SDCC: ComiXology CEO David Steinberger Looks Ahead and Pushes Back on DRM

ComiXology announced its Comics app at Comic-Con International in San Diego four years ago, back when the iPad was just a rumor. A lot has changed since 2009, and comiXology has evolved quickly to adapt to, and often shape, the changing market of digital comics.

At Comic-Con International 2013, CBR News checked in with CEO David Steinberger to discuss the recent addition of French-language comics and some English-language manga to the app, whether comiXology will ever offer DRM-free downloads (in the same vein as Image Comics' announcement at Image Expo), and how the company plans to bring children and more new readers into the market.

CBR News: David, it seems like we sit down and talk once a year or so, and every time we do, there's been some major change to comiXology. What do you think are the most significant changes you have made over the past year.

I think the biggest on the feature side, there are two things. One is subscriptions. Bundles are important too, but I think subscriptions are a really big deal. It's been asked for since we launched, you're talking a four-year waiting period. It was a technical challenge because of the way comics are -- series names change and all that stuff. It's fairly complicated, and we wanted to make sure we did it really, really well. That was a long-term ambition for us and it's great to see it out. I feel like it's a real achievement for us.

The other is we made the first significant change to the reading experience: first on the iPad, with two-page up, and worked hard to make that seamless with Guided View.

I was surprised comiXology hadn't already implemented two-page up. Why was that such a technical challenge?

It would be easy for us to do two-page up and not have Guided View, but to redo all of the math we had been using for small screens on single page for double page was really a challenge. One of my employees who did a lot of the work on getting this right thanked me after we launched it and said, "I'm glad I work for a company where good enough isn't good enough," because every time I did it, I said, "It doesn't look right, the Guided View is not working right." Coming into Guided View looks just like it does when you are doing it on a single page. There's a lot of math going on there, and what was happening was, even on rotation, we had to rewrite the entire Guided View engine. Panels were kind of peeking out while you were rotating. I kept saying, "This is not good enough, this is not good enough." It has to feel like us. The details of how it flows are just really important to us so it took us a while to get that done.

It is a requirement for some of the manga publishers out there, so it was important for us to get done.

The other most significant thing is expansion into France and other language content, starting with French.

ComiXology has always had manga, but there's never been a deep catalogue of the genre.

I would characterize that as true even now.

Yes, but two new manga publishers, Udon and Seven Seas were added very recently. How much of a technical challenge is manga for you?

Not very much. We have supported right to left reading for a very long time. [Alex DeCampi's] "Valentine," for instance -- she translated that into so many languages. We had right to left reading at that point. We put a couple of tweaks on it and added a two-page up, which was important to a lot of manga publishers, but we have supported right-to-left languages for a very long time.

ComiXology has also had "Hetalia" available for a long time.

"Hetalia" was right to left, and of course we thought we were heading into it in a big way with Tokyopop before Borders and all that happened. [Note: Tokyopop stopped publishing manga in 2011, but it recently announced it will be working with RightStuf to publish the next two volumes of "Hetalia."]

Will the new volumes of "Hetalia" be on comiXology?

I think so, yes. Absolutely. Maybe some other stuff as well. It kind of depends on production. We still have a working licensed relationship with [Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy].

What does Seven Seas add to the comiXology catalogue and why was it such an attractive partnership?

This is an incredibly highly acclaimed company with New York Times best sellers. It gives us credibility, it gives us really strong content, it also gives us adult content --"Dance in the Vampire Bund" is going to be available only on the web, I can say with feedback from Apple it does not meet their guidelines --we have to be very careful about that --and they are just so highly regarded, I think it gives us a lot of credibility. That's what I'm most excited about.

I just noticed this morning that Scholastic is on comiXology as well. Is that the first time the app has had any Scholastic books other than "Bone?"

Yes. In fact, "Bone" was under Cartoon Books with us, not on the Scholastic label. Right along the lines of the Seven Seas stuff, its expansiveness of genre and demographic appeal -- that's why we are around. We are here to expand the market, we're here for more people to be into comics, and I think the key to that is having a super wide range of content, and the second key, which we're working on, is making sure we can figure out how do we get you to the content you'll like fast enough to get you engaged. The content is first. You have to have the content before you can do any of that stuff.

I talked to Scholastic the first time, I'm pretty sure, the year we released the iPhone app here in San Diego, so it has been at least three years, maybe four, since I started talking to them, and I am super pleased to have more adolescent, more young person works available. We are getting to have a pretty amazing catalog of kids' books.

How is comiXology marketing that material specifically to a younger audience? It seems like that's always the problem with digital and kids.

That's the next step. How do we get in front of the parents and do the right kind of PR and get people to write about it in the right magazines. It's an effort we have to do with Scholastic and companies like DC, with all the DC Nation books and all that. It's going to be a collaborative effort. But we existed because of the nature of early adopters and comic books in a very tech oriented demographic. Now we are getting material that nobody is that insane about tech, but they all have tablets, they all have technology. We did a survey late last year it was pretty staggering the percentage of people that work in tech that use our products. It's just a lot. So this is about broadening the audience and broadening the demographic. The Comics 4 Kids app hasn't been downloaded nearly as much as I think it should. That is about getting the word out and getting it out to the right people.

Apart from select manga publishers and Dark Horse, most publishers are partnered with comiXology. However, Image and more recently, Thrillbent -- in addition to publishing through comiXology -- are beginning to offer direct downloadable, DRM-free PDFs as a first party. What's your take on this trend, and is it something comiXology would do? Would comiXology sell DRM-free PDFs?

If we could figure out the customer experience in conjunction with that, sure. But I don't see it right now. DRM, not DRM, it doesn't really matter. The fact is that our experience is based around the idea that you can buy and read your comics anywhere you want whenever you want. I don't really want to have to have the customer support experience of teaching people how to move a file from their desktop to their iPad and dang it, I'm in the airport, and I can't put a jump drive on my iPad that has all my terabytes of comics. We are not in the world of people stacking up hard drives in their media center any more. There is a cross section of people, I think it is a very small population who say on an almost religious basis, "It has to be non-DRM and I have to have the file because it gives me some sort of comfort." The idea that was said in a couple of articles that an earthquake could take us offline just doesn't understand the technology behind how that works.

With the Guided View stuff and the fact that when you get a comiXology comic you know what the experience is going to be like, you can read on your iPad, and if you stop reading it on your iPad you can pick it up on your Android phone, it will find where you are in that book, and then it will format it to Guided View so it is really readable on your phone. Amazon and iBooks, if you stick either one of those on your iPhone, it will be completely unreadable. Have you ever tried to get a Word document onto your iPad from the cloud? You have to open up iTunes, go to the applications folder, select the application, then there is a place where you can actually drag in files, sync it through iTunes to your iPad, and it will move that file over to that app. That's not us. We're about ease of use and tons of content being available all the time. And I'm the great example of this: 15 minutes before the plane ride, I've got a Wi-Fi connection, I'm downloading ten books for that plane ride. I salute and certainly approve of everybody experimenting any way they want to experiment. We have a whole experience from top to bottom, and that does not work with a PDF.

And we will send you a different file on the iPhone than when you are on your retina iPad. It's appropriate for your device, how much memory you have on your device, how much RAM it can use.

Here's an example: iTunes Match is cool, I can spend $25 a year and anywhere I am, Apple will send me my music files. I don't have to sync to iTunes on my computer. That's the difference from before when your music files were your responsibility, and if you didn't back it up, which most people don't, sorry, that's it. You can't just keep re-downloading it. I think Apple allowed you one major re-download, quietly, but with iTunes Match I spend a little money and it's there. We're always there we're always delivering to whatever device you have. You just can't do that with PDFs or CBRs or CBZs.

I don't know if you noticed, but half the silhouettes are women in our posters and the banners [at the CCI booth]. We're about expanding the market, and we are not going to expand the market by going more technically scary. We're going to do it by like, "Oh, I didn't even have to think about it." Nobody ever thinks about the files, they understand it's here when they don't have a connection, but they don't go, "Do I need to back that up?" They're just like, "It's there, I'm going to read now," because that's what they are here for, the reading. Not file organization.

In the beginning, there was a lot of concern about control, that you might sneak in in the middle of the night, as you did with that Thor issue that was released too early, and take it back.

We offered refunds. That's very difficult. You can't keep somebody from screenshotting their devices, so that would have been out there. And that was not permanent. In fact, we have had some licensing issues where we have managed to make sure that those issues stay completely available for people. Our mantra is good karma, that's one of our values. If you come into our office we have a values poster, and the very top one is karma. It's about being good to each other and doing the right thing for customers. Eventually you will have an issue. If you have built up trust and been transparent and as visible as you can to them, they will give you a pass. They will say, "I love comiXology. They are going to make this right. I know it." And then we do, and that's just so important in a transition to digital because it's a scary thing for some people.

It seems so ephemeral.

And somehow that filename on your desktop makes it feel a little bit better for some people.

Initially a lot of publishers were exclusive to comiXology, and now I see many of them offering their graphic novels on e-book platforms such as Kindle, Nook and Kobo. Prices are sometimes a dollar or two lower on those platforms. Do you view them as direct competition or do you think you are serving different markets?

We are not serving different markets. Their experiences are so unfortunately not good that I fear people having their first experience with comics on those platforms rather than us, because we care about it a hell of a lot more than they do. I would just say, "Go, try them. Try the same books on all platforms and try it on your iPhone. You are not going to have as good an experience." And these are our partners; Apple and Google and Amazon have all been very good to us on the app side, and I treasure our partnerships that have made this possible, but the book sides don't get it.

What made you think that French-language comics would be the logical next frontier for comiXology?

It's because it's an amazing market with an amazing amount of content. It's almost the size of the U.S. market so the per capita purchasing of comic books is enormous, and BD [bandes dessinees, French comics] are read by a much more demographically diverse audience, whether it's male, female, different ages, different types of content. It's what the U.S. market should look like, and if it did, we would be a $5.5 billion market. The direct market, while it saved comics on the one hand, constrained and made a risk averse business, so it has multiplied the effects of male sci-fi/superhero only. That's not how I see it in the long term.

We were already the top grossing book app in France, against French language competition, with only English language navigation and content, so we thought the brand was understood and accepted there. We opened the office in late fall, and when we did our most recent iOS French language release, plus some real store navigation for the French market, we already had publishers that represent 40% of the print market there signed up. That's way faster than we did it in the U.S. market, and it's something I'm really proud of. The market is amazing content, and it's an amazing market. They behave very similarly to the U.S. market, not in terms of Wednesday releases and periodicals but in terms of how the comic books are laid out and read. [It's] Very, very similar. Our technology applies really easily, the shopping applies really easily.

What's next for comiXology as 2013 wraps up and 2014 is on the horizon?

A couple of weeks ago we did our first personalized e-mail recommending stuff based on what you purchased. I think that's so important, and this idea that we need to get you to the content as fast as we can that you'll like is a huge priority for us.

What were the nature of the emails sent to customers? What was the purpose of the test?

It was a limited test, 10 or 15 books, and then we suggested other books based on that purchase. They are just now getting to the data did we do OK with this, how's our algorithm for recommendations, I think that's incredibly important. There are some things on the horizon, iOS 7 is about to come out. That's a huge change in interface. The buttons are all in the same place but it looks completely different.

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