ComiXology Going Prime: Here’s the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Internet retailer Amazon purchased digital comics pioneer ComiXology this past spring and then appeared to successfully maneuver technical turbulence and lower prices. But is the merge good for the comic industry in the long run, or will creators ultimately suffer as a result?
ComiXology has been the leader in digital comic books since its inception. Launched in 2007 by David Steinberger, John Roberts and Peter Jaffe, Comixology initially served as an online community for comic readers to create pull lists and get updates on new releases. By 2009, the company developed an “e-reader” app, which allowed them to sell digital copies from their comic database and included their patented “Guided View.” The Guided View was revolutionary in its ability to simply tap and allow readers to scan from panel to panel, mimicking the natural eye, and it gained them nationally notoriety. As the company grew in popularity, it ultimately garnered the attention of Amazon, the mega e-commerce company out of Seattle, Washington. Amazon officially acquired ComiXology this past spring. However, as with most changes, not everyone is super happy with the move and the switch was notably bumpy. More importantly, the long-term effects of the buyout could be far greater than the initial technological hiccups.
Following the buyout, the old ComiXology app on Apple’s marketplace has since been removed and Amazon has halted all in-app purchases. Due to a refusal to pay Apple’s required 30% commission, Amazon has since created its own app – forcing users to purchase through ComiXology’s web store and then sync their purchases to their device. This is mildly annoying considering the ease at which ComiXology previously operated, regardless of platform. Additionally, one of the bigger fears from consumers was that Amazon would not incorporate ComiXology’s “Guided View”, and the technology was not immediately available during the initial switch. Amazon eventually realized the importance of incorporating the technology and corrected the issue (most likely in an effort to placate the fan base already attached to the previous app). ComiXology/Amazon then attempted to alleviate some of the negativity from current customers: first with a $5 gift certificate, which expired in 30 days, and then a “20 day summer reading list” with twenty free comics over the course of twenty days. Free stuff can be great, but when you throw it at consumers in an attempt to quiet them, it feels slightly disingenuous.
Another result of the switch is, by avoiding Apple altogether, Amazon has lowered the price of most comics by at least $1. While some consumers may look at this as a benefit, they may be missing the potential long-term effect of price decreases. Lower prices result in less money for the artists and writers who’ve created the comics we love. If we choose to accept the lower prices and allow companies to pay the creators less money, we may start seeing less of the things we love. Think about it this way: creators earn a certain percentage from their titles. But if the titles are priced lower at retail, and they’re getting the same cut, then there’s less overall pie to go around. The only way to make up this lost revenue is through volume, and that’s really only an option for the biggest kids on the block (DC and Marvel). This means independent and smaller publishers will likely fare the worst, and ultimately we as consumers will have fewer options.
Recently, Amazon dealt with public backlash when they essentially blacklisted Hachette Publishers from the using pre-order option on their site, as well as under-stocking some of the publisher’s items. Hachette felt Amazon was under pricing their titles and the publisher would not comply with Amazon’s pricing structures. While there are various arguments as to whether or not consumers should care about the battles between retailers and publishers, most of these discussions seemingly forget about the actual creators of this content. If large companies continue to buy-out the other retail options, then artists will be limited in their opportunities with how to distribute their work. Furthermore, if these large companies limit where we as consumers can find content, then we will all miss out on many different artists who may not be able to afford the price cut. Amazon purchased ComiXology because they saw an opportunity to broaden their own hold over how content is delivered, not because they want consumers to save a buck. That plan of attack, for them, is a way to snuff out the competition. This limits proper competition between retailers and removing writers and artists from the process of setting their own standards, prices and distribution options.
This level of retail absorption also affects local communities where brick and mortar comic shops suffer. If the prices are driven down by large corporations, already struggling independent shops could be forced to shut their doors. Again, consumers will be forced to buy from Amazon as our buying options are severely limited. Even the convenience of digital comics may have adverse effects on the industry. My own local comic shop – which houses my subscription box – had attempted to hold midnight release parties (a small get-together for avid buyers who could have their subscriptions in-hand at midnight of release day). The events were curtailed by comic distributor Diamond, who informed the small boutique that they are required to release their copies to buyers ONLY when stores open at 9 AM Wednesday morning. In this case, Diamond is confusingly working against itself. When excited readers can’t wait until Wednesday morning for their favorite issue, they can easily turn to the digital version on ComiXology at midnight which has no such exemptions. Why is Diamond handing an advantage over to ComiXology/Amazon in this case? It offers convenience to customers, but certainly is no help to the local comic shops.
I’m not telling anyone they can’t read digital comics. In fact, I have friends who say they are never going back to physical copies, and that’s their choice. However, my point here is that, in a free market, this isn’t a level playing field and larger companies have an unfair advantage. The effects of these mergers and arbitrary rules have gives digital retailers the ability to sell comics more easily and cheaper than local shops. And now, there’s really only one digital retailer. The artists, the smaller shops, and eventually consumers will all suffer in the end as choices and options dry up.
My advice? Head out to your local comic shop this weekend and buy a few physical copies (they make lovely wall art), support a local artist and buy a self-published comic (I particularly enjoy Rachel Rising by Terry Moore). Make a stand and help level the playing field. The benefit is yours.
Visit the Free Comic Book Day comic store locator to find a comic store near you!