The lesson of the comiXology blackout

The crash of comiXology's servers over the weekend brings home a nagging detail to digital comics that deserves renewed attention: the lack of a file for consumers to keep.

The current model for most digital comics providers is to offer access to files through a proprietary reader available through their apps or websites. It's essentially a leasing arrangement, granting temporary access with an open-ended term limit. You can "download" a local copy, but this isn't a true download. The file is returned to the provider's cloud storage after a short period of inactivity, although access remains through your library on the reader.

All things being fine in the universe, that hasn't caused many problems. There have been a few incidents of comics being yanked back into the archives either because of an inadvertent early release or because a publisher no longer wishes to sell a certain title, but by and large there haven't been any issues with the current model. Some previously voiced reservations about that arrangement, yet theoretical concerns are often ignored or quickly forgotten until they become a reality. And they became a reality over the weekend.

ComiXology's servers crashed right after the announcement at South by Southwest of a free offering of 700 Marvel comics. It was an exciting idea for a sale and promotion, and I have no doubt everyone involved had only the best of intentions. However, demand surpassed server capacity. Access to comiXology's comics reader and cloud storage was unavailable for an extended period -- essentially, the front door to comiXology's vaults couldn't be opened because everyone was pressing up against it, so no one got anything.

What makes this incident such a valuable, but unfortunate, example is that even people going to comiXology to buy and/or read comics unrelated to the Marvel promotion were affected. Perhaps more damaging was that this blackout also prohibited sales of every publisher and creator with content distributed through comiXology. It was the equivalent of Diamond Comic Distributors having a power outage, causing every comic book store in North America to go dark. And then a Diamond representative showed up at everyone's house and threw a tarp over their comic collection, preventing us from reading comics we'd already bought. The cascade effect reveals the delicacy of this system. The infrastructure comiXology uses puts immense responsibility and burden on itself, but it doesn't have to be this way.

The original call to arms for digital comics was that the comic book industry needed an iTunes. As most people know, buying music from the iTunes Store provides you with an MP3 or m4a, or some other music file for your computer. Originally there was a limitation on how many computers could play each song file, but this restriction was eventually removed. While Apple recently began providing a cloud storage service, you can opt out of it. A similar structure is used for digital books. The file format EPUB also allows the option of digital rights management (DRM) to limit the number of computers that can read the file or other sharing restrictions.

This is the model that needs to be adopted for digital comics. When I listen to music from my iTunes library, I'm not taxing Apple's or Amazon's servers, or those of any other digital music provider, unless I choose to keep music on their cloud storage. And if iTunes or Amazon go down, I can still play the music I've purchased: iTunes gives me a file to use however I wish in exchange for my money. I still use iTunes to play my music and keep track of my library. The same scenario can exist for comiXology and other digital comics providers by using .PDF, .CBR, .CBZ or some new file type. To comfort concerned intellectual property lawyers, these files can have DRM limitations so they can only be read on a set number of computers or devices, just like MP3s and EPUB files. I would prefer no such limitations, I'm willing to compromise if it will free us from this faux-download structure.

Publishers were originally nervous about handing over digital files for unfettered use, fearing they would end up on illegal file-sharing sites. The truth that I hope everyone knows by now is that those file-sharing sites will always be there. They're still there for music. But usage has dropped considerably because, as has been proved through studies, when most people have a legal and official method to buy products, they'll choose that over the hassle and risks of illegal channels. The more inconvenient you make it, the more they're likely to turn to quick, free and illegal. In case it isn't clear, having the whole infrastructure go dark for days falls under inconvenient.

Yes, it's only happened once, but it will happen again. Playing it conservative on marketing events so another crash doesn't occur isn't the answer, as that would be a terrible way to run a business. More servers and bigger servers aren't the answer either, although that probably wouldn't hurt. The bigger solution is changing the infrastructure. Switching to a system of truly downloadable comics with a cloud storage option lessens the stress on the system, increases the value of the product, and demonstrates trust in your customers.

Now is not the time to handicap our potential for success and growth. The comics industry is finally on the upswing again thanks in part to the work done by comiXology and other digital providers like iVerse, as well as their publishing partners. They've helped bring in new readers, bring back lapsed readers, and increase print sales. That kind of innovative leadership mustn't miss this opportunity to allow for future success.

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