ComiXology CEO Answers the Big Questions About New "Unlimited" Subscription Service

ComiXology, the industry-leading digital comics distribution platform, has taken another major evolutionary step -- one that could have as big of an impact as day-of-print release sales of digital comics or the company's 2014 acquisition by Amazon. The company has launched "comiXology Unlimited," a subscription service billed as thousands of comics from major publishers available to read (not own) for a monthly fee of $5.99, starting with a 30-day free trial. This is a significant addition to the existing comiXology model, which is based on sales of individual issues and collected editions.

At first glance, comiXology Unlimited appears to be the comic book equivalent of popular streaming services like Netflix or Spotify. Yet that's not quite an apt comparison -- while there are dozens of noteworthy series available via the service, it's aimed to be more of a diverse and hearty sampler platter intended to drive further sales. For example, curious readers could read the first couple of volumes of "The Walking Dead," and then purchase the subsequent stories on comiXology. The name evokes both Marvel's long-running monthly service, Marvel Unlimited, and Amazon's Kindle Unlimited -- but while Kindle Unlimited has relatively few major publishers on board, comiXology Unlimited has Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, IDW Publishing, BOOM! Studios, Oni Press, Kodansha Comics, Fantagraphics, Valiant Entertainment, Dynamite Entertainment and more on its roster. Notably, there's no current involvement from Marvel or DC Comics, the two biggest publishers in the comic book industry's direct market.

At launch, comiXology Unlimited includes selections from some of the highest-profile non-Marvel or DC series of the past few years, such as Image Comics hits "Saga," "Lazarus," "Outcast," "Fatale," "Chew," "Sex Criminals," "Bitch Planet" and "The Wicked + The Divine"; licensed books from IDW including "Transformers," "My Little Pony," "Star Trek" and "G.I. Joe"; Dark Horse's continuation of Joss Whedon-created television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Serenity"; standout series "Attack on Titan," "Lumberjanes," "Hip Hop Family Tree," "Locke & Key," "Scott Pilgrim," "Letter 44," "Princeless" and "Wuvable Oaf"; plus classics like "Hellboy," "Lone Wolf and Cub," "Love and Rockets" and "The Complete Peanuts." While some series, like Dark Horse's "B.P.R.D.," have upwards of a dozen issues available via the service at launch, and Archie fans can peruse dozens of classic issues, others, like "Saga" or "Outcast," are limited to their first story arc.

Similar to Netflix, the plan is to cycle through content, with titles constantly being added to and removed from the service. There's no specific window yet as to when a comic may be eligible for inclusion in comiXology Unlimited, and some of the material is rather recent -- like Archie Comics' acclaimed reboot of "Archie" from Mark Waid and Fiona Staples, which launched last year. ComiXology Unlimited is accessed via the current comiXology apps and website, and subscribers can make comics available to read offline, with a 50-book limit. It's initially available only in the United States, though it's planned to expand internationally.

CBR News spoke with comiXology CEO and co-founder David Steinberger for an in-depth discussion on comiXology Unlimited, including his hopes for the service as "the right starting point" for readers to explore a wide array of comics, the possibility of Marvel and/or DC involvement down the road, how comiXology arrived at the $5.99 price (less than a venti Frappuccino in New York City, Steinberger says) and how it gets the company closer to its stated goal of "making everybody on the planet a comics fan."

CBR News: David, this is another big step for comiXology, hitting about two years after another very big step, the acquisition by Amazon. In what ways are you hoping that comiXology Unlimited will further evolve the platform and digital comics in general?

David Steinberger: One of the things that we champion around here, and I know we probably talked about it two years ago as well, is our mission that we make everybody on the planet a comics fan. We've actually changed that internally to be a comics, graphic novel or manga fan, so that we're inclusive of all forms. It is the thing we talk about all the time. Everything we do and everything we work on we try to filter through this one goal.

We think that, given the huge amount of really high-quality content there is, it makes it challenging even for core readers to try out and get a hold of all the various amazing books and series that are out there. One of the challenges in comics, mostly for new people, is -- how do you get started? What series do you start with? I think we've put together an amazing roster of books for people to explore month after month after month, to find their new favorite book, and to connect with books they probably didn't even realize were so amazing.

I feel like it's a really big step in the furthering of that mission, to make it really easy for people to experience a whole ton of amazing content, and to never think about, "Is this the right starting point?" It is. It's on here, it's the right starting point.

Given the direction of media consumption, a service like this is something that observers have naturally speculated about for a while -- how long has this been something comiXology has taken seriously as a viable option?

I think the first request [for a subscription service] I responded to was at least three years ago, if not a little more. I had written, "That's a really interesting thought, and of course we'll consider it," or something like that. [Laughs]

This type of consumption of media has been around for quite a while, whether it's music or movies or TV shows. It's been on our minds. What's the right way to do it? The [comics] industry is a lot different in a lot of ways than other media industries. You've got the core comic book retailers for the periodicals, you've got bookstores for trade paperbacks and graphic novels, you've got us straddling both of those parts; between Kindle and us. It took a lot of thinking and consideration of how to do this what we think is the right way -- to be smart about the industry itself, and to give everybody an opportunity to experience a lot of great titles.

How long has it been percolating? A very long time. How long has it been serious? A while. It's been an amazing effort from all parts of our company to put together a great experience with an amazing catalogue, so I'm super-proud of the opportunity it gives people to explore this amazing world.

What convinced you this could work for comics? The idea of a subscription service for streaming media is certainly very familiar, but comic books, as you noted, are different, with a unique business model.

So many subscription services are focused only on that. They're companies that are made just for subscriptions, with no thought or consideration for the rest of the market. It's about windows and getting as many users as possible. We have the same goal -- we wanted to make this program inexpensive enough and rich enough in content to make it a no-brainer for anybody to jump in and try out. The way that we designed the catalogue is such that for various series we have various amounts of content. It's really about leading you to your next greatest love in comics.

I think that's a little bit different than the programs that are very predictable in terms of, "this thing is going to be released on DVD and hit the subscription services." That's just not how we put it together. There will be books coming in and out of the service for sure over time, but not, "I'm going to do periodicals, and then it's trades, and then it's the subscription service." It's not quite designed like that. It's designed to get people into various series.

Is it fair to say that the service is specifically targeted at new or more casual comics readers?

I'd say that only if I didn't, myself, in the beta testing find a bunch of stuff I hadn't yet gotten a hold of. You have to think about it -- we have almost a hundred thousand books on comiXology in general. It's very difficult to touch on every one of those things. $5.99 is the cost of a double-sized single issue, right? I can very easily, as a core consumer, pick this up and feel like, twice a week I'm going to piddle around in here and find something that I haven't tried out, and see if I love it. Suddenly, your knowledge of what's out there and what's going on in comics is much broader.

At the same time, this is really, really seriously and thoughtfully designed to allow people who are on the fringes of comics or not in comics at all -- who are connected to the animation, or the movies, TV shows, video games -- to connect to comics; not only licensed comics for those exact things, but this really amazing, great world of related content.

It hits both. We think, obviously, there's an attraction for the core audience, but in the long term, this is about, "How do we get people to try out all of this stuff? Let's get them excited about one of these things, and then get them in here for a very inexpensive price where they can explore and get attached to many of them."

Let's talk the content available at launch. As we've been saying, this is something of a new world for comics -- did comiXology run into any reluctance from the publishers involved?

I think anytime you introduce a new model, publishers have to look at it very carefully. I think they did the same thing with digital. We were very thoughtful entering the market in the first place, to try to understand what publishers thought, what creators thought, how they viewed it, what they were scared of, what they were worried about, how did the retailers fit into it -- all of that stuff. I feel like we've done the same thing with this program, which is why we have such a wide variety of publishers. That's why a company like Dark Horse or Image Comics, which don't do any subscription services, have joined ours, because we have the same aims. We talk to them a lot. We have the same goals. We want more people reading comics.

We're aligned in a way, unlike other subscription services that are standalone, that we need to support and want to support the entire ecosystem. We're happy if you buy in print -- go buy trades from your local retailer or from Amazon, it makes us happy. We're fine if you want to read singles, want to go digital only, want to go print -- our goal has always been to expand how many people are reading comics, and I think that's why we've had the response from publishers we've had.

The initial lineup includes some of the most acclaimed comics of the last few years, with many noteworthy titles. What was the process of curating the content?

First of all, we wanted a lot of top material. Goal being as many series that we could get that we thought people would love. We're very focused on getting a huge variety of content, with manga, graphic novels, singles, trades; the whole ball of wax, but focused on quality.

It is notable that Marvel and DC are not a part of this. It's not a major shock for those who follow the industry, but was there ever any consideration in getting them on board? Is there hope for them to be involved at some point?

Let me put it this way: We love all comics. I think it's a great opportunity for new buyers to explore the world of comics that I think sometimes is hidden by the big two. At the same time, of course, we love Marvel and DC. Super-happy to always be talking with them. We're super, super-happy to be selling them a la carte, but also very proud of this library. For those fans out there that limited their buying, this is just a huge opportunity to see what they've been missing.

Let's talk price -- how did comiXology arrived on $5.99 as the monthly cost?

We want the program to be successful, because we believe it's going to expand the audience for comics, and engage people even more in the great books that are on there. That's kind of the long and short of it, right? We're a business, we want to make money. We think, altogether, this program is designed to make everybody more money. If it's a successful program, it's going to lift all the boats that are a part of it.

We really wanted to say, "It's silly you for you not to jump on board." We wanted to get that price to be super, super-exciting, very competitive, free trial -- jump in there. We've tried to find metaphors; obviously, right, when you do the PR, you want to do that. One of the best metaphors is, we figured out, here in New York, at least, a venti Frappuccino is $6 -- a little over $6!

We don't want it to seem like these aren't valuable books. They are super-valuable books. At $5.99, we do want it to feel like, this is so ridiculous, why would I not do this, and read all this amazing stuff, and get connected to these things?

Also curious about the name -- the only other remotely similar service in North American comics is called "Marvel Unlimited," and this is "comiXology Unlimited." What inspired the name?

Well, our parent company has a little program called "Kindle Unlimited." We could have called it "comiXology Endless Reading." [Unlimited] is a super-concise word for what it's like to be in a sea of content that feels like you're never going to run out of the next thing to try. It just describes it accurately.

How will royalties for creators will work? Again, this is another example of it being a different model for comics that we haven't really seen before, not at this scale.

All of our business terms are private, confidential between us and our partners. The best I can say is what I said earlier -- to make more fans of comics, and to get more people engaged in comics. The program succeeds by making everybody more money. It's good for the entire market segment to have more people reading, and that's what this is designed to do.

There have been famous instances of artists in other forms of entertainment not comfortable with certain streaming services. Do creators have the freedom to opt out of comiXology Unlimited?

I don't get between our publishers and their creators. I can't speak for them.

There's an offline reading option -- is there a limit to how much you can make available offline?

We have a 50-book limit, so it's huge. We wanted to make it really, really comfortable for somebody to load up for a cross-continental trip and have the reading the whole time.

Is there an age-gate option? The books listed for the launch range from "Peanuts" to "Sex Criminals."

Just like our apps -- our apps are rated 17 and over on the app stores. There's no age-gating option at the moment.

Is there any consideration at this point for content created exclusively for the service?

Nothing to announce for that, no.

There's always going to be a thought that a service like this could cut into the individual sales of books, though you've stated that the goal to help build those sales. Do you view this personally as a risk in any way?

We're a comic book retailer, and the last thing I want to do is create a difficulty or some barrier to people buying comic books. We are completely aligned with all the publishers and the creators in that we want to create more fans and sell more books.

This is a service of discovery. That's another reason for the price point -- you can do this, and still have the ability to buy your weekly comics. We want to create new fans. More people buying comics is good for us, and it's good for the industry.

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