Comic creators often have their own stories of staying up late through the night finishing a script or a set of pages to meet a tough deadline, but CEO David Steinberger and his team at comiXology may be some of the first in the business to boast a marathon session of coding for the latest system update.
Late last week, the leading digital comics platform completed a set of changes that have made comics subscriptions a reality on comiXology, along with discounted bundle purchases of whole series and other comics combinations. CBR News spoke with Steinberger Friday night after the new features were set in the system, and the executive explained the form and functionality of products which offer up new controls for readers in general, discounts bundles from a six-volume lot of “Chew” trades to 21 early issues of the new Valiant Universe and generally fulfills some long awaited customer requests. In addition, Steinberger addresses the current state of comiXology, where the platform is at after some fumbles early this year and where they’re headed as San Diego Comic-Con looms while revealing “Hawkeye” as leading the subscription pack since the service debuted with its soft-launch on June 28 — a position CBR confirmed the series maintains as of the publication of this interview.
CBR News: David, to my mind subscriptions and bundles are two products that people have been asking for from comiXology for a while. What did it take practically to make this come together both in programming and the various discussions with publishers in terms of how the final products would be presented?
David Steinberger: It’s fairly complicated. It’s unlike any of the subscriptions that most people think about — particularly in terms of how any of the in app purchases works for any of the companies like Apple, Amazon or Google. While they are amazing partners, comics are unlike most periodical literature in that they can be late. “Entertainment Weekly” generally comes out every week no matter what. But if we charge you on a time-based subscription via iTunes, it’s possible that your comic might come out in six weeks or even twice in one month.
I can’t say that there was a whole lot of contractual hesitancy or anything like that from publishers. I can’t say there’s been any delay on their part. It’s just been a matter of getting all the pieces lined up in terms of development. We have tons of plans. It’s just a matter of slotting them in and getting them done one at a time. Or two at a time in this case.
So how does this work from the purchasers point of view? Are you coming in and saying, “I want to buy a 12-issue subscription to this comic”?
No. This is more like an auto-pay subscription. If you’re a comic book person, it works like a pull list except we auto-charge you and say, “This is ready for download.” This is really about convenience. It’s about letting a person say, “I don’t want to track when the next issue of my favorite comic is coming out.” To use an example of the leading book coming out — which one things that’s been really great today with the launch is that we have permission to talk about the leading book which at this point is “Hawkeye” — say I’m going, “I want to know if the new issue of ‘Hawkeye’ is coming out,” but I don’t even want to open up the app. I’m just going to turn it on when I know I want to read it. And what happens is that comiXology is going to send me an e-mail about it. You get an e-mail on Thursday afternoon that says, “Here’s what we expect to come out over the next ten days and the dates they’ll all arrive.” And then on the correct day of release — which is mostly Wednesday, but DC for example has a bunch of digital-first series that come out six days of the week which you can subscribe to — we’ll drop you an e-mail that morning saying, “Your comic is ready to download.” It’s really about convenience, 100%.
I suppose that’s something that users will be able to turn on and off as they will. If you get to the point where you say, “I’ve had a subscription to this title for a while, but now I’m going to go issue-by-issue on it,” they’ll be able to?
That’s right. We just have “active” and “inactive” status on subscriptions, and that’s very easy to find and very easy to change. That’s also why we send you the e-mail on Thursday. It’s so there’s no surprise. If “Batman” comes out with a double-sized issue that’s a dollar more, it’s not a surprise to you. You’ll have notification of that.
Looking at bundles, this seems different from just what we’d consider a “digital trade” with issues grouped together under short story arcs. This includes very big collections of entire runs or entire events or groups of first issues. How is pricing working on that? I feel like some of these will be substantially discounted.
Absolutely. And some of them are pretty ridiculous. I saw the “Chew” six-volume trade paperback bundle, which is $40 for those six volumes of “Chew,” and that’s pretty awesome. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of this. We’re starting with about 18 bundles, and it’s a variety of stuff. You’ve got the Monkeybrain first issues, the “Parker” Omnibus which is all three large volumes of “Parker,” things like “Chew” and a starter bundle for Image #1s which has “Saga” and a bunch more…some of these are huge discounts. I think the Valiant bundle is something like 52% off. You get the first four issues of every series and the first five issues of one of them. There you can say, “For $30 I’m getting 21 books and can try everything from Valiant.” That’s just another way to say, “How can we step you into a new direction or genre or publisher at a substantial discount so you can jump in and look around?”
I think we’re going to be changing it every two to four weeks. We’ll find the right rhythm for changing up the bundles, so we’re trying it out to see how it goes. But you’ll see newsletters going out when we change them. And whether it’s cross-publisher or not — because hopefully we’ll be able to do that at some point — it’ll all be different entry points, in essence.
You also just did some updates to the comiXology iOS app and made some changes to the international storefront, and all of these changes come on the heels of some access issues with the Marvel free #1s promotion and the drama over the content in “Saga” #12. Have you been trying to rebuild some of the system in the wake of that stuff to make new products like these run smoothly?
Technology is funny. We’ve done an iOS update offering two-page spreads and a “fit to width” option, which is great. We’ve added DC Comics back to the Kindle. We’ve done an Amazon European launch for French language. Some of this stuff has been happening at the same time or close to the same time. It really has very little to do with retooling the system, or in terms of the material with the “Saga” thing, that had nothing to do with our system. It had to do with content, Apple’s rules, interpretation of the rules and obviously our communication to publisher and public. The Marvel thing was one where we were proud to get that out and done — to live up to the promise that we were going to let people get their #1s without overwhelming the servers and in an orderly fashion.
I will say that the team that worked on the Marvel #1 relaunch is the same people that did the design work on these subscriptions and bundles. It’s very subtle, but we’ve made the covers a little bigger and the backgrounds a little whiter on the website. The navigation is a little tighter now so you can get into the content without too much under the fold of the website. And now these subscription and bundles pieces were an enormous task. So I’m very proud of our group. They’ve worked their butts off, and they definitely earned their drinks tonight. [Laughs] And it happens with us sometimes where we get on a roll and do an announcement a month, but then another time we’ll have three right in a row over ten days. That’s not 100% intentional other than that we like to release stuff when it’s done and ready.
There are a lot of levels a company like comiXology has to work on — customer service, keeping relationships with publishers, promoting the products — but is the biggest challenge overall for you guys on of infrastructure? As the company has grown, has your job been one of finding a way to build up a system to support all of this?
Certainly, anytime that a company grows like we do, there are challenges and pieces to put in place infrastructurally. The response at SXSW was unprecedented. That’s great for comics, and of course, one of the main things we have to do is continue to improve and make more reliable everything that we do. We never want to be unreliable. In fact, the #1 thing we want to do is let people discover comics and let them read them in a really great experience. So we do a lot of work to make the site load fast, so people can get comics the way they want to.
Are you guys processing your traffic across multiple data centers? Has that gone international at that point?
Oh, yeah. And we have been for a very long time. Where you download the comics from is not necessarily the place I download from. Absolutely that’s something we pay close attention to and have for a very long time.
So, with these new enhancements to the app and these new services, what comes next? Is there a specific focus for the latter half of 2013?
We definitely continue to hit on the creator part of things. You’re going to see a lot of stuff at San Diego with new sponsorships and things around our Submit program. So I think that’s going to be an emphasis. But you should see the list of things we’re putting together in terms of features and ways to push the platform forward. I love that you could even slightly think that we’ve done everything with the content and all our partners, and of course we continue to improve all that stuff that’s background to the consumers, but there is still so much we want to do with the platform.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more of the latest on comiXology and digital comics.