and Spider-Man, a quiet yet significant shift is happening this summer in the comic industry.
This summer, publishers are placing a much, much greater importance on digital comics, putting resources and marketing behind it like never before.
And one distributor, ComiXology, is growing its leadership position in the world of digital at leaps and bounds.
This week, ComiXology added yet another point to its proverbial "win" column in a deal with Marvel Comics to expand the publisher's digital comic presence on the web.
And that's after a summer where ComiXology had already added several other comic publishers to its line-up, including Archaia, Aspen, Digital Manga, Oni and IDW's . Even Jeff Smith's best-selling indie titles and <a href="http://www.newsarama.com/comics/jeff-smith-bone-rasl-goes-digital-110714.html">signed up with ComiXology this summer</a>.
"We do want to be, as much as we can, the one place where people can get the comics they're looking for," David Steinberger, CEO of ComiXology, told Newsarama.
Will the distributor become the go-to place for digital comics?
Will ComiXology's dominance in digital comic distribution be comparable to iTunes' commanding presence in the world of digital music?
Is it already there?
The growth of the company since it launched its first iPhone app in July 2009 has been exponential, particularly this summer. According to Steinberger, the "Comics by ComiXology" app launched in 2009 with only 80 comics. By this past spring, the company's average number of new releases was 180 comics.
But this summer, because of the addition of new publishers, plus a lot of big sales on just-released-digitally titles from Marvel and DC, the company has sometimes released more than 400 new digital comics .
"It's fun and it's crazy that the through-put is so high," Steinberger said. "And it makes a big difference to offer people a lot of choices."
This summer also saw ComiXology go past a million downloads on Android, and that was less than six months after the Android app's beta launch. "That was huge. It took us a longer than that to achieve a million downloads on iOS," Steinberger said.
ComiXology's summer of growth will culminate on August 31st with DC Comics launching every single comic it prints as a "same-day-as-print" release on digital.
"I think DC's bold move is really a historical move toward doing everything same-day-as-print, and it really does connect well with their reboot," Steinberger said. "It's a really interesting combination of having more than one reason to put a lot of marketing money out there. And the retailer affiliate program [that allows stores to benefit from digital comic sales] is going to be fully in swing at that point, so retailers can participate. It's all hitting at once as the summer ends, and it makes a lot of sense for them."
It also makes a lot of "cents" for ComiXology. The vast majority of those new digital DC releases during the publisher's "New 52" event will be sold through ComiXology, because the distributor has a significant relationship with DC.
And it's that relationship that has thrust ComiXology into the leading distributor position as the digital comics market grows.
"DC and Marvel have a 900-pound gorilla ability to decide who is going to be the iTunes of delivering digital comics," said Andy Ihnatko, tech writer for the and other publications. "And given that DC has put so much torque behind ComiXology, that certainly elevates ComiXology as that one resource."
Apparently, the "leading position" of ComiXology finally got Marvel Comics to expand its commitment with the distributor. Marvel, which holds the largest market share in the comic book industry, began selling digital comics this week on ComiXology's website for the first time. The move adds to a relationship that already had Marvel's comics on ComiXology's Apple iOS app. Marvel's stand-alone app on iOS is also powered by ComiXology.
The addition of Marvel to ComiXology's web store is a significant move for the publisher, because Marvel's previous web presence was mostly back issues that were available through its own subscription service, Digital Comics Unlimited, or through digital sites like Graphic.ly.
"We've been wanting to do this, obviously, for a very long time," Steinberger said about the addition of Marvel to the ComiXology web store. "I don't know why it took awhile. I'm not sure if it had to do with [Digital Comics Unlimited] or if they just wanted the market to settle a little. But we're just thrilled to bring them on board."
Marvel's new offerings on ComiXology include several same-day-as-print releases, including all Spider-Man comics. By November, Marvel plans to add all X-Men titles to their same-day-as-print releases.
As a tech analyst, Ihnatko said ComiXology has also emerged as the industry leader because it's expanding to different platforms. He said customers like being able to read their purchased comics across different platforms.
"The advantage of ComiXology is that they are really ecumenical," Ihnatko told Newsarama. "They're not just for people who have iPads. If you have an Android device, they'll work just fine too. And I'm pretty sure they would support any other handset or tablet too."
Yet Ihnatko said that advantage can also be detrimental to the growth of digital comics overall, because it means readers use ComiXology to read the comics they purchase. "Hopefully in the next two or three years, we'll have a lack of DRM [digital rights management], so that I don't have to worry that I'll always have to have my ComiXology account, I'll always have to have a ComiXology app to use all these comics I spend hundreds of dollars a year on."
Price is also an advantage that ComiXology has utilized, particularly this summer. For now, DC and Marvel are offering digital releases at the same price as print. But ComiXology does offer sales on back issues that are tough to match elsewhere.
"Some of these sales that go on are so fun and have such great value. Like everyone was talking about Darwin Cooke's being 99 cents one weekend, and what an incredible deal that was," Steinberger said.
And the fact that those older comics are available at an quantity doesn't hurt either.
"Part of the beauty of digital is that it's a big library of unending inventory," Steinberger said. "It never runs out. You do have to think about how you organize your shelf space, and we're trying to make that even better. I think we do have some distance to go to make this the best shopping experience we can. But yeah, digital means being able to say, 'This is here and it's always going to be here. We're never going to run out. And we don't have to worry about adding stuff that's only going to sell a few copies because it's taking up space from something that will sell a hundred or a thousand. That's one of the inherit advantages of digital.
"But that's also why the retailer affiliate program is so important," Steinberger said. "Now retailers can take advantage of that inventory by selling digital."
As ComiXology adds more and more publishers to its offerings, it becomes less enticing for publishers to just release their own app. Sure, brands like Marvel and DC can survive on their own, but other companies are hard pressed to find an audience like the one ComiXology has already established.
"It's just like the retail stores. I don't know that, if Top Shelf rented a retail storefront in New York City, if it's enough to succeed as a whole store, right? But you put Top Shelf together with all the other publishers, and it makes sense, it will attract all sorts of people because of the amount of content," Steinberger said.
ComiXology does still power a lot of dedicated apps for publishers. For example, when the title was added to ComiXology's offerings, the company also released a dedicated app that stands alone.
"Certainly there's a vanity part of it, meaning that it's fun to have your own branded app, and we've done a few of those other than Marvel and DC. And sure, those publishers deserve that, and they have the fun of saying, 'We have our own app,' and they can point to it from their own website or advertise it," Steinberger said.
"But for the most part, besides some really, really big brands, companies do really benefit from being part of the Comics by ComiXology platform because we have the power of multiple publishers behind us," he said. "Our audience is getting really, really big, and it's attractive because you don't have to build your own audience from scratch by making a new app. You can join into a very solid audience base, which we already own."
Importance of Same-Day-As-Print
As publishers head toward being completely same-day-as-print with their digital offerings, Steinberger said the belief is that it will not impact print numbers. (It's a common belief, even among retailers, <a href="/8169-will-digital-kill-the-comic-book-store.html">as Newsarama just examined this week in a separate article</a>).
As a result, the move toward same-day-as-print will only grow, Steinberger said.
"I think you're going to see more and more publishers doing same-day-as-print because it doesn't seem to be as dangerous as was once feared," the CEO said. "As you can imagine, we've had a few inquiries from publishers who are saying, 'OK, if DC is doing this, how do we get going on this?' So I think it's viewed as less scary than it once was.
"We have more and more [same-day-as-print] each week," he said, pointing out that Archie Comics and titles like have been doing same-day-as-print for a while. "We actually highlight them on the website now and on the app. The same-day-as-print comics have their own section. So generally speaking, we used to off two or three new releases on same-day-as-print, then we went to six or seven each week, and now it's going to be even larger, obviously."
While it's still too early to tell if the growth of same-day-as-print digital comics will impact print numbers, there's no doubt that it's significant for the growth of digital.
"Moving to same-day-as-print is, now anyway, about having greater distribution in a more timely manner, and less about whether they're going to hurt something else," Steinberger said. "You can't discount the power of getting something . Just like movies or anything else, there's a lot of social capital and importance to being , especially in the era of Twitter and Facebook and all these instant ways to communicate.
"With this move toward same-day-as-print, DC and Marvel and these other publishers are making sure new customers don't feel left out of the current discussions," he said.
What's Next for ComiXology and Digital?
This year saw the addition of a Comics for Kids app to the ComiXology family, and new options like "gifting" a digital comic to another ComiXology reader. But Steinberger said there are several other improvements coming to the apps soon.
"The huge priority now is making the best retailing experience on top of the best reading experience," Steinberger said. "We think we did a great job with our guided view reading experience. And it's great to have an amazing amount and huge variety of content from a ton of different publishers, from manga, which reads right to left, to all these other comic book companies like Aspen and Archaia.
"But with this expansive library, our next step is to improve the way people get around our app and find stuff within it," he said. "We want to make sure they can find all these hidden gems that they may not know about and may not seek out. The next step with our application is very much aiming to improve that process of discovery, so we can lead you into any directions that interest you. To give you more options, in a non-complicated manner.
"We've been beta-testing some stuff, and the response has been pretty positive, so I'm excited about that," Steinberger said.
The executive said he's also hoping to offer more collections. The apps currently offer that technology, but publishers haven't been taking advantage of the option as much as he'd like.
"I'm working on it," Steinberger said. "I love [collections], and they do well. And they're a great way for people to easily see what issues make up one story. So I fully expect that over the next six months, we'll see a lot more digital collections from a lot of the publishers. I don't mean that as an announcement or anything. It's just really my desire and the fact that they sell well. People like them."
Ihnatko said he expects ComiXology to continue to dominate in digital comics market as long as they are working so closely with DC, and now closer with Marvel. But he said that doesn't necessarily mean the company will always be the leader.
"We're still in the infancy of digital comics," the technology guru said. "In the next couple of years, I hope the battle for that 'one resource' [for comics] kind of settles itself out and provides a little more choice. In the music industry, iTunes is no longer the only choice. You can go to Amazon and almost have the exact same selection, just as easy a buying experience, and they'll give you some features that are only available on the Amazon store. And that's really good to have a choice.
"It's still really early in the ballgame [for digital comics]," he said. "There's still a lot of change that can happen."FACEBOOK and TWITTER!