Man, I wouldn’t want to be Comixology this week.
Let me preface what I’m about to say by reminding you that I am friends with many of the Comixology crew, and I hold them and what they’ve built in great respect. I don’t always agree with their business decisions or strategies, but they don’t always agree with mine, either. Moreover, beyond the personal affiliation, they’ve been good business partners to Thrillbent; we’ve been selling collected editions through their app and website as well as through our own for over a year now, and they’ve been very eager to work with us as we’ve experimented, in ways none of their other partners yet has, with strategies (like pay-what-you-want) which don’t fit the Comixology business model at all. No reason that needs to change. I really value those folks.
But I would not want to be them this week.
On Saturday, years after having repeatedly established itself as one of Apple’s top-grossing iOS apps but about a month after having been purchased by Apple rival Amazon, Comixology sent out a blanket surprise e-mail to its thousands and thousands of customers. Effective immediately, we were told, the iOS app was being retired and replaced with one that stripped out (a) the easy, one-tap ability to make in-app purchases, (b) referrals to other comics you might also like to buy with one button-tap, (c) any indication of what you ought to read next if you were in the middle of a multi-issue storyline, and (d) everything that made the Comixology app a gateway for new and casual readers of comics. You have an iPad and you want to buy some of these comics and graphic novels you’ve been hearing about with your iTunes account? Sucks to be you.
Within hours, Comixology’s customer base revolted, and given the way corporations work, there was only so much spinning they could do. I don’t know this for a fact, but I cannot imagine this was a decision enthusiastically embraced by the Comixology masterminds. This had to have been handed down either by Amazon or by Apple. No content distributor or provider, particularly one that’s been at the forefront of consumer outreach for an entire medium (and, seriously, we should all be grateful for that), deliberately (much less abruptly) seeks to remove functionality from its system. The objective of any commerce, web-based or brick-and-mortar, is to reduce friction and make purchasing as easy as possible. I repeat, no one with an internet business intentionally makes it harder to buy from them unless they’re not getting a say in the matter. This wasn’t done on a whim, and whether you like what they do or not, Comixology’s creators are smart and, in my opinion, ethical men. Whatever their decisions may be going forward, they’re made under the combined weight of Apple’s sometimes-Byzantine policies, the policies of their new corporate overlords, the impending possibility that Marvel will pull away from them, and other factors we’re not privy to.
In the long term, this development may be a mere blip. Make comics harder to buy through Apple, but make them easier to buy through Android, which outside the States makes up at least 70% of the mobile market. Sure. In theory, this will eventually be a net gain. But in the short term, it’s a disaster because it cold-shoulders an impossibly large number of potential new customers for comics.
Yes, I’ve heard over the last two days from dozens of fans who “don’t get the big deal” and sneer that “smart” comics readers have always bought from the website anyway and so it’s a few extra steps to get your comics, so what? If you’re one of those voices, if I were strong enough to lift your massive sense of smug self-entitlement, I would beat your high horse to death with it. You already buy comics online? Good for you. You’re not the ones we need to be worried about.
Seriously, you can look down your nose all you want at in-app purchasers and gloat to your heart’s content that only Luddites couldn’t figure out how to go find the website and then set up an account and shop through the website and then download their comics separately through the app, it’s not all that hard, that’s how the Kindle buying works on my iPad, yes?, and you’re absolutely right, it’s not that hard, but guess what? That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it makes buying comics–makes finding comics–more difficult for new readers discovering the medium, not easier, and that is pretty much the last thing anyone in comics needs right now. Long-term, because this means Apple no longer gets their 30% cut off of comics bought off an iPad because you can’t buy them that way anymore, that means more money for comics publishers and comics creators. That’s great. It’s also something that no casual consumer gives a rip about. Short-term–and I will happily report back to you if I’m wrong–there’s no way that 30% bump will compensate for the sudden loss of impulse buyers who were buying with one button tap and/or using iTunes cards because they’re too young to have credit cards or PayPal accounts.
This will probably change and stabilize somewhat in the months and years to come–one hopes–as Amazon continues its march to ubiquity. If it somehow streamlines the comics-buying experience internationally, I know I wouldn’t turn down that money. And, admirably, Comixology is working overtime to suggest as many workarounds as possible to readers. And they still have a brilliant user experience interface in place. Don’t not go there. We like them. They have done a lot, a lot of good things for this medium.
But I would not want to be them this week.
A couple of takeaways for you:
One: Over the past two years, we’ve amassed nearly 300 comics on the Thrillbent site and–I swear this is not a dig, I just don’t know any other way to say it–we’ve moved Heaven and Earth to make buying and reading it as friction-free a process as we know how (and we’re still refining it). If you’re a subscriber who’s deep-diving all-access through our material, we’re not only making it easy to join, we’re offering you a free 191-page EMPIRE graphic novel (by myself and Barry Kitson) for signing up. If you’re eager to read offline, you can purchase inexpensive Thrillbent PDFs here that (like EMPIRE) are DRM-free and yours to own. I repeat, this is in no way a slam at Comixology–their business model isn’t our business model–but I would be failing all our fine Thrillbent contributors if I didn’t take a moment to remind you that you can subscribe or purchase some great comics directly from us. We truly appreciate your business, especially as we continue to push new formats, new distribution models, and experimental comics that require your support to see fruition. Thank you for helping us create.
Two: If you’re chuckling over all this because you think it proves something about print’s stability, enjoy your print comics while you can–because if you don’t think Amazon’s Comixology acquisition was their first step towards building some Kindle-like comics-reading hardware to replace brick-and-mortar stores, you’re nuts. Print comics are still pretty healthy right now, absolutely; talk to me in a couple of years when they’re all 4.99, but Amazon’s selling downloads for half that and swallowing the margin loss in order to sell hardware.
Three: We, on the other hand, love you and will always be here for you. Subscribe.