David Steinberger on comiXology's developer tool and the future of digital

Digital comics is still a small business, but it is growing fast. comiXology launched its Comics iPhone app in July 2009 with 80 titles, many of them small indie comics. Last week alone, they added 150 new titles, and the week before, it was over 200. The app is now multi-platform, with iPad and web-based readers and Android on the way. Like any new company, they have had growing pains, and one complaint has been that smaller publishers can't get their comics onto the app. Two weeks ago, CEO David Steinberger announced that comiXology would make its development tools available to individual publishers so they can prep their comics themselves and speed up the process. It seemed like an opportune moment to talk to Steinberger about the new program, the logic of in-app purchases, why he has a separate Walking Dead app, and the potential for comics as they expand into the digital space.

Brigid: Why is the developer tools program offered by invitation only?

David: Right now it's invitation only because it's exactly the software we are using in house, and there are a couple of extra scripts you have to run. It's not real user friendly. It's user friendly once the files are all prepared, but our vision is to go online, load up the PDF of your comic and process it and do guided view work all in one place. That's not how it works right now.

We have a lot of partners and they want to get their books out, and we are increasingly not able to take on small publishers and independent creators. As you know, we started with a lot of these guys. We decided this is in good enough shape that while we're putting together this larger, web-based program, we can get this into people's hands, increase throughput, make partners happier, and get great feedback on these tools so when we do release it, it's solid.

Brigid: How many takers do you have so far?

David: We have 150 people already signed up for it. The next step for us is a beta of the online tools, which will probably be early next year

Brigid: What does the software do?

David: The whole alpha program takes the comic from a single file and puts it into the format that we need to be able to deliver it to phones and devices, and it allows [users] to set up the guided view. So it's really from base file though submitting it and being able to send it to a device. There is no file transfer. I couldn’t set that up with 100 people—there is FTP stuff, we have to do all the data entry, we need all the metadata for all the comics. That's a ton of work, and we are putting out 150 to 200 comics a week right now

Brigid: A lot of those are older comics, though.

David: Sure.

Brigid: So the metadata is already there.

David: Yes, but it has to be entered into our database, it has to be entered into Apple's database, before it is released. It's several people, two different databases—there is not a button I get to press on my database [to make it all happen].

Brigid: So the comics still have to be approved by Apple?

David: Yes. I can sell anything I want on the website. I don't need any approval for that. If we decided we didn't want to deal with Apple we could just put out a web version. The only thing that prevents that is that we love having a really simple customer experience. We could set up the app so you go to the web to purchase and then download. But the convenience to the consumer saying yeah, just log in with your iTunes login, the convenience is unparalleled. On the Kindle app they do what I described—they kick you out to the web, you buy, and you download. I think our brand is getting to be quite well known at this point, but at the same time there is a resistance—I have to put my credit cared in, I don't like leaving the app, there are all these drawbacks. If we wanted to, we could release it to web and side load it onto the iOS [the operating system for the iPhone and iPad], but so far the iOS is the market.

Brigid: Are you going to charge for the tools?

David: I don't think so. We have to do some calculations to decide. Apple charges a developer fee for you to turn in an app. There's still a lot of overhead. I don't have any bandwidth for the app; we host the comics, but they host the app. So if we end up with a fee it's going to be incredibly modest, like 2 figures modest, and that will just be so I can have the manpower and the processing power to make sure the guided view is of good quality, the consumers are happy, and to continue making good tools. Some of these comics sell themselves. If you do any kind of calculation, on a 99 cent sale where Apple takes 30 cents, you can see it takes quite a few purchases just to make a few bucks. Everything we have done so far is free. We don't charge our partners for the guided view offering, and my desire would be to keep it that way, but we don't know 100 percent yet if it's practical.

Brigid: How do you feel about guided view? Has the iPad made it unnecessary?

David: If you polled my office, with the iPad, half the people are reading guided view and half aren’t. The iPhone is a great market, the iPod Touch, there are a ton of phones that handle high resolution images very nicely, and to not do guided view at all would be bad.

Brigid: So it's here to stay?

David: 100 percent. I think you are always going to have really great computing devices that are that size.

Brigid: So where is the Android version?

David: In the future. We don't pre-announce a whole lot, but anything that looks like a good market we will go to, and Android looks like a good market. You have to worry about this whole huge range of devices, screen sizes, if your Droid Incredible runs Android OS—some don't—some don't get automatic updates to the OS. When you look at the iOS it has gotten a little heavier but for the most part I feel pretty confident when I program when it works on something it will work on all the devices. That is because Apple has controlled it so much. Android has a much higher range of sizes, differing amounts of RAM, etc.

This is going to be a really interesting device and platform year. We have always looked to what our consumers want, what is going to be best for the consumers. That's why we stick with Apple and their in-app purchase, even though they take 30 percent, which is a lot. It's best for the user. We will continue to do that in whatever platforms we support.

There is a really big demand for more people and more creators to get their content on our system. We get at least five requests a day: "Hey I have a comic, how do I get on comiXology?" "Hey I'm a small publisher…" If we make that easier, our readers have a much wider range of material, a greater variety of subject matter. These guys you see on artist alley who are new or up and coming haven’t been able to connect with large or midsize publishers, so why not? It's a huge amount of untapped material for digital.

Brigid: What about the kids' comics app you discussed at C2E2?

David: Still going to happen. We have to be really careful with [compliance with] the COPA [Child Online Protection Act] laws, but we are actually really close. The interface still needs a bit of work, but we were aiming to have it out December, or it might be January. I still think It's an amazing market to launch into.

Brigid: What is the sweet spot for digital comics?

David: You have The Walking Dead on TV; it has been spiking a lot, and we offer those in trades. Those have been very popular. You can get on iTunes any and see it is in the top ten. DC comics released Dark Knight. The World of Warcraft comic has done really well. It was number four yesterday for us. I don't think we have one sweet spot. That's what's exciting about getting the guided view tools out there: We have broad audience that is interested in popular material—The Walking Dead, Kick Ass—but the newest issue of Y the Last Man was the number one comic yesterday, and Sandman does really well. So there are these comics that are perennial, groundbreaking, very well respected books that apparently our audience still hasn't gotten to. We have pop culture conscious people that aren't Wednesday shoppers. I don't know what the sweet spot is. I like the trades a lot, and l like that we have $9.99 trades of The Walking Dead. That's telling that that sells better than single issues. Day and date stuff sells really well. We haven't had any day and date Marvel comics on the Comics app, but Justice League: Generation Lost always gets into the top 5 when it is released. And that indicates some comic book guys.

I was reading in the New York Times, talking about the Beatles, that 75 percent of music is still purchased on CD. Digital is really visible and really exciting, and it's really fun to whip out your iPad and have 50 comics on there, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what print is doing. Shaenon Garrity wrote an article on our site, the top 10 things you need to know about comics, and one was that floppies are dead. We took some heat on it, but the truth is it's wrong. It's completely wrong. The market has shown incredible resilience in a major economic downturn. That's not to say I'm not predicting any change over time. You have Straczynski coming off monthlies doing graphic novels. That's not going to change; people want to do complete stories. That doesn't mean comic book stores are going to be in some huge trouble other than economically—what goes on and how they run their store.

Let me tie this back to guided view, authoring and eventual publication or distribution tools: This way, all of this material can be put out by the creators who are interested enough and passionate enough to get it done, and who knows what's going to arise out of that? Commercially successful or critically acclaimed or both, suddenly you're a great example. If we can put out two, three, four times the amount of stuff on behalf of small publishers and independent creators, who knows what's going to come out of that? it's a pretty exciting possibility. You can look to Kindle and Amazon to see what happens with smaller, write-your-own stuff that gets published and makes money.

We have a Walking Dead app, we have a Scott Pilgrim app, and the reason is so people can find them. I have 150 characters and keywords I can put on my app to make it metasearchable, Apple doesn't have any way to put into "what's hot" any of my in-app purchases. If we stuck Walking Dead in our app, someone who searches will find the TV show, not the app. Now they do. It's completely compatible with our platform, you can read it anywhere. That is one of the difficulties of merchandising system of iTunes, but we are getting big enough in terms of audience size that the problem of not being visible in the iTunes store will get less and less because we will offer a really solid audience to people. It's a way to expose talent, get picked up by Marvel or DC. The guys who did Atomic Robo, they have been picked up by Marvel. It was a very small published comic, then it got picked up by iVerse then added on to us, and now … what a great way to go. They keep coming back to Atomic Robo, too. That's the kind of success story I want to be part of.

The platform is growing, and it's distributed. It's not we have to drive everybody to it ourselves. It's a harbinger of really great things to come and a great way to support our publishers. We are constantly working on new things that are going to be announced. I expect a pretty good one in the next few weeks.

Brigid: So you're in it for the long haul?

David: No question.

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